A missed opportunity: How the nonprofit sector can do a better job of hiring people with disabilities

Written by: Susan Fish September 9, 2019

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

Many employers may say they don’t have staff with disabilities, but this just isn’t true. In fact, the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability conducted by Statistics Canada, determined that 22% of the Canadian population over the age of 15 has one or more disability. However, the majority of disabilities are invisible or hidden, with chronic pain, flexibility and mobility issues, and mental health being the most common.

Another reality, however, is that you don’t have as many employees with disabilities as you could have. Shannon Bruce, manager, business development at the Employment Accessibility Resource Network, observes, “Highly talented people are being overlooked. Considering hiring people with disabilities is not about doing something that feels good, but about not missing out on the next best talent.” This is a problem both for your organization and for your potential staff.

In a job climate where finding and retaining great employees is increasingly a challenge, there’s a strong business case to be made for this largely untapped pool of candidates. The Survey on Disability found, for instance, among employees with disabilities:

  • 86% had attendance the same or better than other employees;
  • Retention was 72% higher;
  • 90% performed equal or better than other employees.

Further, there are benefits to having a diverse workforce. Tara Connolly, assistant director, research and cevelopment, David C. Onley Initiative, says, “Even when you have a surplus of candidates, it’s important to think about what you want to create. Diverse bodies bring diverse knowledge that informs and enriches our work. Also, if your staff doesn’t reflect your community, you are missing out.”

But persons with disabilities are less likely to be employed than those without disabilities, even though 39% of unemployed people with disabilities are able to work. This leads to what health geographer Francesca Cardwell calls lifecosts: “the financial burden of living with a disability (e.g., ceasing employment) and other impacts on their quality of life.”

Wayne Henshall, manager, career support program & impact evaluation (ON/QC) CNIB Foundation, who himself lives with visual impairment, says, “There are a lot of highly skilled and passionate individuals looking to engage in their chosen field. If that aligns to your organization, you want to know those people and get the best you can find to help your organization succeed.”

With this in mind, we wanted to explore why this demographic remains untapped, and what might help employers better recruit these candidates.

It’s complicated

Connolly says, “Employers and potential employees often have fears around having a conversation about disabilities simply because they don’t know what it will mean. Fear of the unknown can lead us to resist change.”

It can also mean that we operate out of unconscious bias. Rita Keeler, HR manager, Rick Hansen Foundation, says, “We try to reach the right candidates, but the right candidate may not be who you envisioned. We need to be aware of our own biases that mean we tend to favour candidates who are like the people we are used to hiring.” Bruce says, “We need to ask ourselves whether we are hiring for the skills and abilities we need for that role or hiring for that mysterious ‘good fit’ of people who are like us.”

There can also be an added layer of complexity. Connolly says, “Sometimes employers worry about being framed as those who are afraid of those with disabilities.” She adds, “Other employers think they will be at the mercy of every request.”

Even among employers who say they want to do better at hiring employees with disabilities, Bruce says, “They worry they will say something wrong, that they won’t do enough, that the workplace won’t be accessible enough.” Henshall adds, “Employers are unsure, don’t want to offend, and so they go another path because they don’t want to upset anyone.”

The reality, however, is often much simpler than employers assume. The Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work Job Accommodation Services, says, “It is a common myth that all workplace accommodations are costly. Many job accommodations are inexpensive or even free, and are instead based on flexible and creative solutions. Workplace accommodations like flexible scheduling, extra breaks, job training, and providing materials in alternate formats are great, affordable solutions.”

The Newfoundland and Labrador Human Resource Secretariat adds, “Less than one-quarter of employees with disabilities need accommodations, and about 70% of such accommodations cost less than $500 per employee. Almost one-third cost the employer nothing. Nearly 20% cost $50 or less. In many instances, the refinements prove beneficial for able-bodied employees who happen to be shorter, taller, less agile, older, or depart from the norm in other ways.”

Henshall says, “People assume that someone with vision loss may not be able to use Skype or access webpages, but I say that I did it for 20-plus years in the corporate world, and now in the nonprofit world. Evaluate a potential candidate on their skills. Don’t worry about how you will navigate—together you can figure that out.”

Self-selecting out

The challenge is that many job seekers with disabilities self-select out of jobs they may well be qualified for because they believe they will not be considered for the role. A recent article about Millennials with disabilities in the gig economy found that they self-selected out of applying for roles where job descriptions included ideal candidate descriptors such as high energy, able to go above and beyond, enthusiastic, and always on. The article stated the challenge that candidates with a disability face: “Apply for jobs that expect the successful candidate to be ‘always on’ and risk declining health to meet these expectations, or try to find a workplace that isn’t operating under a maximum extraction approach to management.”

Job candidates with disabilities also face the challenge of whether or not to disclose their illness or disability. While Canada’s Employment Equity Act includes persons with disabilities among populations that cannot by law be discriminated against, many candidates believe their disability has been a factor in not being hired. Connolly says, “It’s challenging because disclosure can be the only way to get what you need but sometimes, if an organization isn’t ready, it doesn’t go well.”

How can an organization get ready to hire staff with disabilities?

While Keeler recommends adding a statement about diversity and inclusivity to job postings, she says, “Anyone can write a statement but what matters is that it is respected and known in workplace.” She suggests an organization that wants to shift its culture to one of diversity and inclusivity can start by thinking about their philosophy and policies, adding, “This has to be something the leadership and managers and directors need to be committed to, not just HR people.“ Bruce emphasizes the importance of listening to those with lived experience, embodied in the phrase, “Nothing about us without us.” Cultural shifts like this happen more easily when a real face is put to an issue: Bruce suggests inviting someone in to share their story on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3).

The goal for organizations, says Connolly, is that accessibility becomes a norm rather than something added on or extra. This can mean infusing common conversations within the workplace with questions about what all employees need to thrive. Connolly says, “We believe there is such a thing as a ‘normal employee’ but we all need workplaces that can flex with our challenges, whether that is an ageing parent, a sick child or a disability. I’d like to see workplaces build in flexibility and inclusivity ahead of time.”

Job descriptions

The job description is a core piece in the employee lifecycle from attraction to evaluation and succession planning, says Bruce. If an organization is committed to attracting and retaining diverse talent, it’s important that the job be communicated well.

  • Distinguish between nice-to-have and actual job requirements. Is it essential, for instance, that all employees have a driver’s license? If this line is included in all job descriptions, including those where it will not actually be necessary in the role, it will exclude many candidates with disabilities. Does a receptionist need to be able to lift 25 pounds or are you looking for a candidate with excellent interpersonal and organization skills? These types of requirements may cause candidates to self-select out unnecessarily.
  • Mention it if your organization is taking a more focused approach to accessibility.
  • Promote flexible policies such as remote work and job-sharing possibilities.
  • Show the actual workings of a job. Consider creating a day in the life video to show the actual tasks and the space in which the candidate will work. This will attract those who will thrive in your space.

Attracting candidates

If you’ve put your job ad up on CharityVillage or your website and you aren’t seeing a diverse set of candidates applying, talk with organizations that work with people with disabilities to see whether they might have a suitable candidate for your role. You can also talk with people with lived experience with disabilities to understand whether there are barriers within your job ad or your website. These could include simple things such as not providing alternative text for images or accessible fonts across multiple platforms.


Everyone we talked to for this article emphasized the following point: in any interview, whether a candidate has disclosed a disability or not, ask them whether there is anything they need to be able to do their best in the interview. It is also useful for candidates to know that this is a standard question, and for them to be given examples of possible accommodations. For Henshall, for instance, sitting with his back to natural light helps improve his vision. He also likes to be oriented to the meeting space and who he is meeting with. Connolly says, “This normalizes human need. Asking all candidates if there is anything they need builds trust and respect.”

Connnolly also says, “If we want diverse candidates, why not use diverse interviewing practices?” She adds, “This doesn’t mean we throw out traditional interviews, but we can tweak this for different candidates.” She says, for instance, that a neurodiverse candidate might not show their strengths as well in a traditional interview or in talking about themselves but might be able to make a great video showing themselves doing the task being hired for.

Keeler also reminds interviewers to use different interviews, possibly with different interviewers, to work against internal biases and get different perspectives.

People with disabilities tend to be offered one of two narratives – a noble hero or someone who needs looking after – when in reality they want to be considered much like any other potential employee. As Henshall says, there may be an initial adjustment to hiring someone who lives with a disability, but often this becomes a best practice for everyone, making the organization stronger and better for all.


This on website called Charity Village go to their link here


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