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Creating accommodating workplaces means thinking beyond the work space

By David W. Shannon

Working with colleagues with a disability requires that we embrace dignity and equality in ways beyond the physical space. In the workplace this can sometimes be a challenge.“Wheelchairs freak me out.” You might think that this quote is something a person with a disability might say they’ve heard more than once. In fact, as a person who has used a wheelchair for the past 25 years, I said it - just a few months before a spinal cord injury at the age of 18 left me with quadriplegia.

One in eight Canadians has a disability-that’s 3.6 million people. Achieving dignity and equality for persons with a disability is essential, not just to enhance their lives, but to enhance our society in general.

We’ve come a long way toward improving the lives of persons with a disability in a relatively short time.  But it’s time for a fundamental shift in our approach. We need a holistic approach that will embrace the idea that equality involves the full realization of a person’s potential, with its accomplishments, triumphs, losses, and passions.

Because dignity is not just about one aspect of an individual’s life, or about one aspect of society, broader thinking is needed to reverse social and attitudinal barriers. Personal care, social welfare, and medical support can be key elements of meeting a disabled person’s immediate needs. It’s time also to put a human rights framework into place that will pursue the goals of full participation of persons with disabilities in our workplaces and in our economic, social, and political life.

That’s what true equality will be based on.

Creating an accommodating workplace

We all know what it’s like to be excluded from something. It’s disrespectful and can be harmful on many levels. Simply providing equality or freedom from discrimination is indeed not enough, as many court cases have shown over the years. For example, an individual who uses a wheelchair may be able to apply for a job in the same way that an able-bodied person would; however, if there is no ramp and automatic doors where the interview is to take place, then they are clearly disadvantaged.

To answer this apparent gap, legislatures and courts have developed the duty to accommodate. The concept is straightforward: every reasonable effort, short of undue hardship, must be made to accommodate a person with a disability.

In practical terms, what does accommodation look like? This is a particularly pertinent question when examining equality in the workplace. Learning how to approach equality issues begins with understanding that discrimination goes on and to be aware of it. This is the first step.

In order to develop a policy that promotes independence for the employee so that she or he avoids barriers, and more fully integrates in the workplace, several groups suggest adopting an “independent living lens.” This means that able-bodied people need to be aware and understand that disabled individuals want to be independent, and as such want others to view them that way. To do this we have to be cognisant of our own actions and thoughts, regarding barriers as we perceive them, when we are around a disabled person.

The lens is, in other words, a mindset we bring with us when considering any policy change or development. While it’s not the complete response, it may be a helpful guide in developing a welcoming environment for the disabled employee, and meeting “duty to accommodate” standards.

In addition to considering a legal duty for the employer to accommodate, it is also critical to understand the context in which such a policy must be constructed:

  1. Disabled employees are on the vanguard of reversing a legacy of discrimination and socio-economic barriers.
  2. A disability is a personal characteristic, and as such should not be a barrier to equal treatment.
  3. Any rule or policy must be premised upon promoting the dignity of the disabled employee.
  4. A disabled employee has already signed an employment contract from which accommodation costs arise.
  5. It is important to appreciate that disabled employees want the same as their able-bodied coworkers: respect and recognition for their efforts, collegiality in the workplace, and an absence of barriers that highlight differences rather than commonalities.

A policy of accommodation should appreciate the above factors. However, employers all too often do not include the disabled employee in the development of such policies. This limits choice, creates low morale, and is short sighted. Not only do disabled employees have the right to earn a living like their able-bodied colleagues, they have much to contribute to their employers.

Accommodation in workplaces, social programs, housing, and the community in general, benefit us all in the long-run.

[span style="font-style: italic;"]David W. Shannon is the author of Six Degrees of Dignity: Disability in an Age of Freedom (Creative Bound International, 2007). For the past 25 years, David has committed himself to policy development and legal advocacy for the protection of human rights and community integration for persons with a disability, working with governments, social agencies, and the United Nations. As a person with quadriplegia, he offers a personal, as well as a legal and academic perspective on the issues of equality and dignity for all human beings. For more information, please contact 1-800-287-8610 or e-mail


How to Create a Workplace with Dignity

  • Involve everyone in discussions to make changes in the workplace.
  • Equality begins with understanding that discrimination exists and to be aware of it.
  • Make dignity part of your workplace values and measure people against it.
  • Encourage a respectful workplace. No one wants to be excluded.
  • Speak up if you see behaviour or hear language that does not support dignity.

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