A New Epoch for Canadians with Disabilities

Now, much like Mahadeo you were so brilliantly articulating, as we’re coming to the realization that business as usual, a phrase I hate, is neither a realistic nor a desirable goal. What do you think our “new normal” should look like as we make our way through Covid 19 and beyond? How should not only workplaces, but also transport communication, Urban planning changed so that we are responsive to the needs and lived realities of everyone, including people with disabilities.

Well, I I’m going to start this off. I think one of the things we need to be very careful here is that we need to avoid the axiom that this is a reset. And I really fundamentally believe that we need to look at this is that this is a once in a generational rethink. We really need to, as a community, to start to get together and have conversations with people like James Mackenzie and some of my clients at BDO Canada and the Alfred Spencer’s and Mahadeo over at CNIB and start really mapping out how we’re going to do.. like Mahadeo was talking about just transportation in itself is going to become a nightmare. How are we going to deal with that? How we’re going to do with massive transit how we’re going to deal with Handy Transit?

So, there’s these kinds of conversations, that as we move forward, we need to be part of. We need to be involved in. And so, what I would always say is we need to really go back and start thinking about a new national strategy on persons with disabilities. Like our friend Alfred said, you know, it was kind of a little bit disparaging when I heard that we’re giving students $1700 a month, but yet people with disabilities who are already trying to find work and staying at home, we’re only getting $1100 per month. I mean, so there was already a disconnect going. We continue the conversation with Life After Covid-19 Q&A Part 1…

Max Brault of BDO Canada, Alfred Spencer Accessibility Directorate Ontario and Mahadeo Sukhai of the CNIB are interviewed by Beth Robertson of the Conference Board of Canada about Life After Covid-19 for persons with disabilities on Accessibility TV

We continue the conversation with Life After Covid-19 Q&A Part 1…If I can just add to your question, Beth, I think that, you know, we’ve had so many examples of quick response. So, there is that there is a want or a desire by everybody to respond quickly and to do things to change. But I look at the easiest example for me, which is how we’ve had this discussion about widening sidewalks and going into streets so that more people can walk together and, you know, keep their six feet apart. If you asked a person with a disability how difficult it is for a person in a wheelchair going north to meet a person on a sidewalk going south in a wheelchair, it’s virtually impossible. So, if we’re going to have the discussions, I think that Mahadeo was right. We have to start talking about universal design and not necessarily about disability. But it’s getting to the discussion of- Will this help everyone? Or will this benefit everyone?

Because I’ve just seen so many examples of we’re closing down streets so that people can walk their dogs and stay social distance at night to talk. But where were those discussions prior to this? Because people with disabilities have had those challenges every single day of their life.

But all of a sudden, because it’s impacting “me,” I want it changed immediately. Well, I think the “me” has to be “we.”

Accomodations for Accessibility

So that’s fascinating, and it talks about how organizations felt the only way things would work is their way. And people are seeing that things can actually be accommodated in different ways. Some people are able to comfortably work from home. Some people can’t. Well, what does that mean about how houses and apartments will be constructed if this becomes a more permanent way of living? Of working? Of being with their families, of having a space in our homes, where it is dedicated to do the kinds of work that we need to do to bring money in and space at home in order to play with her kids on do gardening and cooking and all the other things? Not every house we look around neighborhoods, not every house has those kinds of spaces to be able to accommodate that easily. For the people that do have, it’s a great advantage that they can easily take advantage of. But there are all sorts of people that have shown pictures on Facebook, how they accommodate working from home because they got up the ironing board and kind of opened it up in front of a convenient chair. And that works. Other people who you see very selectively in the background, you can identify that they are in their kitchen to do this call, because that’s the only space they had. You can see the cupboards and the stove and the sink combined. So, I think people hoping will be a lot more accepting that the accommodation becomes irrelevant to the contribution. We continue the conversation with Life After Covid-19 Q&A Part 1…

I think, James, that one of the things that’s going to be so interesting is we we’ve spent government, in the financial district in Toronto in particular, have spent all kinds and the tech in the tech industry. How many people can we get into a smaller space? I worked where you got your floor, your square footage by your title, right? If you were a Director, you got so many feet. If you’re a Manager, you got so many feet. Now we’ve come to we’re going to we’re going to cram a dozen people into a room with one long table and some jacks. Well, I got to tell you that that’s got to be rethought. So, if Mahadeo is right, if you go back into the workplace, it can’t look like that when we go back.

Accessibility & Inclusion at the CNIB

So, it’s actually really funny that you said that Alfred, I’ve been deeply engaged in C.N.I.B’s return to office planning process and there’s all sorts of significant accessibility and inclusion consequences, you know, to make my job title worth my pay here a little bit. There are all sorts of significant accessibility and inclusion consequences to take into account within any kind of office space. Now take the issue of, take the issue of somebody who comes in in a wheelchair or scooter. or somebody comes in with a guide dog or using a white cane. And let’s say somebody who’s blind is half a percent of the work force in a typical company, sometimes even lower than that, so let’s put that perspective off to the side for a moment. Let’s actually say look, we’re not talking about a specific population of people anymore. We’re actually talking about everybody and we need to recognize one of the central tenets of diversity and inclusion or idea inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility as I tend to use it, and that is that everybody is different. Beth, when she introduced me said that I come from a genetics background. I used to be in personalized medicine. In personalized medicine there was  a saying “the right drug for the right person at the right dose at the right time”, and now and that was for cancer treatment. Right now, we need to start thinking much more concretely about the right workspace, the right intervention for the right person in the right way, at the right time, in order to maximize productivity and efficiency. But we’re not we’re not very at. We continue the conversation with Life After Covid-19 Q&A Part 1…

I’m going to put something very inflammatory on the table and say that that all of our employment equity policies, are built around personal responsibility of disclosure, but it also is built around a very fundamentally reactionary kind of system. And so inclusive design is proactive, but all of our policies around this, all of our legislation around this is reactive at its core.

HR Policy Drives Accommodation

I would have to agree with you on that. It’s always been “What did we learn when we accommodated this individual and how can we change the policy or directive to be reflective?”And you’re right, that has been the past down. Now we need to move forward. So how would you see this moving forward? Do we need to sit here and have a group meeting every once in a while? Or what would you say, Mahadeo, we need to do to move this forward. Like, do we start coming up with the national thinking about like you mentioned HR, which is a really interesting concept of how do we apply Universal designed to HR policies now? Because, as you know, prior to this environment that occurred, universal design was being chipped away and was being argued that it was irrelevant. We continue the conversation with Life After Covid-19 Q&A Part 1…

We’re going to do this whole new 2.0, office and put everybody in pods. So how would you move this forward?

I’ve got to summer students who are asking that right? That very question right now, Max, can I get them to talk to you?

Awesome.

I can spare a little story out on my side. We talked a lot of work life, but there’s other kinds of lives as well. For those people who do know me, I have somewhere close to 143 children and their homeschooling right now. So, what I was confronted with is the typical, this is what school is like. You must get up at this hour. Go to the classroom through this mechanism, this specific vehicle. You must bring these items, these elements with you, and it’s really the epitome of not accommodating. If you want to think of it that way, it’s a single file process that everybody has to fit themselves into. And what I found we adapted to Covid fairly early in that even prior to March break in Canada, we saw what was happening and started kind of preparing ourselves for it. So, we had gotten the big pieces of Bristol board and the markers and crayons and started getting the kids to drop maps of Canada before the school board to figure out what to do. Because we have 143 kids were going to be overwhelmed we don’t do something.

What I found was that over the past couple of months the Children started finding their own ways to be successful. That was individualized to them. And when this first started happening, I confronted my own. I have to confront me on reluctance because I still wanted them to all get up at the same time and go to the table at the same time and do the same kinds of exercises, everyone do science right now and everyone do geography now,  and what I was forced to be confronted by the irrationality of that. That I had a 16 year old son who had four courses. And so, he It didn’t make sense for him to do things that way because he didn’t have to do geography. He had math. He had gym. He had French and business. So, he had his four courses that he had to work on, which had nothing to do with the others. And I started being able to accept and internalize that the goal is that the Children do their homework and succeed. That if one child is more comfortable sleeping until 10 or 11 o’clock, because they’re a teenager and getting them out of bed is a nightmare, but they get all their homework done by one o’clock in the afternoon, and they’re ahead in their classes. Then should I judge what they’re doing or how they’re doing?

And I think that organizations, businesses, companies may have gone through that same mental transition of being reluctant to allow too many accommodations because they didn’t know what it would be like. And being forced to make all those accommodations suddenly started opening people’s eyes to the fact that accommodations themselves aren’t an issue. It’s performance management that you should be doing any ways that is the real issue. Having good candidates doing all the things they need to do. We continue the conversation with Life After Covid-19 Q&A Part 1…

The Post Covid World

You know, it’s always talk about accommodations. There are historically and even now, workplaces somewhere places, pushback a lot when accommodation when the idea of accommodation is actually even mentioned. And there is even some discussion that why are we accommodating? Why are we not just changing the environment? But realizing that we’re still a long way off from that. Realizing that people with disabilities have continued to be creative and agile to navigate a world not built for them in mind. Often times as people with disabilities are too often discriminated against and conceived to be somehow a burden on society. These life experiences of being agile, of being creative, they’re actually, it could be argued, at the very least, that these are life experiences that are very valuable at this time. This creativity, this agility. How do you think these life experiences could be leveraged, could be more recognized to ensure that workplaces and the society more generally, effectively adapts to this Post Covid 19 world?

Now we talk about collecting data literally, because what we need to do is, we need to understand those stories, and that requires us to do more than put a survey out in the field. Every so often it requires us to actually understand stories, it requires us to have conversations like this, where somebody or some group of us act as a conversation starter and then, you know, capture the free for all that results, right? And it requires us to have one on one conversations. It requires us to get to know the people that we need to talk to. And we’re not talking about talking with just people with disabilities, were talking about everybody because everybody’s got creative solutions to the ongoing series of challenges that we all face and everybody’s got unique and individual challenges. And we need to know those stories. And yes, we need to do so in ways that the preserve and protect confidentiality and anonymity, but we also need them in large scale and high volume, and then we need really good data scientists to pick that apart. And then we can start making policy. We continue the conversation with Life After Covid-19 Q&A Part 1…

I actually agree with you that that is great step going forward. I’ve always argued the fact of one of the biggest problems we have in Canada right now is we don’t really truly understand or statistical information about persons with disabilities. We have our ideas of where the population resides, what kind of educational factors, but at the end of the day, I don’t know their spending habits? I don’t know, at the end of the day, what kind of decisions they are making when they get 100 bucks, right? We don’t know how many individuals with education are out there. And where are they looking for work. And how are they looking for work? What is working? We don’t track any of that for information. We go back to James this question right, and I saw somebody else right on the side saying, you know, be mindful, not all people can work from home. And yet, you know, I believe that if you create an atmosphere where anybody can work from a particular situation, than any person with a disability could walk into this environment, this agile environment and pick what works from them like a smorgasbord which no longer were allowed to use anymore, because it’s not polite. But we use a smorgasbord of different things that people can pick and choose from. And then enter into the workforce, and they could be functional, like James was saying. Because of the end of the day, you know, before this event occurred, we were still living in what I call the 1950’s model where we came in at nine o’clock in the morning. We were set up by nine o’clock in the morning. We were gone by five o’clock and her boss saw us, and there wasn’t the one question: Was this person productive in that time frame?

And that’s something, as a young person, when I entered into the workforce, I couldn’t understand why were they more obsessed about the time that I showed up and the office I sat in, then about the quality of work which I did. If I did it better in a Coffee Shop, or if I did it in front of a TV at home, if I did it better on the beach in Fiji, sarcasticly, but if it got the quality of work done, isn’t that more important than the time? And I think this is going to be one of the things that’s going to come out of this particular environment is that we’re going to be asking ourselves about…No longer is it about the individual being somewhere from 9 to 5 but it’s about the quality of work in which the individual submits.

But we need as we talk more about that, too, this actually segues very nicely into at the audience question period. Believe it or not, we’re more on time Then we should be, considering some of the technical difficulties, but to go back for second to data. Linda Staples asked: It was mentioned that we need to ask the right question, but how do we get government, and I would say, even business, to ask the right people. Often times when there’s issues with how we collect information, who we approach to get that information from. How do we How do we change that? We continue the conversation with Life After Covid-19 Q&A Part 1…

That’s a good question. And you know what? There is no magic bullet, but you’re absolutely right. It’s not just who we ask or not just what we ask. It’s also who we ask is if you ask the wrong people the right question, we’re still not going to get the right information. It becomes an issue of sort of systematically understanding how to put something out there. And not just make it representative, which is what Stats Can does right now, but also to find a way to actually get the opinions of individuals who,  sort of exist sort of on the edge of the statistical bell curve on the parador principle, by the way, is a ginormous policy that we’ve been saddled with for 200 years. And there I said it. I love math, but I think I think the notion of statistically average human is honestly silly in this day and age. And I think getting the people who are not the statistically average humans, which is everybody, right? Getting the people who sit on any kind of bell curve. They sit to the far left or the far right, right?

Look, I was born with congenital cataracts. I have vision loss and one of the one person in 19 and in the country that lives with vision loss. And it’s pretty significant vision loss. I also started high school when I was 10 right, on one side of a bell curve, I’m on the far left on the other side of the bell curve. I’m on the far right, right?  Those were experiences that we need to capture. And so, I think we need to start finding ways to incentivize those kinds of stories. Systematically, it’s a concerted effort, it’s not just Stats Can. I quit holding Statistics Canada responsible for gathering all the data I ever wanted. So, I decided to go get some myself, right? Happy to do so with any friend who wants, right? And I think more people need to make those kinds of choices somehow. We continue the conversation with Life After Covid-19 Q&A Part 1…on to Part 2.

Beth A. Robertson

Beth A. Robertson is the Senior Research Associate for Inclusion; Education and Skills; Future Skills at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa. She is a social scientist who specializes in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, with expertise in the areas of gender, disability, technology and industry. She has served as Director of the $1.1 million small grants program “Gendered Design in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) for Low and Middle Country,” based out of Carleton University with funding from the International Development Research Centre.

In addition, she was Adjunct Curator of Gender and Globalization for Ingenium: Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation. Robertson has hosted mini-documentaries for Accessibility TV and was co-primary investigator of Carleton University’s Disability Research Group. She has curated exhibits, published articles, given public presentations, organized symposiums and developed pedagogical materials related to accessibility, human rights and technology.

Accessibility TV

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