"So, let's talk about Target," I open the interview with Sean Wiltshire, CEO of Avalon Employment Inc.

Wiltshire doesn't even blink.

"Well, in Newfoundland and Labrador," he replies without hesitation, "they were nothing short of spectacular."

We're obviously not talking about Target Canada, the retail chain that tried to blitzkrieg its way into Canada, blew it, and is currently in full retreat.

We're talking about Target the employer, specifically the employer of persons with disabilities.

"We're sad to see them go," said Wiltshire, who ought to know. 

Avalon Employment is one of 19 non-profit agencies in Newfoundland and Labrador which help persons with disabilities find jobs and keep them. It's been around for 23 years and has seen everything. According to Wiltshire, Target's policy and practice of inclusion set new standards entirely.

A commitment to integration

"It was really a fully scoped-out and thought-out process that this will actually work. And it did," he told me. 

Target Canada store in St. John's

Target Canada is closing all of its stores across the country, including its store off Stavanger Drive in St. John's. (CBC)

"We saw how inclusive they were. It was really, really quite an example for the rest of Canada."

As a retailer, Target broke a lot of promises. The stores were not as funky as they were expected to be, the shelves not as full, the prices not as low. But there was one promise the chain did keep.

Shortly after opening its first stores in Ontario, it issued a statement committing itself "to treating all people in a way that allows them to maintain their dignity and independence. We believe in integration and equal opportunity."

A commercial no-brainer really. Target was going after new customers with 133 stores across the country, and it made sense to invite and welcome everybody no matter what traditional barriers they arrived with. But it wasn't just customers the retail chain had in mind. It was employees as well - or team members as the company calls them.

Wiltshire's agency helped two individuals get jobs at the Target store on Stavanger Drive in St. John's. In all, the store hired seven persons with various disabilities and made the accommodations they needed to carry out their duties. 

And not just that. The store's manager (team leader) John Pritchett went out of his way to encourage other businesses in town to do the same. When Wiltshire planned a meeting with potential employers and needed a motivational speaker, Pritchett was the man.

"We're gonna miss Target's support in the community," Wiltshire says. "You know, we often say about helping folks with disabilities, it's not about lowering the bar, it's about opening the door wider. And Target really did that. They challenged people to do jobs they'd never done before, and they supported them in learning how to do them. That's something you don't see every day."

Learning a lesson the hard way

Most organizations have to learn this sort of thing the hard way. Target was no exception.

In 2006, seven years after the U.S. retail chain got into online shopping, it was hit with a law suit accusing it of operating a website blind customers couldn't use without assistance from a seeing person.

'We often say about helping folks with disabilities, it's not about lowering the bar, it's about opening the door wider. And Target really did that' - Sean Wiltshire

Target argued that U.S. accessibility laws didn't apply to the internet. A judge disagreed and gave the green light for a class action suit.      

Target decided to settle out of court. It paid $6 million dollars in damages and $3.7 million in legal costs to the National Federation of the Blind. It also took the lesson to heart.

Two years later it was granted the federation's gold level certification for leadership in web accessibility.

But that wasn't the end of Target's learning curve.

In 2011, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a suit against the company on behalf of an employee with cerebral palsy.

Target had originally hired the man as a stacker. He needed the help of a job coach to keep him on track, and Target made the arrangements. He did so well, he was named one his store's heroes of the month in 2003. But after he asked to be transferred to cart duty, things went off the rails. A seizure kept him off work for some time. There was less accommodation for him after he returned to work. His performance slipped. His hours got reduced. He was going downhill fast. 

"Unfortunately, most employers are still unfamiliar with how easy it is to work with individuals with disabilities," an official with the commission commented at the time. 

Target settled out of court again, this time for $160,000 in compensation and a company-wide commitment to accommodate employees with disabilities as reasonably as possible.

The loss of a role model

Its store on Stavanger Drive received the Independent Living Resource Centre's 2014 Business Award for its progressive approach to accommodating employees with disabilities.

Around the same time, Service Canada was ordered to pay a former employee in its Edmonton office close to $400,000 for failing to accommodate his disabilities and for engaging in "wilfully and recklessly" discriminatory practices against him.

All indications were that Target was going to keep pushing the envelope. In its statement upon first arriving in Canada it pledged to make sure that by Jan. 1, 2016, "all job applicants are notified that accommodation is available on request to persons with disabilities during the  recruitment and assessment process, as well as during the course of employment."

Long-term arrangements, the company added, would include individual accommodation plans, fully flexible to allow for changing conditions.

Walmart and Canadian Tire may have reason the celebrate the rout of a commercial intruder.

But social activists like Wiltshire regret the loss of a role model they say this country needs as much as ever.

This province is considered a leader in the field and recently received international recognition for that by a humanitarian organization called the Zero Project.

But the general Canadian picture hasn't changed much in recent years. According to the latest figures by Statistics Canada, only 49 per cent of the population with disabilities has jobs, compared to 79 per cent of the overall population. 

The main employment hurdles for persons with disabilities are the perception that they can't do the job, plus lack of the kind of accommodations that would make it possible for them to prove that they can.