This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
When Tim Hortons franchisee Mark Wafer hired Clint Sparling, a young man with Down Syndrome to work at his busy Ontario cafe he didn't know the decision would transform his business and inspire a two decade crusade for inclusive employment.
Sparling was a hard worker, never complained and was always happy to be there says Wafer. He rarely took sick days and boosted morale among the other employees. Nearly two decades later, Sparling is still part of Wafer's team, is married and owns his own condo.
Mark Wafer, Tim Hortons owner, and Clint Sparling (Photo submitted)
"Very quickly after I hired Clint I realized he was my best employee," says Wafer who now owns seven Tim Hortons locations in Ontario.
"That's why I continue to hire people with disabilities."
Wafer hired 91 people with disabilities (PWD) including 41 now employed in his workforce of 210. He has also become a vocal advocate for more inclusive employment in Canada.
The cause is personal for Wafer who only has 20 percent hearing and struggled to keep working until he became a business person.
About 3.8 million people or 13 7 percent of Canadians aged 15 and older reported having a disability in 2012 according to Statistics
Canada. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is now 54 percent, compared to the national average of 6.9 percent, according to StatsCan.
Wafer estimates unemployment for PWD is actually closer to 70 percent if those who have given up looking for work out of frustration are included.
"Not only is hiring people with disabilities the right thing to do," says Wafer. "It can have a dramatic effect on a business's bottom line."
" In bringing them into the workplace you're getting a more loyal employee you're getting a person that will stay with you longer, you're getting a person who is more innovative, more productive and who will work in a safer means."
Myths and Misconceptions
Wafer's stores stats are a testament to the potential of employing people with disabilities. Among his franchises the employee turnover compared to the industry average of 75 percent. It costs about $4 000 to train a new employee.
In 2011 the absenteeism rate among Wafer's 33 employees with disabilities was zero. He has never made a work-related injury
insurance claim for an employee with a disability. But the "myths and misconceptions about employing people with disabilities remain the greatest barrier to more inclusive workplaces, "says Wafer.
Common concems he hears from CEOs are that safety, productivity or innovation could be compromised by hiring PWD.
The greatest misconception," he says, "is that bosses can't fire an employee with a disability if things are not working out. These fears are groundless," citing several U.S. studies that people with disabilities often have higher safety awareness take fewer risks and show productivity and innovation on par with or better than average.
"The number one barrier to inclusive employment is attitude" says Wafer "however I see improvement in awareness and understanding over the last five years. Business people are starting to get It, slowly. They finally realize this it's simply good for business."
The federal government has also moved to break down barriers to hiring people with disabilities in recent years. Since 2008 over 1.100 projects have been awarded through the Enabling Accessibility Fund, a grants program that supports capital costs related to improving accessibility and safety for PWD in the workplace.
"Canadians with disabilities have a lot to contribute to our economic growth but have traditionally been under-represented in the labour force," said Employment Minister Jason Kenney in a December 2013 statement marking the launch of a new stream for the fund.
"This fund encourages employers to create accessible workplaces for people with disabilities to provide them with better job opportunities. I urge all Canadian employers to do more to train and hire Canadians with disabilities and to ensure their workplaces are accessible."
While Wafer applauds government efforts to support inclusive workplaces, he says real change depends on the private sector. Only
seven percent of workers with disabilities are employed in that sector-the largest employer in the country. Government can't fix this the social service sector can't fix this the community partners the agencies, they can't fix this says Wafer. "The only entity that can fix inclusive employment is the private sector."
By Stephen Pate, NJN Network