In hiring its first manager of accessibility, Rogers Communications Inc. isn’t only ensuring it’s compliant with federal legislation, the company is also integrating the practice into its diversity, equity and inclusion goals to remove barriers at a systemic level for employees with disabilities.

“I myself am a person with a disability and so starting at Rogers in this accessibility role was a perfect fit,” says Jeevan Bains, who was hired as the company’s first manager of accessibility in April 2020. She says her role builds awareness around accessibility, aligning its principles and practices with DEI goals and weaving them into daily operations for both employees and customers.

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Bains views her role as twofold — building awareness of the importance of accessible spaces and ensuring the company adheres to the Accessible Canada Act for federally regulated workplaces. Being in-house enables her to streamline the compliance process, she notes, while adding a feeling of belonging and well-being to Rogers’ corporate culture. “Creating a welcoming space that allows people to be their authentic selves at work and an environment where they can contribute is so important from an employee perspective.”

The role was created to examine accessibility at a high level and build a roadmap of where and how the company can make changes, think about inclusive design, connect with colleagues in a different way and consider customers’ user experiences to, ultimately, remove any barriers, says Yanique Smith, Rogers’ director of well-being and accessibility.

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According to a 2017 report by Statistics Canada, the prevalence of disabilities — whether physical, sensory, cognitive or mental-health related — is more common than most people think. Indeed, a StatsCan survey from the same year found one in five (22 per cent) Canadians aged 15 years and over — about 6.2 million individuals — had one or more disabilities.

Once considered a nice-to-have policy, more companies are now prioritizing accessibility, particularly in the face of new federal regulations, says Karen Joudrey, instructor and academic coordinator of the disability management program at Dalhousie University.

Removing barriers at a systemic level

In July 2019, the Accessible Canada Act came into effect, establishing accessibility standards that require companies under federal jurisdiction to publish their accessibility plans and update them accordingly every three years.

By the numbers

A 2020 survey published by the federal government’s Office of Public Service Accessibility tracked accommodations requests by public sector employees with disabilities. Its findings included:

54% requested adaptive devices, equipment, software or accessories;

27% requested specialized desks or adaptation to existing desks or cubicles;

25% received a specialized chair or an adaptation to an existing chair;

19% adapted their mouse device;

18% adapted a keyboard;

7% had changes made to their physical workspaces to reduce auditory distractions;

6% requested large/specialized computer screens; and document-reading software;

5% had changes made to their physical workspaces to reduce visual distractions; and

5% requested speech recognition software.

Prior to the legislation, accessibility was more of a provincial impetus, says Joudrey, though some forward-thinking, larger companies recognized their responsibility in this area. To date, most provinces have developed — or are in the process of developing — provincial accessibility standards with an eye toward full implementation by 2025.

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While many companies have outsourced these duties, Rogers recognized that, in order to have momentum in the accessibility area and remain compliant with federal law, it needed to create a small team, says Smith. “Even before we had our defined accessibility role, we really worked together to support our people with disabilities community.”

The company also realized it could go further with an internal expert, she adds, by weaving accessibility into its DEI goals to build a workplace environment that removes barriers impacting people with different abilities.

The importance of having an accessibility expert in-house can’t be understated, says Joudrey, noting compliance is a multi-step process, which must be diffused throughout the organization to be effective. And in the last few years, she’s seeing more companies combine accessibility with inclusivity, so it’s also centred on acceptance for differences and diversity.

Indeed, when experts are embedded in an organization, they’re more aware of the various accessibility needs and how the principles are operationalized and applied, she says. “It’s great to have high-minded ideas about what inclusivity or accessibility is, but what does that look like for everyday employees?

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“It can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. A corporation is essentially a person and it has all the same features as people, so if you don’t know the person or corporation, then how effective can you be? I think you can be more effective in-house and being aware of various projects. And networking within an organization allows for a bigger line of sight.”

Lessons from the pandemic

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the integration of accessibility at all levels of the organizational structure, says Joudrey. “Occupational therapy in Canada is going much more . . . [toward] looking at universal design and accessibility and really mitigating barriers at a systemic level.”

Alongside the transition to remote working, Rogers’ employees with disabilities have access to assistive technology while working from home and its employees and managers can choose to tap into the company’s accommodations process, which is supported by the well-being team.

With employees’ increased — and continued — reliance on virtual meetings, Rogers offers tools such as live captioning and developed additional resources to help employees hold inclusive meetings. It also created resources to support safe at-home workspaces, including how to make ergonomic adjustments or request additional equipment.

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As employers plan for their post-pandemic workplaces, they’re weighing lessons learned during the shift to remote working, particularly how key it is for a successful work environment to integrate accessibility into the corporate structure and culture.

“We recognize there are people who identify with having a disability and then there’s everyone else, but recognizing that everyone can benefit from accessibility,” says Bains. “And it’s actually having a bit of a ripple effect, too. So maybe we did certain things because of COVID, but as people learn about accessibility, they start applying it to other activities that their area might be working on, which is great and that’s what you want.

“Employers always saw accommodations as important and thinking about accessibility is a more proactive approach. And I think [the] diversity and inclusion emphasis has brought accessibility more to the forefront.”

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.