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People With Disabilities Drive Innovation

Friday was International Day of Persons with Disabilities and Haben Girma, a human rights lawyer advancing disability justice, author and speaker, posted a comment on Linkedin she had previously published in the Financial Times on how people with disabilities drive innovation:

Unbeknown to most employers, people with disabilities sparked the creation of many of the technologies we use today.

Through my work as a disability rights lawyer, and my personal experiences as a deafblind woman, I have spent a significant amount of time studying the disability experience. The biggest barriers in the workplace are architectural, digital and social. But employers who remove barriers from their workspaces receive benefits in the form of increased growth and innovation.

Employees with disabilities drive innovation. Disability creates a constraint, and embracing constraints spurs inventive solutions. Our history has numerous examples of people with disabilities leading advances in science, technology and other fields.

In 19th-century Italy, sighted Pellegrino Turri and blind Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano struggled to find a way to send each other their secret love letters (Braille had not yet been developed). Other blind people dictated their letters for sighted people to transcribe, but the countess could not do that.

After much deliberation, the lovers came up with a tactile solution: one of the first working typewriters. By treating blindness as a design challenge, they developed a revolutionary method for producing print by touch. Today, millions of people produce print through the touch of a key, and some of the fastest typists are touch typists.

People with disabilities are uniquely positioned to develop solutions that advance technology. The career of Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet, highlights this point.

Mr Cerf is hearing-impaired, and his disability influenced his work developing the internet. Back in the 1980s, deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals searched for a good alternative to communicating over the telephone. Mr Cerf spearheaded the creation of the first commercial email service, allowing him to communicate with family members and colleagues without straining to hear.

Many of the tools developed by people with disabilities also benefit non-disabled colleagues. Wanda Diaz Merced is a blind astronomer who developed a non-visual system for studying stellar radiation. She uses an application that converts complex data from space into sound. Ms Diaz-Merced discovered the system she uses, called sonification, also helps her sighted colleagues.

The extensive data astronomers collect cannot all fit on a monitor, so they continually seek better methods for finding patterns in the data. Ms Diaz-Merced taught her colleagues using visual techniques in tandem with sonification to help sighted astronomers.

As she predicts: if the scientific community removes barriers so that disabled and non-disabled scientists can work together, then “a huge titanic burst of knowledge will take place”.

These are just three examples of people with disabilities driving innovation. Their unique insights led to better product design and better services for the public. Ensuring accessibility boosts sales and company growth, tapping into a market of more than 1.3bn people with disabilities around the world.

Hiring people with disabilities leads to a more innovative workforce. Old myths allege that people with disabilities are a burden on society, and stem from unfounded fears of those who are different. Contrary to those myths, we now know that difference drives innovation.

Different lived experiences, from the blind love-letter writer to the deaf scientist, generate the new ideas that lead to discoveries. Companies seeking a competitive advantage should hire people who will bring unique perspectives to the table.

Originally published in the Financial Times.

Great comment from Haben Girma, the first deafblind to graduate from Harvard Law School who now champions the cause for more justice for persons with disabilities.

On Friday, Manulife posted this on Linkedin to recognize International Day for People With Disabilities:

I commented:

Haben Girma is amazing in every respect but there’s still so much work to be done to attain a truly inclusive and diverse society. The unemployment rate among people with disabilities is unacceptably high, it’s a national travesty. The harsh truth is people with disabilities are routinely discriminated against in terms of employment. Change will only come when leaders step up to the plate to address this gross injustice and employers start focusing on abilities, not disabilities. 

I stand by what I wrote and deliberately didn't mince my words. 

The unemployment rate among persons with with disabilities is unacceptably and I would say criminally high. It's a national travesty.

"Oh Leo, stop whining, we know there's a problem but it's getting better incrementally."

Really? I don't know what planet you live on but look around your organization and I defy you to find one employee in a wheelchair or even walking with a cane or walker.

I know, there is a wide spectrum of people with disabilities, some are more visible than others and I give credit to BCI for posting this on Linkedin on Friday:

Kudos to Samantha Williams and Paul Finch of that organization for sharing their story with their colleagues and the world.

PSP Investments posted this on Friday:

And OPTrust posted this today on Linkedin and Twitter:

I can't say I was terribly impressed with other large Canadian pensions and organizations I track closely.

Most didn't even mention International Day of Persons with Disabilities. 

And therein lies the problem, if we don't acknowledge the day and recognize the barriers to employment persons with disabilities routinely face in their search for employment, nothing will change, injustice will quietly continue. 

On Friday, I posted this Forbes article on Linkedin on how Adobe is embracing International Day of Persons with Disabilities, stating this:

The US is ahead of Canada by a decade when it comes to diversity & inclusion and they still have lots of room for improvement.

The critical point I want to make here is if we are to embrace "FATE" at the workplace in a post-pandemic world just like CPP Investments' CEO John Graham has eloquently written about, we need to also start measuring the success of diversity & inclusion and that includes asking difficult and uncomfortable questions.

For example: "Do we hire persons with visible and invisible disabilities at all levels of our organization? If not, why not?"

Or this: "Do we have unconscious or blatantly conscious biases and barriers to entry making it harder for persons with disabilities to be considered on equal footing as candidates with no disabilities? If so, what can we do to rectify to address these barriers?"

I can go on and on but let me be clear, there's a lot of nonsense and lip service praising persons with disabilities but when it comes to concrete actions, most organizations do absolutely nothing to openly engage and hire them.

And quite frankly, I'm sick and tired of excuses and think senior leaders and the boards of directors of these organizations need to step up the plate and start doing a lot less talking and more concrete actions when it comes to hiring and including persons with disabilities.

Will it be easy? Hell no, nothing worthwhile is easy, just do it as the Nike commercial states!

And don't do it out of pity, do it because it's the right thing to do and these employees will bring you valuable perspectives most of your other employees don't have.  

Let me share a personal story with you. There used to be this restaurant I liked going to with a buddy of mine but to go to the bathroom, I had to climb up two flights of stairs, no easy feat for someone with progressive MS (there was no elevator).

One day, I was chatting with the owner, raving about his food but I mentioned to him "why don't you have a bathroom downstairs for people with disabilities and even your older clients who are not able to go all the way up there? If you take care of your clients, they will take care of you."

The guy looked at me and replied: "I honestly never thought about it but you're right, I should look into building one downstairs."

Well, he never put a bathroom downstairs, I stopped going and his restaurant closed before the pandemic hit (not sure why), but the point of my story is if he had an employee or a family member with a physical disability, maybe he would have had a bathroom on the first floor instead of only one on the top floor which wasn't easily accessible to everyone.

A little perspective can go a long way. I can even consult big construction companies building airports on how to do them properly so passengers with mobility issues can avoid physical exhaustion walking from one end to another (some airports are way better than others helping people with mobility issues).

Alright, let me wrap it up there, diversity and inclusion is an important issue for me and the only reason I posted this comment is because I want to see big improvements on hiring and retaining persons with disabilities. 

Focus on their abilities, not disabilities, and make them feel welcome and a valuable part of your team.


And here are some telling statistics OPTrust CEO Peter Lindley and Michael Kaneva, Director of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity shared with me on Friday:

Here are some stats from 4 years ago that give you a better idea of life for those with disabilities in Canada. I daresay that the situation has not improved with the decreased access to services that Covid has perpetuated.

  • 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 prevalence of disability increased with age, from 13% for those aged 15 to 24 years to 47% for those aged 75 years and over. 
  • Women (24%) were more likely to have a disability than men (20%). 
  • Disabilities related to pain, flexibility, mobility, and mental health were the most common disability types. 
  • Among youth (aged 15 to 24 years), however, mental health-related disabilities were the most prevalent type of disability (8%). 
  • Among those aged 25 to 64 years, persons with disabilities were less likely to be employed (59%) than those without disabilities (80%)
  • As the level of severity increased, the likelihood of being employed decreased. Among individuals aged 25 to 64 years, 76% of those with mild disabilities were employed, whereas 31% of those with very severe disabilities were employed. 
  • Among those with disabilities aged 25 to 64 years who were not employed and not currently in school, two in five (39%) had potential to work. This represents nearly 645,000 individuals with disabilities. 
  • Persons with more severe disabilities (28%) aged 25 to 64 years were more likely to be living in poverty (as measured by the Market Basket Measure) than their counterparts without disabilities (10%) or with milder disabilities (14%). 
  • Among those with disabilities aged 15 to 64 years, lone parents and those living alone were the most likely to be living in poverty among any type of household living arrangements. Since eight in ten lone parents were women, the high risk of living in poverty in this group disproportionately affected women.

There are so many barriers in place for those with disabilities so take a moment today to today about what each of us can do within our daily lives to make a difference.

These are sobering statistics which confirm there's a big problem, especially among young disabled women.

Keep in mind, women tend to be afflicted more than men with many chronic diseases (like MS but many others too) which impact their mobility or present other invisible symptoms which many cannot see but they feel.

It's important to understand all these issues and be accommodating. Sometimes all that is required is having a desk closer to the washrooms but open and honest communication with a manager is necessary because not all symptoms are visible (like extreme and debilitating fatigue). 

Peter Lindley also shared this with me on Friday:

We are fortunate enough to have Danielle Peers join us today for a conversation to raise awareness regarding people with disabilities. Danielle has a bio as long as my arm (see here).

“Danielle is a community organizer, an artist and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta. They are also a Canada Research Chair in Disability and Movement Cultures. They were a Vanier and Trudeau scholar throughout their PhD at the University of Alberta and a Banting Postdoctoral scholar at Concordia University in Montreal. Danielle uses critical disability theories to study disability movement cultures: from the Paralympics, to inclusive recreation, to disability arts. Their research builds on their experiences as a Paralympic athlete, parasport coach, a filmmaker and a dancer. Danielle is co-director of the Just Movements CreateSpace, which takes arts-based and disability justice approaches to generating and sharing knowledge about bodies in motion.

Danielle has made seven activist-oriented films, co-curated three art shows and co-founded two arts collectives. Danielle is an active disability and queer community organizer, a national ambassador for Muscular Dystrophy Canada and a public speaker.

As a former wheelchair basketball athlete, Danielle won a Bronze Paralympic Medal, a World Championship and five National Championships. They also won numerous championships and all-star awards while playing in men's leagues in the U.S. and in France.”

Well, Danielle sounds like an amazing person and OPTrust employees were fortunate  to have they/them join them on Friday for a conversation to raise awareness regarding people with disabilities.

Lastly and equally important, today is a National Day of Remembrance and Action On Violence Against Women:

I saw a Linkedin post by Judy Nagy, lecturer of entrepreneurship at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business, which I wanted to share here:

Ms. Nagy also shared the names and pictures of these 14 young ladies who tragically lost their lives 32 years ago:

I remember that day because my older sister was studying law at University of Montreal and we were worried sick about her until she called us to say she was safe. 

For 14 families, their lives were irrevocably shattered that day because of a senseless act of violence against women from a deranged individual.

We should all pause to remember them and honor their legacy by taking a stance on violence against women.

Below, watch an older (2014) Ted Talk with Haben Girma, the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. Haben advocates for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. President Obama named her a White House Champion of Change, and Forbes recognized her in (a previous list) Forbes 30 Under 30. She travels the world consulting and public speaking, teaching clients the benefits of fully accessible products and services.

And Danielle Peers (Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation) talks on moving towards inclusion, an online audit of disability inclusion in Canadian sport. 

Both are remarkable and inspirational people but our society needs to do more to take their message to heart and leaders need to step up to the plate and offer concrete actions and solutions to rectify injustices persons with disabilities still face. 

Lastly, remembering Bob Dole. The former US senator, Republican presidential candidate and World War II veteran died in his sleep on Sunday morning at the age of 98.

Dole was a hero for disability rights advocates, especially those who remember the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act, and his role in getting that landmark legislation passed.