Operation Varsity Blues – The Disability Angle

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As most of you know by now, fifty individuals have been indicted with numerous criminal charges in what has become known as Operation Varsity Blues. Twenty three of those indicted are wealthy and/or famous. The most well known being actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. The other less well known individuals are coaches, instructors and various  grifters and conmen. Most of the charges are for Fraud, wire fraud, counselling to commit fraud and other similar crimes.
For some readers this may all seem like a ridiculous grade school pantomime. Sort of a keystone cops episode, rich, entitled, elitists, arrogant parents who couldn’t pull off a simple scam when all they really needed to do was make a donation to a school and voila, unappreciative son or daughter are automatically enrolled. For many this embarrassing failure is entertainment.
The problem however is that there are real victims of these crimes, American youth with disabilities. As the news unfolded and I learned more details about how the scam operated it became known that many of these individuals had claimed that their abled children had various types of disabilities. Learning disabilities to be exact. In US college entrance exams, accommodations and adjustments are made for students with disabilities. This is as it should be. Canadian universities have the same policy. These accommodations are tricky to obtain. In Canada one needs a letter from a doctor and a meeting with the dean or leadership responsible for the exams. More often than not a student with a disability has to argue their case unless the disability is clearly evident.
Even with these measures in place a student can still be denied access to an exam room at the whim of a person responsible on the day of the exam.  A case in point recently in Ontario.   A brilliant young man was denied access to his Bar exam despite having letters from doctors and the Law dean at a Local university. This young man cannot write due to a disability and must instead use a laptop. This was cleared as a accommodation yet he was denied.
This example shows just how difficult it is to gain a vital accommodation to write an entrance exam for college. As it is already an outrageous burden on the disabled it doesn’t take too much imagination to recognize what will happen next in US schools as a result of the disgusting behaviour of Huffman, Loughlin and the rest of these charlatans. US schools will now make it far more difficult to get an accommodation, resulting in lower acceptance rates to US colleges for American youth with disabilities.
Loughlin faces 5 years in jail. She had no concern or thought on how her despicable actions would harm the most marginalized in our society. She and the other culprits simply didn’t care. Their only thought was themselves and their underachieving offspring.
As US colleges investigate, clear out the rot and put in place more stringent policies and procedures they must take into account that accommodations are a right and not a privilege. They must train their entrance exam staff on the best way to make adjustments and accommodate applicants and they must ensure that these accommodations are granted. In order to get this right they need to include graduates with disabilities to help.
After all, with over 20% of Americans having a disability it’s clear that the cohorts of disabled applicants to US colleges is growing. In Ontario it is growing at 15-17% per year.
And to think at one time I liked Aunt Becky.

Disability Employment Awareness Month

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October is Disability Employment Awareness Month #DEAM. In the U.S the month of October has been highlighted as a time to reflect on improvements to the lives of North Americas largest minority group, to celebrate some success and to advocate for change, much more change.
Here in Canada we celebrate the disability community on one day only, December 3rd. This is the United Nations day of the disabled. None of our governments across the country have seen the need to follow our friends to the south however outside of Government, stakeholder groups, advocates and activists are taking ownership of #DEAM. This is a good thing, the disability community is becoming stronger, louder and inevitably, more successful.
As we enter October I will be tweeting daily with quotes, tips, data and much more about real inclusion. What works? What approaches to business are successful? Why are employers still buying into age old myths, stereotypes and misperceptions? What is the value of real inclusion both to the worker and the employer?
You can follow these tweets @markwafer
To begin the month of October I believe it’s important to review the data as we stand today as a society that still for the most part shuns workers with disabilities, largely out of ignorance. A society that still misunderstands the sheer scope of the demographic of disability. Is still largely misinformed and unaware of the massive untapped Labour force and unaware of the education and skill levels of those unemployed workers.
It’s important to understand the landscape as it is today. Yes we have come a long way but looking at this in terms of a football game, we started on the 10 yard line ten years ago and with Herculean effort we are at the 20 yard line. It’s first downs but we are a long way away from even a simple field goal. We need new strategies and a bigger effort, we need to enhance the business case and sadly, still create more awareness if we want to get within striking distance of a touchdown.
To kick off #DEAM here are some numbers to review. Here is where we are today:-
18% of Canadians have a disability. That’s the entire population of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba
New Brunswick has the highest percentage of citizens with disabilities.
The disposable income of Canadians with disabilities is $50B+
There are 1B people world wide with a disability. That’s one in seven and moving closer to one in five
500,000 Canadian graduates with disabilities (last five years) have never worked a single day. Of those 270,000 have a post secondary education.
Number of Americans with disabilities, 56 million
Participation rates for workers with disabilities in both countries, less than 20%
Percentage of North Americans who will experience a disability lasting more than one year during their professional lives, 20%
StatsCan data shows 54% of Canadians with disabilities not working. This does not include anyone with no marketplace attachment such as the 500,000 grads therefore the real number is closer to 70%
During the great depression the unemployment rate at its peak was 24% and considered a national tragedy. Therefore at 70%,  Canadians with disabilities live a perpetual depression.
Employers still largely look at the disability community as a niche market. This stifles innovation, market research for new products and growth yet…….research shows that 90% of retail customers prefer to shop at outlets who employ workers with disabilities.
Follow me this month for all the top news, data, tips, quotes and more. @markwafer
Be direct, be daring, be bold.

Retail Inclusion, A Lost Opportunity

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Now that Ontario’s Bill 148, the Employment Standards Act, has entered its 9th month we are starting to see an increase in the number of workers with disabilities finding jobs. As reported previously on the Inclusion Revolution blog, many workers with disabilities lost their jobs when the minimum wage went to $14 per hour.

The loss of jobs hit the retail sector the hardest. It is estimated that 65-70% of workers with intellectual disabilities who work regularly are employed in the retail sector with the largest number working in the QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) sector. Not only were jobs lost, workers who remained had their shifts and hours cut. As well, the next cohort of workers who were ready to start work, were held back from January-April of this year. The cost to the economy of the intellectually challenged community was high.

The good news is that this is changing. However this change, which is benefiting new sectors, has not bounced back for the retail sector. Why? Because there is a lack of leadership in all retail areas.

More people with disabilities are finding work today than ever before. Some agencies such as ODEN (Ontario Disability Employment Network) are reporting that they simply cannot keep up with demand. This is wonderful news indeed. In fact, many of these jobs are in manufacturing, especially food manufacturing where wages are high and benefits are the norm. Compared to the QSR sector, entry-level jobs typically pay minimum wage and benefits are rare.

The list of companies who are building capacity with workers who have a disability is impressive. The work of advocates and activists is clearly paying off. Some of this, of course, is born of necessity as our shrinking labour force means employers have to reach out to normally shunned demographics. The disability community of course being the largest one.

According to Joe Dale, executive director of ODEN, these companies take about 8-10 months from initial contact to the individual’s first working shift. The good news however is that the company then employs 10-12 workers at a time, building capacity right away.

Where does this leave the retail sector?

A lack of inclusion reduces profits. It’s that simple. It reduces innovation, it increases turnover and it increases absenteeism relative to those companies that do have inclusive practices. It reduces sales and it reduces transactions.

Currently there is no leadership in the retail sector. Not only are brands not participating in inclusive practices, associations supporting retail brands lack leadership as well. A quick view of any of their websites will show this to be a fact. Of course they all indicate that they are inclusive and accessible but overall this is lip service.

This means there is a massive opportunity out there for a brand to capitalize on a clear competitive advantage. McDonalds at one time (1993) was going to be the countries star employer for youth with disabilities. The program died before launch when George Cohen, then CEO, left the company.

Who wants this? Would A&W like to add 15% to its bottom line and be the leader in inclusion for the retail sector? What about the GAP? Would they like to capitalize on a sure thing? Enjoy low turnover?

What about Wendy’s? Would they like to see increased traffic, transactions, sales? Or would they rather leave that to Subway and lose precious market share?

What about the Bay, Home Depot, Walmart?

This is a massive opportunity to be Canada’s leader of inclusion in the retail sector

Who wants it?

 

 

The Normalization of Bigotry Against the Disabled in America

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Regardless of whose politics one follows or supports, there is little doubt that the President of the United States has normalized racism and bigotry.

Not only is there plenty of evidence that the President himself is a bigot and perhaps a white supremacist, it is also clear that President Trump has surrounded himself with like-minded advisors, he has also placed like-minded people in very important positions where their views on race, religion, sexual orientation and much more are, to be charitable, horrible.

What was once considered to be in very poor taste only two years ago is now normal. President Trump has given his supporters license to act boorishly and act with ignorance towards any group they don’t like.  It is now normal for a white guest on a talk show to say to a black guest, who’s opinion he doesn’t agree with, “are you out of your cotton picking mind”

Yes, the normalization of such comments. Two years ago that comment could have been a career ender, today it’s ok. It’s ok because the President permits and actively encourages such behavior.

Imagine what would have happened if President Obama or President Bush had called legal asylum seekers animals. The outrage would have been huge but not with President Trump. We have become so accustomed to his dreadful behavior that we internalize it as perfectly normal.

It’s up to all of us to stick up for minority groups who are under siege, living in fear, targets of hate. However there is one vulnerable group that the current regime have attacked who are often unable to defend themselves; people living with disabilities.

The first incident against the disabled was during the election in 2016 when Trump mimicked reporter Serge Kovaleski who has Cerebral Palsy. Trump denied doing so as he so often does but the behaviour was obvious, clear and horrible. The Future Presidents actions should have damaged his election prospects, they didn’t. The normalization of bad behaviour was clearly underway.

In the past week we have another glaring example. This time from Trump political campaigner Corey Lewandowski. Lewandowski upon learning an 8 year old child with Down Syndrome had been separated from her mother used a cartoon Tuba sound that has the same effect as meaning “you lose” or “who cares”

Remember, it didn’t start with gas chambers. It started with politicians dividing the people with an “us vs them”. It started with intolerance and hate speech and when people stopped caring, became desensitized and turned a blind eye. Hate became normalized.

Remember, they came for the disabled first.

America. A once respected world leader, a country that has done so much for the world, now to be remembered for the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

 

 

The Demise of the Sheltered Workshop Model

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December 1st 2015 I was walking towards the House of Parliament in Whitehall, London to listen to a debate on the distribution of funding for Autism programs in the U.K. when my phone rang.

It was Moira Welsh, an investigative journalist from the Toronto Star whom I had been working with for over a year on the subject of Ontario’s Sheltered Workshops. A Sheltered Workshop is a manufacturing or packaging business staffed by “workers” who are intellectually challenged. Moira had written an expose on these locations with the first post published a few days prior to this phone call. The second was published November 30th, the day before the phone call. There were other posts ready to publish.

For years I and many others had fought hard to close down these dreadful entities. Many in society wrongly believe that these places are doing good work, that it is a safe place for these individuals to go to, to socialize and to earn some money.

The reality is very different. First, none of these workers in the 45 or so large workshops in the Province earn anything at all. Perhaps in some cases they may earn a stipend, perhaps a movie pass after a weeks work. Secondly, the only people working at these shops are those with intellectual disabilities, secluded from the rest of society. These workshops are often connected to or associated with social service agencies such as Goodwill, Community Living, the Salvation Army and others therefore they receive funding through the Ministry of Community and Social Services.

Seclusion by design is oppression.

Despite our work to challenge various governments to change course, close down the model and get these individuals into real jobs, nothing happened until that phone call from Moira. Moira says to me, “Mark are you sitting down?” “the Government has caved, the sheltered workshop model is dead”

This happened as a result of the Stars expose.

The Minister responsible for this decision was Helena Jaczek, Minister of Community and Social Services. It was a brave decision indeed because many non-disabled people relied on the sheltered workshops for their income, managing the shops, while parents of adult children working in the shops did not at first understand what would happen to their sons and daughters. There was fear and that of course was understandable.

Sheltered workshops have often been depicted as sophisticated slavery. Very few countries in the world allow them to exist, Canada has been ridiculed by European countries for continuing to use this model. The workshops were originally created after World War II to rehabilitate injured soldiers so they could return to work. In the late 70’s someone came up with the idea that this would work also for those with disabilities. Perhaps it would have been if the idea was a stepping stone to real work for real pay but that rarely happens.

One may wonder how it is possible that workers can earn less than minimum wage in Canada. The Employment Standards Act has a carve out that allows a sheltered workshop to pay by piece work. The shop however determines the production goal and often that goal is beyond the means of even non-disabled workers. In fact even with Bill 148 in place in Ontario with a new minimum wage of $14 per hour, sheltered workshops still can continue to pay workers whatever they wish.

The reason I am writing about this today is because this week a group of parents and support workers from Guelph traveled to Queens Park to protest the closing of the workshops. These parents are desperate however they are misguided.  One parent pointed out that her son enjoyed going to work and socializing with others. Of course he does, he knows no other normal, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.  Social media for the most part supported these parents because as I said previously society doesn’t typically understand the damage these workshops are doing.

The government gave the workshops a soft deadline of five years to transition. From my perspective more than half the workers in a sheltered workshop are employable in real jobs for real pay in the private sector. The Government did not legislate the end of the model and that in my opinion was a mistake because some shops have gone underground, rebranded as gathering spots with no programs or strategies while some have approached private sector donors so that they can continue.

For those who can’t work in real jobs, innovative programs need to be designed. Life skills programs in an inclusive setting where these individuals are interacting every day with people who are not disabled.

People with intellectual disabilities reach their full potential in the workplace while working with those without disabilities. They mimic or try to be like those around them. If they are in a workshop with other people like them, the set the bar extremely low, in a real job they try to emulate those who are so called typically normal. Only then can a worker with an intellectual disability be the best they can be.

Although I certainly feel the frustration and fear of the families who traveled to Queens Park this week, a return to this dreadful model must never happen. The transition is under way, it’s not easy but it is entirely necessary so that thousands of Ontarian’s with intellectual disabilities can live a life where they are independent, supporting themselves and living life to its fullest. Anything less is unacceptable.

Be Direct, Be Daring, Be Bold

 

The Increasing Demographic of Disability

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According to London’s Financial Times, the global impact of disability on humanity is growing rapidly.  Estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests 1B people worldwide currently have disabilities, 800M of those being of working age. Four fifths of those are in developing nations with 200M being adults with significant disabilities or difficulties in functioning.

These numbers are about to explode. People are living longer and chronic conditions such as Diabetes are on the rise. As well conditions developed at birth along with mental health disabilities discovered later in life either increase or become more difficult to manage with age.

The UN backed global burden on disease study uses a calculation of years lived with disability that shows three quarters of medical conditions would benefit from rehabilitation support. This is limited even in developed nations.

My good friend, Susan Scott Parker CEO of the UK based International Forum on Disability says one of three adults aged 50-65 will have a disability. “It’s simply an inevitable part of what it means to be human.”

There are many organizations around the world doing remarkable work to ensure those belonging to or joining this growing demographic are cared for with dignity, are represented in society and are ensuring barriers are broken down. Although technology has made significant changes to the lives of those with disabilities, technology also creates its own barriers.

The one area where a break through has still not materialized is in employment. Accessibility has increased exponentially over the past ten years yet even employers who create fully accessible workplaces are still largely reluctant to staff those workplaces with workers who have disabilities. An example of systemic barriers around technology is with online recruitment practices.

An employer would not invite a wheelchair user to a job interview on the second floor of a building with no elevator and expect the candidate to climb the stairs. This would be outrageous however it is equally outrageous that an employer uses outdated, inaccessible online recruitment software that blocks those with low vision, dyslexia and other types of disabilities. In fact one of the most popular online recruitment software programs out there today blocks those with the aforementioned disabilities. This is humiliating but it also prevents a recruiter from hiring some potentially amazing talent.

The U.S. Department of Labour announced its 25th straight month of increased labour force increases for Americans with disabilities in April however, America is still not back to its pre-2008, pre-recession participation rates. Cause for celebration and alarm at the same time.

As the demographic increases, employment is going to become a critical factor in ensuring this massive minority group live full contributive lives. Our Governments must set the tone and provide significant guidance to the private sector. The global economic burden will be unsustainable if the current lack of workplace participation remains as it is today as we quickly move to a disability rate of one in five.

Note : Mark Wafer will co-moderate a leaders debate on accessibility and inclusion at Ryerson University May 16th along with Canadian Press reporter Michelle MacQuigge.  This event will be live streamed, please check Ryerson website for details.

Marketplace Gains for Workers with Disabilities

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For the 24th consecutive month we are seeing an increase in marketplace attachment for Americans with disabilities. The gains made by people with disabilities continues to outpace the gains made by people without disabilities according to the Institute on Disability.

The Bureau of Labour Statistics Jobs Report released on April 6th showed an increase in the ratio of working-age people with disabilities from 28.6% in March 2017 to 31.7% in March 2018, an increase of 10.8%. The BLS uses an employment to population ratio that reflects the percentage of people who are working relative to the total population.

According to the Kessler Foundation, the labour force participation rate for working-age people with disabilities increased from 32.2% in march 2017 to 34.8% in March 2018, an increase of 7.7%.   Kessler uses a different set of parameters to achieve its numbers. Director of Employment and Disability at Kessler, John O’Neill, indicates that with this upward trend, people with disabilities are closing in on their pre-Great Recession employment levels.

It is important to keep in mind that these statistics should only be used as a comparison to show improvement year over year. Statistics do not include those who have no marketplace attachment. In the United States that number is in the millions, perhaps even tens of millions. Therefore it is widely known and assumed that the real participation rate is much lower. For example, in March 2018, among workers ages 16-64, the 4.9m workers with disabilities represented 3.4% of the total 145m workers in the United States despite the rate of disability approaching 20%.

Here in Ontario we do not track these numbers. Anecdotally however we are experiencing a similar increase in the number of people with disabilities finding jobs. Despite the Provincial Governments unwise role out of Bill 148, the new Employment Standards Act, more people with disabilities are finding work. For each worker with disabilities who lost their job as a result of Bill 148, up to two workers are finding a job. The Ontario Disability Employment Network (ODEN) reports that there is a move away from the retail sector for entry-level jobs for people with disabilities and a move into manufacturing jobs.

The shift from retail to manufacturing is important. Retail has always been the “go to” for agencies who represent individuals with intellectual disabilities. 70% of such workers find themselves in minimum wage jobs at Quick service restaurants and retail shops. With a shift to manufacturing jobs, workers are receiving higher wages and benefits.

As well we are seeing emerging corporate leadership with Dare Foods and the Canadian National Exhibition hiring large numbers of workers with disabilities. A commitment to be an inclusive champion. Although new to the game, both companies join the ranks of those who lead in this space.

Kessler Foundations O’Neill added, “the strengthening economy underscores the value of diversity In the workplace. As hiring increases, preparing for the workplace is more important than ever for people with disabilities”.

Now more than ever Be Direct, Be Daring, Be Bold