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Ability Edge in the Canadian HR Reporter!

By December 9, 2010Uncategorized

We are pleased to share the following article, originally published in the Canadian HR Reporter on November 29, 2010, which features host employer Kaye Leslie at Scotiabank and former Ability Edge intern, Elizabeth Novak.

Attitude top barrier to employment for the blind

Visual disabilities to double in 25 years, firms need to do more to accommodate

By Shannon Klie

Attitude is the number one barrier to employment for people with a visual disability, according to Kaye Leslie, manager of workforce diversity at Scotiabank in Toronto, who herself has only two per cent of her vision because of juvenile macular degeneration.

“It’s perceived to be the most difficult disability to accommodate,” said Leslie, who has worked at Scotiabank for six years.

People are afraid of blindness in a way they aren’t afraid of other disabilities, she said.

“People worry about silly things like, ‘Will the person be able to go to the washroom by themselves?’” said Leslie. “I think that sometimes employers assume a blind person will work more slowly or be more vulnerable or fragile.”

While more employers are accepting of, and have adapted workplaces for, people with mobility disabilities, they still have a negative attitude to dealing with blindness or partial sightedness, said Sandra Levy, vice-president of human resources at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). The institute recently looked at issues in accessibility at its annual conference.

“In terms of understanding blindness or vision loss, I think we associate that with some kind of mental deficiency, whereas with the wheelchair we only think it’s physical. That’s some of the feedback I get from people,” she said.

There are about 278,000 Canadians who are visually impaired and 108,000 who are legally blind, according to a 2007 study by the National Coalition for Vision Health. And employment rates are very low, with only 25 per cent of adults aged 21 to 64 with vision loss reporting they had a job in 2005, according to An Unequal Playing Field, a CNIB survey of 352 adults with vision loss.

A larger survey by Statistics Canada in 2001 found 32 per cent of adults with vision loss aged 15 to 64 were employed. The same survey, the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, found 51 per cent of adults with disabilities are employed, as are 82 per cent of the general population.

It’s not that people with vision impairment are having a hard time finding the opportunities, said Levy. Surprisingly, job search websites, such as Workopolis and Monster, are very accessible, she said.

“What happens is when people disclose that they have a disability, that is quite often when the attitude changes,” said Levy.

While a candidate might have a stellar resumé and similar educational background as a sighted candidate, 27 per cent of working-aged adults with vision loss surveyed by CNIB said employers don’t see blind applicants’ potential and 26 per cent said employers are unwilling to hire someone with vision impairment.

Not only is this attitude hurting people with visual disabilities, it will hurt organizations going forward, said Levy.

With the aging baby boomers and more employees staying on the job longer, employers are going to experience vision loss in their workplaces, she said. In fact, the number of visually impaired and blind Canadians is projected to double in the next 25 years, according to the National Coalition for Vision Health.

“You have very capable, diverse people in society who will add huge value to workplaces if given an opportunity. It’s not about charity, it’s about giving people an opportunity where there’s a match,” said Levy.

The best way to combat the barriers in the workplace is through education and awareness, she said.

People with disabilities have equal or higher job performance ratings, higher retention rates and lower absenteeism than their sighted peers, according to the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB).

And many accommodations are simple and inexpensive, such as providing a barrier-free workplace by ensuring chairs in meeting rooms are put back in place after a meeting and walkways are clear of objects, such as ladders and boxes, said Levy.

Other simple accommodations include providing contrast or natural lighting, she said. (See sidebar on page 3 for a list of low-tech and high-tech accommodations.)

Various organizations, including CNIB, also offer training and supports for employers, said Levy.

At Scotiabank, Leslie uses Job Access with Speech (JAWS) on her computer, which reads text. Unfortunately, not all of the bank’s applications are compatible with JAWS but Scotiabank is working to make all computer programs and websites accessible for all employees, she said.

The staffing and recruitment department also manages a centralized accommodation fund, which performs assessments to determine what sort of accommodation employees need and provides the proper supports, said Leslie.

The bank is also committed to hiring candidates with disabilities, she said. To that end, her group designed networking sessions for hiring managers and candidates with disabilities, who also have the necessary skills for various jobs at the bank.

The informal, biannual sessions began five years ago and give hiring managers the chance to meet and talk to candidates with disabilities, find out about their backgrounds and let them know about what it’s like to work at the bank.

“I wouldn’t say the disability disappears but it becomes a non-issue. The focus is on the job and the skills rather than the disability,” said Leslie.

There’s no pressure on the managers to hire any of the candidates but, at the end of the session, they have the opportunity to hire best-fit candidates for a six-month internship, she said. Some of these internships have turned into full-time positions, while other interns have gone on to other jobs at the bank or outside the bank, she said.

Networking is very important in helping anyone, with or without vision impairment, find a job, said Levy.

“If blind and partially sighted people were given more of an opportunity to network and to connect with mentors, that would be very helpful for them,” said Levy.

It was through networking at a career fair that Elizabeth Novak found out about Ability Edge, which provides paid internships to youth with disabilities.

Through Ability Edge, Novak, who has low vision due to albinism, landed a six-month internship as an assistant product manager in the global transaction banking department at Scotiabank in Toronto. She did such a good job, the internship was extended to one year.

For Novak, the biggest barrier to finding a job after she graduated with a degree in zoology in 2006 was most jobs required she drive to different locations. Even though she has some vision, Novak is considered legally blind and can’t drive.

In an office environment, Novak needs minimal accommodation, including a larger computer monitor, software that enlarges and reads text and natural lighting. At Scotiabank, the natural lighting also helped her sighted co-workers who were suffering from headaches caused by fluorescent lights, she said.

“Things that help one person can end up benefiting other people in the working environment,” said Novak.

After her internship at Scotiabank, Novak had gained more confidence, developed her networking skills and learned how to market herself. Those skills helped her land her current job as an historical interpreter at the City of Toronto’s Todmorden Mills Heritage Museum and Arts Centre. She also returned to school in September to complete her master’s degree in museum studies at the University of Toronto.

© Copyright Thomson Reuters Canada Ltd., November 29, 2010, Toronto,

Ontario, (800) 387-5164. Web site: www.hrreporter.com

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