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Illustrations by Alison Garwood-Jones

Hiring staff with intellectual disabilities is good for business

Running an inclusive company pays off in ways you might not expect

When Mark Wafer opened his first Tim Hortons franchise in Scarborough in 1995, he was overwhelmed. The previous owner had taken their staff with them, but customers expected a certain level of service and Wafer’s all-new team couldn’t keep up. When Wafer advertised for an extra set of hands, Clint Sparling, a young man in his 20s, with Down syndrome, answered the call.

Wafer says, “I didn’t have a lot of experience being around people with intellectual disabilities, but I knew for sure—based on the barriers I’d faced as a deaf person—that Clint wasn’t going to find a job just by knocking on doors, so I gave him a chance.” And it paid off. Sparling never called in sick, never came in late and had higher productivity than his non-disabled teammates. Hoping to replicate Sparling’s success on the job, Wafer continued to hire employees with intellectual and physical disabilities—often a combination of the two—over the next 25 years he was in business. Sparling’s exemplary work ethic turned out to be no fluke.

A typical annual turnover rate for a fast-food restaurant is 100 percent. Wafer saw just a 40 percent turnover. Absenteeism was also 85 percent lower among those employees with disabilities, and Wafer never filled out an accident form for a disabled worker.

“It costs $4,000 in lost productivity for every employee who leaves, so when my turnover rate was 40 percent, while my colleagues were facing a full turnover, I was simply making more money,” says Wafer.

If you’re thinking about hiring someone with an intellectual disability, here’s what you need to know to get started:

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Where to recruit employees with an intellectual disability
“Any developmental services agency will have an employment-related service that an employer can reach out to,”says Ritu Singarayer, director of community development for netWORKS, a program provided by United Way Greater Toronto-funded Community Living York South, that offers training and activities to help increase the employability of young people with intellectual disabilities. Business owners and managers can find their nearest agency through the Developmental Services Ontario website search tools.

“There are also employment service organizations, like United Way Greater Toronto-supported JVS Toronto, Job Skills and Ready Willing Able that help people with intellectual—and other disabilities—with job placement,” says Singarayer.

And some social enterprises, like Common Ground Co-operative and Sandwich ‘n’ Such, in Toronto and The Lunchbox Café, in Milton, are also a resource for recruiting experienced staff. In addition to providing co-operative short-term employment opportunities, they offer job skills and training for adults with intellectual disabilities.

How to train and mentor staff
“It starts with understanding that every new employee needs time and extra support in order to do a job well, which is ultimately what every employer wants,” says Jennifer Hope, executive director of Common Ground Co-operative, which has three branches staffed by people with autism, Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities, including a toy-cleaning service, a bakery and catering co-op, and a coffee business. Hope recommends partnering a new employee with intellectual disabilities with a long-time employee—just as you would for a new non-disabled team member.

As for Singarayer, she suggests breaking tasks down into smaller chunks, to help make learning them easier. “The only thing I tell employers is it might take a little more time to train this person, but everyone is different,” she says. “There might be some areas of the training they do really quickly, but there might be some areas where they can use extra time.” Ultimately, employers should take a flexible and responsive approach during the training period, rather than making any assumptions about limitations.

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How to structure the job for success
Though adapting a job isn’t always necessary, when you’re creating an inclusive workforce, some employers do work with an agency such as Community Living York South to modify positions to fit an employee’s strengths, says Singarayer.

The retailer Sporting Life had an employee who struggled with verbal communication, for example, so the agency helped figure out that the solution was to have his co-workers communicate with him via text. “Things worked out really well, but if this employer had decided this wasn’t something they were prepared to do,” says Singarayer. “They would have missed out on a very capable employee.”

Ongoing communication with newly hired staff is key, to identify potential challenges and come up with creative solutions. The employee may choose to invite a member of their support team into the initial conversation, someone who is familiar with their intellectual disability and may have suggestions to contribute.

One chance is all it takes
Better mental health, increased confidence, better communication and the openness that comes with constantly interacting with the public—these are all benefits Jon Gauthier saw his employees reap, as the co-founder and original courier at Good Foot Delivery, a Toronto-based courier service exclusively employing people with intellectual disabilities.

And it’s not just staff who have profited from this business: The social enterprise has grown from five couriers and 45 clients in 2010 to almost 40 couriers and over 2,000 clients in 2018, with revenues in excess of $300,000.

It’s the kind of success Gauthier hopes to replicate with his new content marketing service, Good Content Media, which employs content marketers with intellectual disabilities. As a person with an intellectual disability, Gauthier understands firsthand the opportunities presented by companies like his own. And he has advice for any employer looking to add neurodiversity to their team: “I say take the risk because once you qualify this person to do the job, they may very likely surpass your expectations.”

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