Wednesday, December 3, 2014

International Day of Persons with Disabilities

December 3rd is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities has been promoted by the United Nations since 1992. The observance of this day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.

Each year, the day focuses on a different issue.
This year the International Day of Persons with Disabilities will focus on:
- Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Responses
- Creating Enabling Working Environments
- Disability-Inclusive Sustainable Development Goals

This morning, I attended a Business Leadership and Employer Breakfast hosted by the Network of Disability Organizations, of which I am a member. The purpose of the breakfast was to provide valuable information that employers can use to strengthen their businesses and recruit some of the top talent in our province.

More than 80,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians self-identify as persons with disabilities and 40.4% of this population have post-secondary education. According to statistics Canada, 51.3% of working-age persons with disabilities were employed in 2006 compared with 75.15% of their counterparts without disabilities. Contrary to popular belief, workplace accommodations for people with disabilities are not a financial obstacle for employers. Studies indicate that more than half of workplace accommodations for employees with disabilities cost less than $500 and often nothing at all.

The Network of Disability Organizations was fortunate to present keynote speaker, Randy Lewis - Vice President of Walgreens. Randy introduced an inclusive model in Walgreens distribution centers that resulted in ten percent of its workforce consisting of people with disabilities who are held to the same standards as those without disabilities. Its success has changed the lives of thousands with and without disabilities and is serving as a model for other employers in the U.S. and abroad.

Mr. Lewis spoke about his son, who has autism, and how the likelihood of his son getting a job was low because of it. He says, "When it comes to getting a job, people with disabilities die a death of a thousand cuts. I know that as a parent and I know that as an employer. We have built these invisible obstacles and walls around ourselves that people with disabilities can't even get through, or if they do they can only get within three inches of the surface. They may not interview well, they may not be able to get through the application form, they may not learn the way we are used to teaching. They may look differently, they may act differently, and the unkindest cut of all is the belief by 99.9 % of us that people with disabilities really can't perform the job as well."

He talked about the many benefits of employing individuals with disabilities, and today, Mr. Lewis asked all business owners to try and make a push for positive change in their own community by re-evaluating how they hire.

When asked if he did all of this because he had a child with a disability, Randy responded, "This was not about my son, but through my son, I got to see this harsh reality, and seeing what he had accomplished and all those other kids as he grew up, also got to see a grand possibility. This was about all those other parents who lay in bed at night just staring at the ceiling wondering what's going to happen to their child. This is about all the people who can work, who want to work but are not allowed to because of these systems, these processes, these attitudes we've built around ourselves that keep them from doing so. These are our fellow citizens. These are our sons and daughters and neighbours. This was not about charity. It wasn't about disabilities. In the long run, it was about justice." 

The Honourable Clyde Jackman, Minister of Seniors, Wellness and Social Development & Minister Responsible for the Status of Persons with Disabilities closed by saying, "What is required is a significant shift in the way that we view disability. From corporate philanthropic gesture to a strategic business issue, and I think that message is loud and clear here today. We need to see the building of disability confidence in the labour workforce, and for this shift to occur I think that companies need to understand the business case for realizing the potential of disabled employees.. take steps to remove barriers and make reasonable adjustments to enable people with disabilities to maximize their contributions."

It is reassuring to know that the City of St. John's and its community partners are committed to creating an inclusive community that honors the contributions of all of its citizens. It was encouraging to see such a tremendous turn-out today from the business community, who are obviously open to acceptance, inclusion and advocacy. Things are happening. Progress is being made, and I am so thankful for that. 

Mr. Randy Lewis is inspirational. He is motivating. He had a vision for an inclusive workplace, and he made that a reality. 

If you believe it, it can happen.
If you build it, they will come. 

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