Posted in : Blog
Posted on : October 26, 2021
CCDI’s conversation with Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai (he/him) from CNIB & Lorin MacDonald (she/her), Human Rights Lawyer
by the CCDI Learning Team
Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM) takes place every October to acknowledge and promote the contributions and inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace. CCDI had a conversation with Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai from CNIB and Lorin MacDonald, a human rights lawyer to provide perspectives and approaches towards building more accessible workplaces. This blog post highlights some key bits of the conversation.
People with disabilities are not a monolith. Individuals in the community differ from one another in the experiences of their disability, type of disability and some persons living with more than one disability. In 2017, one in five (22%) of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over – or about 6.2 million individuals – had one or more disabilities. The intersection of other dimensions of diversity such as race, socio-economic class and gender, for instance, adds nuances to our understanding of the community.
Among those aged 25 to 64 years, persons with disabilities were less likely to be employed (59%) than those without disabilities (80%). There are many barriers to employment faced by people with disabilities. Lorin highlights some of these barriers - “inaccessible websites, lack of understanding of the duty to accommodate, negative attitudes and assumptions about the abilities of people with disabilities, lack of support from the C-suite are just a few”. In a conversation with Mahadeo Sukhai of CNIB Foundation, when asked about the barriers faced by people with disabilities, he says “I can talk about many barriers to employment including, employer attitudes, transportation, workplace safety and access to technology, but the biggest barrier is the system. The system is badly set-up”. He talks about his own experience as a person living with a disability, where he faced many barriers when requesting an accommodation. Mahadeo says that “the system is centered on privacy, not on the person’s needs”. After disclosing his disability, need for an accommodation along with paperwork from medical professionals, an employer concluded the amount of information provided in the inquiry was insufficient to provide an accommodation for Mahadeo. Mahadeo says, most of the time paperwork provided by medical professionals is not useful to corporations who do not understand medical jargon or even different types of accommodations available. Further, he adds, “the term accommodation underlies that an employer is going to adjust for a person with a disability and go out of their way to do it. It’s phrased as a burden”. Accessibility solution, Mahadeo states, is a more inclusive term. Lorin adds to this saying, “Using the term accessibility solution is OK, as long as people understand that accommodation has a precise meaning in the legal context. The latter is a word that flows from ‘the duty to accommodate,’ used in human rights to describe the duties of an employer, service provider, or landlord to give equal access and treatment to people who are protected by provincial and territorial human rights codes”.
To be inclusive to accessibility needs, Mahadeo adds, “it’s important we teach people the person first perspective”. A person first perspective to accommodations would involve inquiring about the specific employee needs, considering personal preferences, and then learning about the types of accessibility solutions available to support persons with disabilities. Employers have a duty to provide reasonable accommodation up to the point of undue hardship but need to go beyond that to make their commitment to accessibility solutions clearer.
Alongside a people centered approach, where it is not about just changing the environment but about understanding the needs of the individual within that environment, CCDI also recommends accommodations be dynamic and collaborative.
Lorin adds, to be accessible organizations must also “conduct quality staff training on disability/accessibility awareness and sensitivity training; repeat annually and make it part of the onboarding process”. Mahadeo adds, “accessibility is not just about your documents, processes or your website. It is a way of thinking, a way of doing, a way of living. Leadership teams need to accept that accessibility is a priority embedded into every part of the organization. Once that is done then the organization needs to live it everyday”.
Conversations on removing barriers to employment and providing reasonable accommodations shouldn’t be limited to the month of October. These conversations must continue year-round with organizations adopting a dynamic, collaborative and, person-centered approach to achieve true inclusion.
Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai (he/him)
Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai is the world’s first congenitally blind biomedical research scientist. Mahadeo is Director of Research and Chief Inclusion and Accessibility Officer for the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind), having previously served as a researcher at the University Health Network in Toronto. Dr. Sukhai also holds adjunct faculty appointments in the Department of Ophthalmology, School of Medicine, Queens University (Kingston, ON, Canada), and in the Faculty of Business and Information Technology at Ontario Tech University (Oshawa, ON, Canada). Dr. Sukhai is the Chair of the Employment Technical Committee for Accessibility Standards Canada. In his role at CNIB, Mahadeo leads a significant research program focused on social determinants of health and inclusion for people living with sight loss in Canada. Dr. Sukhai is the Principal Investigator for and co-author of "Creating a Culture of Accessibility in the Sciences," a book based on his groundbreaking work on access to science within higher education, and serves as the principal investigator for national projects to understand the student experience for persons with disabilities, and to examine accessibility and inclusion within science education and healthcare. Dr. Sukhai co-founded IDEA-STEM, an organization dedicated to accessibility in science education, and INOVA, the international Network of researchers with Visual impairments and their Allies, a new professional society with the mission to improve accessibility and inclusion in the biomedical sciences for researchers with vision loss.
Lorin MacDonald (she/her)
For decades, human rights lawyer Lorin MacDonald has demonstrated leadership, passion, and commitment to accessibility and inclusion in her volunteer and professional activities, all informed by her lived experience as a woman born with profound hearing loss. Recognized as one of Canada’s disability leaders, Lorin has made many aware of the challenges faced by Canadians with disabilities during COVID-19 and enjoys presenting on human rights and accessibility. She has received awards from her community, her alma mater Western University, the province, and the legal profession. Canadian Lawyer magazine names Lorin as one of the 2021 Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers.