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Busting down barriers

Credit unions are undertaking measures to ensure that disabled employees integrate seamlessly into the workplace.

When Michael Kaneva applied for the position of senior manager, employee experience programs, half a year ago at Meridian Credit Union (340,000 members, $21.3 billion in assets) in Ontario, he came with a disability – hereditary spastic paraplegia – a genetic neurological condition that makes walking difficult due to muscle weakness and muscle tightness in the legs. Sitting for long periods exacerbated it.

At the job interview, the hiring manager offered Kaneva a choice of two chairs; one being higher than the other. Kaneva had not mentioned his disability in his application, however, the hiring manager had been trained to ask how best to hold an interview and to include options for rooms and seating.

Kaneva aced the interview and was hired. Today, based on his role, he has the option to work from home but chooses, however, to work mainly on-site, where he has an adjustable-height desk, which is now standard in the renovations underway at Meridian’s two head offices. “Being able to stand up and work is great for me,” Kaneva says. “This is one of the most welcoming cultures that I have worked in. They are not making assumptions, they are asking. That, to me, is genuine workplace accommodation,” says Kaneva.

A disability is “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities,” according to the Ontario Human Rights Code, which includes disability as one of the grounds on which discrimination in employment is prohibited. And when Kaneva makes reference to “workplace accommodation,” he is referring to a phrase in human rights legislation stating that employers have a duty to adjust their workplaces to the needs of employees with a disability.

“This is one of the most welcoming cultures that I have worked in.” – Michael Kaneva

Kaneva is among the eight percent of Meridian employees who self-identify as having a disability. That is double the proportion of people with disabilities in the Canadian labour force as a whole. But, Kaneva says,  Meridian still wants to increase its disabled staff numbers. So does the credit union movement as a whole. Canadians with disabilities are an under-used labour resource, as many employers hesitate to hire staff with physical, mental or developmental challenges. According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability by Statistics Canada, only 59 percent of Canadians with disabilities aged 25 to 64 are employed, compared with 80 percent of Canadians without disabilities.

While no legislation sets hiring quotas, Ottawa and some provinces have enacted laws that require barrier-free workplaces in an effort to boost the employability of persons with disabilities. Advocacy by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, an organization that unites 17 disability groups, has also raised awareness among employers of the need to be more inclusive.

Credit unions, in addition to heeding these imperatives, have recognized that hiring (and accommodating) staff with disabilities makes good business sense: it is a further way of reflecting the communities they serve. And it is a logical extension of the efforts they’ve made to improve accessibility for their members. Kaneva says that Meridian has been especially progressive in this area, creating steps-free entrances and push-button openings for doors, not only for employees but members with mobility issues. “We have done an extreme amount of work to ensure that our members feel welcome and included in the branches,” says Kaneva.

Kaneva cautions, however, that it’s not enough simply to recruit and accommodate staff with disabilities. The workplace culture has to be supportive, too. Employees need to be accommodated in ways that will allow them to reach personal and professional goals, Kaneva adds.

Meridian plans to partner with community groups that serve people with a disability and hopes to create a recruitment network that will include participating in job fairs hosted by those groups. The credit union has already taken steps in that direction, aligning with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), which is helping educate credit
union staff learn how to interact with vision-impaired employees in special sessions.

At Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (535,000 members, $23 billion in assets), 10 percent of employees self-identify as having a disability. And they have a champion in Vancity CEO Tamara Vrooman, former co-chair of the Presidents Group, a network of British Columbia business leaders that advocates for employing persons with disabilities, and the current chair of the Rick Hansen Foundation, which raises funds and awareness to create a world without barriers for people with disabilities.

“We’ll do whatever we need to do to make it work, whether it’s a mental or physical disability.” – Kim Yip

Vancity is welcoming in other ways, participating in job fairs for people with disabilities. “We’re always looking to attract talent,” says Sheryl Ries, director, diversity and inclusion. The credit union will also adjust its hiring process to accommodate applicants with a disability. “During the interview, we welcome job coaches or [deaf] interpreters to support the candidate, as needed,” says Ries. “And we hold interviews on the first floor or in a meeting room right by the elevator.”

Such accommodations eases access for disabled members, too. For example, Vancity’s head office and branches have power-assisted door openers. Vancity also has strobe-light fire alarms in newer branches for the hearing-impaired and contrasting colours and transitional areas in branch design for those with visual impairment.

On average, the credit union spends $400,000 annually on workplace accommodation. “Ensuring physical accessibility in general is super-important,” says Ries, “but equally so is what we do for each employee in terms of a work space or technology that accommodates their specific disability.” This includes voice-to-text software (JAWS/Zoom Text technology) for vision-impaired staff.

Just as vision and mobility-impaired staff require different accommodations, so, too, do people with developmental disabilities like Down Syndrome and autism. For this community, Vancity launched a workplace inclusion program in 2016 that carved out elements of existing jobs to create suitable opportunities. The credit union partnered with community groups that identified their clients’ abilities and recommended candidates. Vancity then matched those abilities with administration support jobs (mostly part-time) in branches in Metro Vancouver and Victoria. “We recruited 22 candidates. Of those, 20 are still with us and loving their jobs,” Ries says.

“During the interview, we welcome job coaches or [deaf] interpreters to support the candidate, as needed.” – Shery Ries

Servus Credit Union (380,000 members, $16.2 billion in assets) in Alberta has also hired staff with disabilities, though it declines to provide statistics. “In general, we’re looking for the best candidate to fulfill the demands of the role, regardless of disability or diversity,” says Kim Yip, senior manager, strategic staffing. The credit union has an all-inclusive recruitment policy and, in many cases, hires individuals without realizing they have a disability — typically a mental health issue or chronic illness — and finds out afterwards, says Yip. “At that point, we’ll do whatever we need to do to make it work, whether it’s a mental or physical disability.”

The most common accommodations are changes in work schedules, time off, more frequent breaks and gradual return to work. For employees with physical disabilities, adjustments to property may be needed, such as ensuring enough clearance for medical aids or devices, altering heights of desks, providing ergonomic chairs and altering lighting conditions.

Servus’s head office in Edmonton and almost all its branches are wheelchair accessible. Recently, the credit union spent $15,000 to accommodate an employee in a wheelchair at the Member Contact Centre by updating some of the doors and building access. “The building already had wheelchair access and could accommodate the employee but, after he started, we realized it wasn’t ideal,” says Kip.

Servus has partnered with Inclusion Alberta (formerly the Alberta Association for Community Living), a non-profit serving children and adults with developmental disabilities. Inclusion will present a job candidate and the credit union will review the individual’s skills. They are then brought in for a half day of job shadowing. “We want to make sure it’s a
fit for both the applicant and the hiring manager,” says Yip, citing four hires that have resulted from this process.

Janine Kroy was one such candidate, hired more than 10 years ago. Previously, Kroy, who has a developmental disability, had worked at three branches and now is an administration assistant at the Edmonton-based head office. She works at Servus three times a week, travelling to and fro on the Disabled Adult Transit Service (DATS). Her jobs include clipping competitors’ ads for the marketing department, paper shredding, making new employees’ files and serving on two staff social committees. As for her co-workers, “they’re very compassionate and caring; I love working with everyone,” Kroy says. Her biggest challenge? “Sometimes work is fast-paced,” she admits, “so you have to know what your schedule is and be on time for each task” — good advice for any credit union employee. ◊