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Dollars and Sense: Why Hiring People with Down Syndrome is Good for Business

Within weeks I realized Clint was my best employee. He came to work an hour before his shift; he would not take a break and I couldn’t convince him to go home at the end of his shift. The job meant that much to him.

By Mark Wafer MSC OMC

Reprinted from 3.21: Canada's Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #1: The Employment Issue). Click here to download the full magazine.

A recent poll of 40 Canadian corporate CEOs by Canadian Business SenseAbility shows just how much work we still must do to ensure equality and inclusion for people with disabilities in the workplace.

The survey asked two simple questions: What percentage of Canadians have a disability? And, what do you believe is the average cost of an accommodation or adjustment to ensure your company could hire a disabled worker?

The response was alarming. On average, respondents estimated the percentage of Canadians with a disability at 4-5%, and the cost of accommodation at $10,000. The reality is quite different indeed, with 24% of Canadians reporting a disability and the average cost of an accommodation being $500 or less. In fact, only 35% of workers with disabilities require any accommodation at all.

The problem with this sort of mindset is that in thinking the demographic is so small, businesses can afford to ignore it. This is where negative stereotypes take hold.

Over the past 25 years, my wife and I employed over 200 workers with disabilities in every aspect of our Tim Hortons franchise business. We believe there isn’t a disability type that we have not employed. Our most senior employee had a disability; she is now a Tim Hortons restaurant owner. In 2017 we sold our business and all 46 workers with disabilities remained with the new owners.

Without question, many of these workers with disabilities were our best employees. This hit home very early in our journey when I hired Clint Sparling to work in the dining room of our first restaurant. Clint, who was 23 at the time, has Down syndrome. He had just graduated from high school and was eager to work.

Clint saw a “help wanted” ad on our door and applied for the dining room attendant’s job. As a deaf Canadian, I understood the many barriers the disabled face when it comes to employment. I knew that if Clint simply cold called on businesses, none of them would hire him. Employers back then (and many today) bought into every myth, misperception and stereotype about the disabled. They believed that workers with disabilities worked more slowly, were sick more often, took too much time off, worked in an unsafe manner, lacked motivation, required excessive supervision and had no ability to be innovative. Hence, they saw these potential workers as a liability. This was especially true for companies in competitive markets. They believed their competitiveness would be challenged by hiring workers with disabilities.

Counterintuitively, the exact opposite is true – and Clint proved this from the beginning. Training Clint took a few days longer than training someone without a cognitive disability, and that was okay. We enlisted the help of Community Living Toronto, whose excellent job coaches helped us get Clint ready for the job by teaching him how to take the bus and helping him understand social norms in a busy restaurant with 50-60 employees. 

Within weeks I realized Clint was my best employee. He came to work an hour before his shift; he would not take a break and I couldn’t convince him to go home at the end of his shift. The job meant that much to him. He wore his uniform with pride and the dining room was spotless. 

In fact, I had to make a policy exception for Clint. My employees were required to change into their uniforms once they got to work so there was no contamination from the subway or buses, but Clint wanted everyone on the bus to know he worked at Tim Hortons. I was happy to make an exception for this! The first year Clint worked with us he took off for his Christmas holidays and had a family photo taken on Christmas Day. When he showed me the photo, there was Clint wearing his Tim Hortons uniform to Christmas dinner. This degree of employee loyalty is unheard of.

As we built our business and added restaurants, we hired employees with different types of intellectual disabilities. Some had Down syndrome, some had autism and others had multiple disabilities. They proved to me that the myths were just that: myths and misperceptions. These workers required no supervision, they were never sick, they didn’t take time off, their productivity was the same as or better than workers without disabilities and they worked in a far safer manner.

This led me to believe that there was a business case for being inclusive. Absenteeism, employee turnover and safety concerns are extremely expensive to a business owner. If capacity is built into a company’s hiring practices, it seemed clear to me that it would be more profitable.

As a result, in 1996, my wife and I opened our doors to anyone with a disability. We hired workers who could do the job or could be trained to do the job. Over the 25 years we owned the restaurants, we employed more than 200 workers with disabilities. Some faced significant challenges, but all made a contribution to our business – and they all contributed to their own lives by receiving a paycheque and paying taxes and CPP. Truthfully, we would have hired a lot more than 200 workers with disabilities, but our employee turnover was so low that job openings rarely occurred. We all want to contribute and having a disability doesn’t change that.

The data compiled over the years is striking. In one study, the absenteeism rate for 46 employees with disabilities was 85% lower than for 200 workers without disabilities. DuPont, an American automotive paint manufacturer, had an 86% lower absenteeism rate for their employees with disabilities. Our safety rating was highest in our sector because workers with disabilities don’t take chances and deaf workers are more aware of their surroundings, whereas non-disabled workers take more chances and break safety rules.

Innovation is also increased by including those who have unique problem-solving skills. Clearly, a wheelchair user navigates the world in a different way. That leads to innovative thinking.

Clint’s life has been remarkable. He is a trailblazer, setting a path to employment for so many others with Down syndrome. Being successful in full-time, competitively paid employment was an anomaly 25 years ago, whereas today we expect it for our children.

Clint has been interviewed many times for print, radio and TV shows. He had a feature-length documentary made on his life and starred in a CBC News mini documentary, “Return on Disability,” which was rewritten into a feature length documentary in 2016. Peter Mansbridge said it was the best documentary he has ever seen.

About five years ago, the federal government’s standing committee on intellectually disabled Canadians asked Clint and I to sit before them in Ottawa. I asked Clint if he was up for it, and sure enough, he wanted to do it. We arrived in Ottawa on a freezing December day and after going through multiple security checks we were ushered into a large room with long U-shaped tables. There were 15 members on this committee from three different political parties. We were in the room first, and I asked Clint if he was still okay with this. He replied that he was fine.

The Members of Parliament entered the room and took a seat. Behind the Chair of the committee was a bank of TV cameras. Each person had a microphone, and Clint and I sat at a small table at the top of the ‘U.’ As the red lights flickered to life on each camera, the Chair asked for quiet in the room.

Slowly the hubbub died down until there was a moment of silence. At that point, Clint pressed the on switch of his microphone, looked at me and said, “Would now be a good time to ask for a raise?”

It was the first time in years that all three parties were laughing at the same joke. 

Yes, it was funny, but more importantly, it showed how Clint had gone from a young man who most likely would have been thrown into a sheltered workshop back in the early 90’s to a thriving, confident adult who married his high school sweetheart, bought his own condo and lives life to the fullest – all because he had a real job for real pay. 

Just like you and me.

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