Welcoming and accommodating employees with disabilities

Written by Sammy Kyereme 

The Raw Carrot, a soup social enterprise with four locations in southern Ontario, focuses on hiring workers with disabilities and mental illness and surrounding them with volunteer support. They aim to alleviate the financial stresses of those who rely on social assistance, like the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).  

The Raw Carrot runs kitchens that cook up batches of gourmet foods, freezes them, and sells them to grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and also on site at The Raw Carrot locations. Each location is staffed by people with disabilities, aside from the manager and volunteer support.  

Many people with disabilities across Canada find it challenging to find gainful employment in a work environment that best suits them. In 2022, Statistics Canada reported that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities aged 16 to 64 was 6.9 per cent—nearly double that of those who are not disabled.  

The economic picture for day-to-day living has been changing over the last few years for many Canadian families. Financial supports available for those with disabilities are even more limited. In the province of Ontario for instance, maximum disability support per month currently sits at $1,169 for a single adult. Meanwhile, only ten per cent of people on ODSP get income from work according to Public Policy and Governance Review.  

And due to inflation, the costs of housing, food, leisure activities, medication, and treatments are rising. Many people with disabilities face barriers to working in environments that prioritize profit over accessibility, which has left many unemployed and struggling.

The Raw Carrot has adopted an employment model focused on removing these barriers. “Our social purpose employment model prioritizes social outcomes and employee needs and is filling the unemployment gap for people on social assistance,” says Diane Talbot-Schoenhoff, director of communications and public engagement at The Raw Carrot.  

“Our staff truly lift themselves out of deep poverty through the dignity of work,” says Talbot-Schoenhoff. “We think work is God’s idea and that inclusion, community and a sense of belonging are what God intends and what society should be moving towards.”   

The philosophy of employment and personal connection go hand in hand. Working at The Raw Carrot provides a space for staff to learn new skills and build friendships within the work community.   

Each of us can contribute to society in all kinds of ways. We contribute through our kindness, our perspectives, and through developing and using our learned and natural skillsets. People with disabilities are active members of society who should be given the opportunity to contribute back to it too. They have all kinds of potential to improve and strengthen workforces, whether large or small.  

Healthy workplaces can offer environments where those who are disabled can thrive by gaining autonomy, establishing social connections, and making a positive difference in the life of organizations.

This requires understanding the accommodations and supports that disabled workers may need to participate fully in the workplace.   

Karis Disability Services (formerly Christian Horizons) has been dedicated to better acclimating people with disabilities to communal living for close to six decades. The non-profit, which is based in Waterloo, Ont., aims to “help those living with disabilities maximize their potential and forge meaningful, life-long connections,” according to their website.

“One of things I feel is so respectful to any person that needs an accommodation is to actually do your homework, understanding who a person is before a person enters the work environment,” says Janet Noel-Annable, CEO of Karis Disability Services.  

The team at Karis has learned how empowering it is for workers with disabilities to be able to explain what they need in order to belong and do their best work. To be able to do that, employers need to remove communication barriers and make sure their employees with disabilities are heard. “Having a peer mentor, somebody that can introduce them around, show them where it’s great to get a coffee and have their lunch goes a long way,” says Noel-Annable.  

This is helpful advice for employers and employees alike who may be asking themselves, “How do I help?” Taking steps to establish a welcoming and inclusive working environment lends to a better working experience for workers with disabilities. Jasmine Duckworth supports a Karis Disability Services group that promotes self-advocacy, the ability to communicate individual needs around disability with confidence.   

“Being treated and supported as equal partners in the work matters,” says Duckworth, who has been living and working with a neuro-muscular disability for eight years.  “If the employer is willing to sit in that tension and have those difficult conversations and trust that the worker is able to learn and grow and make changes, then the person is able to say, ‘Oh I didn’t know you didn’t like it when you do this thing, I just need you to tell me.’ A lot of any good working relationship is knowing clear expectations.”