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Young Asian account manager reviewing documents with an older latino man in an office.

You’ve likely heard of “DEI”, an acronym for “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”. Diversity refers to the presence of differences within a given setting; in the workplace, that may mean differences amongst people in race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and socioeconomic background. Equity is the act of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial, fair, and provide equal possible outcomes for every individual. Inclusion is the practice of making people feel a sense of belonging at work.

People with disabilities are often thought of as those in wheelchairs and with visible physical disabilities. However, most disability is non-apparent.

The next step in thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion at work is to re-frame the DEI conversation to one about “IDEA”- that is, Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility.

Including accessibility as a central pillar of our initiatives helps us to think beyond conventional ideas of disability and start to think about access to opportunity for all people. A well-known analogy says:

  • Diversity is where everyone is invited to the party.
  • Inclusion means that everyone gets to contribute to the playlist.
  • Equity means that everyone has the opportunity to dance with as much space as they need.
  • Accessibility means everyone can get in the door.

So, while diversity and inclusion are our goals, we can’t get there without a specific focus on accessibility, on opening the door for everyone. For if people can’t “get in the door”, how can we achieve our diversity goals?

How is a disability defined?

The most common forms of disability in Canada, and in the Canadian workforce, are related to pain, mobility, flexibility, and mental health. A large proportion of disability in Canada is also comprised of blind/low vision, Deaf/hard of hearing, intellectual, developmental, and learning disabilities – all disabilities that may not be evident to the onlooker.

Common Terms and Definitions

Below are some common terms and their definitions:

Accessibility refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people who experience disabilities. Accessibility means giving people of all abilities the opportunities to participate fully in everyday life. Ontario has laws to improve accessibility for people with disabilities, including the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and the Ontario Human Rights Code. There are also accessibility laws in Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Manitoba and federally.  

In the case of a facility, readily usable by individuals with different disabilities; in the case of a program or activity, presented or provided in such a way that a particular individual can participate, with or without auxiliary aid(s); in the case of electronic resources or web interfaces, accessible with or without assistive computer technology.

An adjustment or modification to make a program, facility, job or resource accessible to a person with a disability.

In employment, accommodation is to address and ameliorate disability-related barriers that impact an employee’s ability to perform the essential duties of their job. Employees must make their accommodation needs known, and job accommodations are then developed to meet individual employee’s needs. Accommodations for an individual worker may also increase accessibility for others in the workplace. Accommodations, once made, will need to be re-visited periodically, as an employee’s needs may change, especially with emergent disabilities related to ageing. Employers have a legal duty to accommodate workers on the job, up to the point of “undue hardship”, a high legal bar under provincial human rights codes.

Adaptive or assistive technology
Hardware or software products or features that provide access to a computer that is otherwise inaccessible to an individual with a disability. 

Accessibility Acts (legislation)
Five Canadian provinces (Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Quebec), as well as the Federal Government currently have legislation (laws) mandating accessibility related policies and actions to improve opportunities for persons with disabilities. The Acts are the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA); the Accessible Manitoba Act (AMA); the Act Respecting Accessibility in Nova Scotia (NSAA); Quebec’s Act Respecting Equal Access to Employment in Public Bodies; and the Accessible Canada Act (ACA). British Columbia has recently (2021) passed an accessibility act (BCAA) and is in the process of developing standards.
Collectively, these Acts address the removal of barriers in Customer Service/Goods and Services; Information and Communication; Employment, The built environment/design of public spaces; and Transportation. Each Act, in each jurisdiction, has its own requirements for compliance with the law, and its own mechanism for enforcement.  

Age-related Disabilities/Impairments
The aging process is characterized by the acquisition of progressive multiple minor impairments predominately related to sight, hearing, dexterity, mobility, and cognition. In combination, these can lead to high levels of disability and dependency. While aging itself is not considered a disability, a persons’ accessibility needs may change as they age.

Alternate Formats
Formats useable by people with disabilities. These may include, but are not limited to, Braille, ASCII text, large print, and recorded audio. As part of compliance with accessibility legislation, some critical information for employees and clients must be available in alternate formats upon their request.

Alternate Methods
Different means of providing information, including product documentation, to people with disabilities. Alternate methods may include, but are not limited to, voice, fax, relay service, TTY, Internet posting, captioning, text-to-speech synthesis, and audio description.

Assistive Technology or Assistive Device
Any item, piece of equipment, or system, that is commonly used to increase, maintain, or improve accessibility for individuals with disabilities. Includes items such as communication devices, adapted appliance for accessible living, environmental control devices, modified housing, adapted computers and peripherals (mice, etc), and specialized software. 

A barrier is a circumstance or obstacle that prevents full and equitable usability of a space, device, tool, or digital environment. For people with disabilities, barriers can take many forms including attitudinal, communication, physical, policy, programmatic, social, and transportation. Removing and preventing barriers increases accessibility.

The 2019 Accessible Canada Act defines disability as “any impairment, including a physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive, learning, communication, or sensory impairment — or a functional limitation — whether permanent, temporary, or episodic in nature, or evident or not, that, in interaction with a barrier, hinders a person’s full and equal participation in society.

We see in this definition that a disability can be apparent or non-apparent, chronic, sudden, or intermittent, and can take many forms.

Disability Confidence:
Disability confidence refers to having knowledge about, comfort with, and understanding of how to include people with disabilities in the workplace.  Organizations and leaders grow their disability confidence by interacting/working with those with disabilities to improve positive attitudes, social inclusion, and empathy. At the same time, companies enhance their understanding of disability, and develop ways to removing barriers and increase accessibility. 

Medical model and social (de-medicalized) models of disability:
The “medical model of disability frames disability as a physical or mental (biological) limitation of a person, whose actions and self-advocacy are assumed to be the primary solutions for improving their experiences in life. Though outdated, this perception is still the more common way of thinking about and understanding disability.

A newer understanding of disability, known as the “social model”, understands disability as the result of environments, attitudes and social norms that make the world unwelcoming to the range of humans’ physical and mental differences and prevents some people from full participation in society. It is the experience of inequity that create disability.

Accessibility Acts federally and across the provinces are put into action through the creation of accessibility standards. These standards are laws that apply to individuals, governments, and public and private sector organizations and are designed to improve accessibility. The accessibility standards in each province outline the legal requirements to identify, remove and prevent barriers, and contain timelines for the implementation of required measures.

Universal Design:
Universal design (sometimes also called inclusive design or barrier-free design) is the design and structure of an environment, process, or plan so that it can be understood, accessed, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age or ability. Principles of universal design include: design that is simple, flexible and intuitive to use; design that requires low physical effort and has a high tolerance for error (the design of the structure or process minimizes the potential for harm that could come from incorrect or accidental use); universal design avoids segmenting or stigmatizing all users; and universal design strives to make information perceptible to all users, presenting essential information (job training information as an example) in as many ways and formats as possible.

Quick Check List for Ontario Employers

  1. Review your accessibility requirements at
  2. Make sure you are meeting every requirement that is currently in effect for your organization, as of January 1, 2017.
  3. File your accessibility compliance report at
Black computer programmer and his colleague with disability cooperating while working at corporate office.

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