20% of disabled Albertans who need workplace modifications don't get them, data says

More than a third of employed Albertans report needing at least one accommodation at work, according to numbers supplied to CBC Calgary by Statistics Canada.

Advocates say employers are changing for the better

Experts say it's often small adjustments that make a big difference for disabled staff in a work environment. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Andrea van Vugt knows what it's like to be discriminated against at work because of a disability.

She's lived with epilepsy since she was a teen. She suffers from severe seizures and takes medication for it twice a day. She also has a Vagus nerve stimulator, which acts sort of like a pacemaker for the brain.

Years ago, when van Vugt first started work after finishing a diploma, she remembers one of her colleagues telling her she wouldn't be capable of getting her work done because of her condition.

"It was shocking and it was embarrassing," she said.

"I left the job pretty quick."

Van Vugt is among the more than one-in-three employed Albertans with disabilities who report needing at least one accommodation at work, according to numbers supplied to CBC Calgary by Statistics Canada. The group represents 95,820 of the 260,160 employed people in Alberta with disabilities in 2017, the latest data available.

The most common accommodations were flexible work arrangements such as modified hours or roles, and working from home, followed by adjusted workstations and human or technical support.

And while van Vugt says she has the accommodations she needs at the engineering firm she works for, many still don't.

More than 20 per cent of those people who reported needing accommodations didn't get them.

Cal Schuler, the diversity and accommodation consultant with Calgary Alternative Employment Services, says the numbers aren't totally surprising to him.

Schuler has been quadriplegic for nearly 45 years. His job entails auditing employers, often by request, to inspect for appropriate accommodations needed by employees. 

He said it's often small adjustments that make a big difference in a work environment.

"A lot of people wouldn't think that a simple soap dispenser in a washroom would become a barrier," he said, explaining oversights of object placement can create accessibility issues.

He said it's also important for workplaces to offer flexible schedules, like breaks for people who need to deal with blood sugar level conditions or for those with mental health needs.

He says the good news is workplaces are changing for the better.

"You're still going to find companies that don't want to go to that next step of including people with disabilities in the workplace. Either they don't have it physically or they don't have the education and awareness," Schuler said.

"But overall … employers are becoming more aware of the skills and abilities people with disabilities can bring to their workplace."

Beneficial for employers

JianLi Wang, a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa, researches workplace accommodations specific to mental health issues and how they can affect organizations economically.

He says improving the workplace environment has a big impact on employee health and it benefits the organization.

"Accommodation is … important to facilitate the recovery and prognosis of an employee," he said.

"So if they can recover better from their mental health issues, that will increase their productivity and will be good for the employer as well."

He said the changes in some cases can be as simple as scheduling one-on-one meetings to check in on employees.

Disability a fact, not a problem

Van Vugt also volunteers as the director of Disability Pride Alberta, an organization that aims to celebrate and empower the disability community.

She says she tries to help people with disabilities find confidence to ask for the flexibility they need at work.

But it goes two ways, she explains. People who have a temporary or permanent disability need to learn to be self-assured, and employers need to change their view on disability.

"If you can go out and celebrate yourself and you can feel comfortable about it, well, then when you go into the workforce, you're going to feel a heck of a lot more comfortable saying, these are the facts about my disability. These are the needs, and this is what I'm capable of," she said.

"It's a fact that after I have a seizure, I'm tired, and I might need to either lie down or go home and continue work after I [have] slept.… Discrimination would be if I have a seizure, I won't do the work and I won't do a good job."

She added that accommodation is about changing the mind, not just physical spaces.

The more people learn about specific disabilities, she says, the better they can be addressed.

"So when we talk about (disabilities) in the workplace, they're not seen as a problem, they're seen as a fact," van Vugt said.

"If we can see them as a fact, we can accommodate them."