Don’t Lower the Bar – Whitepaper by Mark Wafer

A Canadian business owner challenges the private sector to employ PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

by Mark Wafer
Tim Hortons Franchise Owner
Board Member, Canadian Business SenseAbility
April 2014


Business leaders spend huge sums of money searching for talent. As the owner of seven franchised Tim Hortons restaurants in Toronto, I see the intense competition for skilled and unskilled employees, and know it will only get worse as our labour force continues to shrink. Some Canadian companies go offshore to solve the problem, but this is a restrictive and costly solution.

Canada has an untapped educated, skilled, innovative and work-ready talent pool right here at home: people with disabilities.

At 15.9% of the population, people with disabilities constitute Canada’s largest minority group. And, we can all join this group at a moment’s notice through an accident or illness. Shockingly, StatsCan reports that only 51% of the 5.4 million Canadians with a disability have any labour market attachment and, even then face a 25% unemployment rate. We know however, that if we included all those who have not been able to land even their first job and those who have given up trying, conservative estimates peg the unemployment rate at closer to 70 %. Compare this to Canada’s 24% unemployment rate during the Great Depression, which was considered a national tragedy.

Over the past three decades, governments and other stakeholder groups have spent millions of dollars to understand why the employment situation is so intractable, and what could be done about it. Ironically, the source of most job opportunities – the private sector – has generally not been a focus of study, as there is limited data on employing people with disabilities. Accordingly, researchers tend to champion the work of governments, recommend increased spending, bolster stakeholder groups and develop policies and procedures.

What’s been missing in the quest to reverse the chronic unemployment rate for persons with disabilities is the understanding that there is a solid business case: real proof rather than anecdotal evidence. In recent years, that situation has begun to change. There is now hard data from a wide range of companies proving that an inclusive workforce not only works, but works well.

I have employed almost 100 people with disabilities in 19 years of business, all in meaningful and competitively paid positions (never below minimum wage). I train my employees and enroll them in on-going education and training programs (‘programs’ not sure what this means unless it’s as I have added – on-going…) – and I expect a return on my investment. I have never accepted a subsidy to hire a worker, because I can’t invest in a person paid by someone else. I only hire the best workers; there has never been a position in my business called “charity.”

This philosophy has helped my business succeed, not only by reducing costs and building morale but by positioning me to better access a massive market opportunity.

This report summarizes my own experience employing people with disabilities, and supports my findings with those from other private sector organizations. My goal is to provide researchers with real private sector employment data that can be used in future studies, and to assure other Canadian businesses that they can achieve the same competitive advantage – and passionately encourage them to try.

Tone from the top

CEOs are often unaware of the influence they wield over employees. This was made clear to me recently when the CEO of a UK multinational relayed that he had mused aloud about a possible idea. Shortly after, he dismissed the idea only to discover that the plan had already been implemented!

Imagine what would happen in a corporation of 100,000+ employees if the CEO announced that the company was going to provide equal opportunity to people with disabilities. Not only would the corporation reap the benefits of lower costs, increased employee engagement and customer goodwill, shareholders would too. This isn’t wishful thinking. New York organization Fifth Quadrant Analytics has developed an index showing that the stock price of companies with an overall accessibility strategy that includes hiring people with disabilities consistently outperform the Dow.

When it comes to people with disabilities, the list of myths and stereotypes is lengthy and entrenched.[1] Employers are driven by fear of the unknown as well as fear of what they think they “know”: that hiring people with disabilities means lowering the bar. Alternatively, employers may fall back on a single negative experience: “I hired a person with a disability but it didn’t work out, so I won’t do it again.” Applying that same logic to the non-disabled talent pool would have some serious implications for a company’s hiring strategy!

The truth is that employees with disabilities generally work harder, and are more productive, safer, and have better attendance records. But without a top-down commitment to new thinking, companies won’t make the necessary changes. A human resources manager charged by a CEO with hiring “the best and brightest” who hasn’t been equipped with the confidence and facts to put forward a disabled candidate isn’t likely to do so.

Tone from the top melts the permafrost of middle management – often the largest part of the workforce in major corporations – a group that will not mobilize unless the CEO sets the tone. Lukewarm decision making-from the executive regarding diversity initiatives aren’t powerful enough – only a firm decision by a CEO that “we are going to include the disabled” will suffice.

Quantifiable benefits

One of the largest costs in business today is employee turnover. Some turnover is healthy, but in the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) sector, turnover is alarmingly high due to low wages and the transient nature of workers. The average turnover rates in the QSR sector ranges from 70% to about 95% depending on location and other factors.  The turnover rate for part-time workers can be higher than 150%.

The benefits my company has accrued by employing people with disabilities are numerous and quantifiable, and can be accessed by any organization. There is no “one sector” where people with disabilities can contribute – like any talent pool, their skills are various, wide and deep.

  1. TurnoverOne of the largest costs in business today is employee turnover. Some turnover is healthy, but in the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) sector, turnover is alarmingly high due to low wages and the transient nature of workers. The average turnover rates in the QSR sector ranges from 70% to about 95% depending on location and other factors. The turnover rate for part-time workers can be higher than 150%.

    While my local colleagues had typical turnover rates in 2013, the rate for my stores was 38%. In fact, my rate has averaged 40% over the past five years. With the cost of replacing a front-line QSR employee at approximately $4,000 (for advertising, interviewing, selection, training, uniforms, lower initial productivity), the savings are significant.

    Today, 43 of my 250 employees, or 16%, have a disability. These people work in every department including management, and place extraordinary value on their jobs. The average tenure of one of my non-disabled front line workers is 16 months. For an employee with a disability, the tenure is seven years.

    Interestingly, employing people with disabilities has also increased the tenure of non-disabled staff. These employees want to be a part of an inclusive environment, surmising perhaps that if the company is looking after “that demographic” they too will be taken care of. Being inclusive changes the culture of the workplace, a point made clear by Walgreens VP Randy Lewis after building capacity of workers with disabilities in the company’s Connecticut distribution center to 47%.[2]

  2. AbsenteeismStudies show that including people with disabilities reduces absenteeism by as much as 86%. I can vouch for this statistic. In 2011 none of my employees with disabilities took a single hour of sick time. They booked off time for appointments and vacations, but none called in sick during the full 12 month period.

    Why is absenteeism among employees with disabilities so low? I suspect that they believe that they must work harder, be on time and not call in sick because if they do, the manager will point to the disability and say “I told you so.” While I don’t hold my employees with disabilities to a higher standard, they have learned to do so themselves – an unfair reality.

    The rate of absenteeism can be influenced by many variables (e.g. the business, the sector, the parameters in which people work, expectations), but it always has a significant cost. In my particular workplace, that cost is $49.22 for each and every no-show or late sick call of a front line, minimum-wage employee. This amount takes into consideration three factors: the time taken by management to identify a replacement, the time it takes the replacement to arrive on site, and the associated lost productivity.[3] I average 3.8 sick days per month; the average in the QSR industry is nine days. This means my absenteeism cost me $187.04 compared $442.98 for an average store.

  3. ProductivityThere is a direct relationship between longer tenure and productivity, as employees become progressively more productive as they grow accustomed to the job. If a business has lower turnover, the business will have better productivity – meaning that employing people with disabilities will often serve to increase productivity.

    The fact that productivity levels can increase is borne out by findings from Walgreens. The company compared the productivity of employee groups with and without disabilities doing the same tasks in 31 distribution centres and found that in 18 DCs there was no difference. However, in 10 of the 13 remaining locations, employees with a disability were more productive. [4]

    I employ a worker, Brigita, who is profoundly deaf, as a baker. During her interview, I asked Brigita how she could get around the audible warnings used by the ovens. She noted the timer and asked what it was used for; I explained that when it reached zero, it was time to take the product out of the oven. She then asked why we had audible warnings and I explained that when those went off, it was time to take the product out of the oven. Her response was that audible warnings were for lazy bakers. She got the job.

    Brigita’s productivity was 18.4% better than her predecessor who had baked for nine years – and she raised the bar. Her performance became the production standard that all bakers in the store were expected to maintain.

  4. SafetySafety is not adversely affected by including people with disabilities in the workforce. In a 2002 study, DuPont noted that their safety record had improved 97% by including people with disabilities in their workforce.

    People with disabilities are very often likely to pay more attention to safety, less likely to be risk takers and more likely to follow policy. In the 19 years I have been in business, I have never made a workplace injury insurance claim for an employee with a disability.

    Companies often use safety as a crutch and a barrier, saying “My workplace isn’t safe” or “I can’t afford any more accidents and including the disabled will be disastrous for my safety record.” There is no evidence to support the myth that employees with disabilities will increase safety incidents. Further, insurance rates are not and cannot be increased, strictly on the basis that a worker has a disability; this is unlawful.

  5. InnovationIBM knows that students with disabilities graduating from university with degrees in high tech have enhanced problem-solving skills. Getting through a normal day in a wheelchair, for example, requires overcoming multiple obstacles. Individuals with disabilities are continually forced to innovate, and bring that valuable skill to their teams and employers. As an example, I hired a person who uses a wheelchair to take orders in a busy drive-thru where staff members were slow, disorganized and unmotivated. This employee found ways to maximize productivity which increased car counts and transactions.
  6. Employee MoraleInclusive hiring practices elevate the culture of the workplace, with people with disabilities themselves frequently being the ones to bring about improvements.

    Employees with intellectual disabilities are often extremely proud to be working at Tim Hortons and wear their uniform with great pride – not typically the case with non-disabled employees. However, they don’t want to be outdone by an employee with a disability, so the result is a marked improvement in uniform-wear across the entire staff; all a function of one intellectually challenged employee’s huge pride in the job.

    As my company became known as an inclusive employer, people with disabilities applied for jobs. We expected this – but we didn’t expect the number of non-disabled applicants who wanted to work in an inclusive workplace. As a result, I have not had to advertise for front line staff for many years.

  7. Access to the disability marketplacePeople with disabilities and their families and loved ones represent fifty-three percent of the population. When I ask CEOs to estimate the size of the disability-related demographic, they respond 1-5%, believing wrongly that it is a niche market. The buying power of the disability community exceeds $40 billion in Canada and $1 trillion globally. CEOs ignore these facts at their own peril.

The best practice is starting now

Most organizations have excellent diversity strategies – but diversity is what you decide it will be. Getting on board the bandwagon (e.g. focusing on women, minorities and the LGBT community) is less difficult than dealing with the unknown. So we accept the myths about people with disabilities and we let the world know we are getting ready by learning about best practices. The problem with getting ready is you rarely are.

An example of this is a discussion I had with the head of HR for an American multinational with 130,000 employees. This individual told me she was looking for the perfect position for a person with a disability. I asked her if she had a perfect position for a redhead. Perplexed, she responded, “Yes, we have 130,000.” After some awkward silence she said “Oh, I get it now.” However, I met this HR chief once again years later and she reiterated that they were still looking for that perfect role for a person with a disability – despite struggling to fill 6,000 positions.

Today in Canada there are 795,000 job-ready individuals with disabilities looking for work of which 340,000 have post-secondary education. In Ontario universities and colleges alone, there are 43,000 students with disabilities, and this figure grows 15% every year. Compare this with the United States’ growth rate of 1.5%.

We are creating a massive, well-educated and motivated workforce, yet we still refuse to offer them jobs.

Stakeholder roles

Appealing to a business owner’s bottom line is the best way to foster significant change in the private sector; therefore, the business case for employing people with disabilities should be used to move the needle. Quite frankly, no business owner should ignore the evidence in this report unless they have already made enough money.

It is vital that government, stakeholder groups and service agencies all buy into the business case for inclusion, but they should not be relied on to convince businesses of its validity. CEOs will be more receptive to hearing the facts from private sector peers who speak in the business language.

To do this, agencies must connect with business champions who are prepared to call, email or visit their colleagues – champions who have employed people with disabilities and understand the value. This shouldn’t be a difficult task – in 20 years, I have never had a business owner who has hired a person with a disability turn me down when I asked them to back up my claims about the business case. A new private sector organization called the Canadian Business SenseAbility[5] is positioning itself to lead in this area.

That being said, the support required to ensure success must come from agencies that understand the business needs in their community and governments that realize the value of supported employment. By “supported,” I mean pre-employment training for those who need it and an ongoing relationship with the employer. I regard the agencies I work with in Toronto as business consultants who are there to solve some of my business problems – in particular, helping reduce turnover and absenteeism by providing long-term, capable and motivated employees. These agencies have been the cornerstone of my success, but each company must establish the standards and expectations for their own business and for the agencies they work with.

Agencies who represent people with disabilities can offer brilliant support, or they can themselves be a huge barrier – often by limiting their mindset and approach. For example, 80% of people with an intellectual disability are employed in the service sector. They don’t typically work in manufacturing, oil and gas or banking because no one has approached them. Currently, most agencies in Canada don’t look beyond the obvious easy on-boarders – it’s up to the private sector to understand the business case and create demand.

Fixing the system

A significant barrier to inclusion is the system, which it is driven by process rather than basic common sense. Support payments, paperwork, archaic rules and regulations all add up to a life of misery. The system is not designed for reasonable outcomes; spending is misapplied and is increasing at rates that should worry all taxpayers. In fact, as employers begin to embrace the concept of inclusion, the system becomes the biggest barrier.

One of my best employees of all time was Marc, who was in charge of logistics. Marc has a mental health disability and a serious physical disability. He worked with me for eleven years and received the overall employee of the year award twice – the only employee to do so in 20 years of business.

In 2012, Marc identified a new drug that would help his physical disability, but in order to have the government pay for this drug (it was not covered by OHIP and cost $3,000 per month), Marc had to be unemployed and on social assistance. So he was forced to resign. The Province of Ontario lost a taxpayer and created a financial burden; I lost a valuable employee who now lives in poverty – all because a process demanded it. To understand the greater economic impact, consider the reverse: for every 212 individuals who join the workforce, the economy saves $1million. (Based on people working an average of 25 hours per week at minimum wage)

Misguided processes also allow unscrupulous agencies to profit by focussing on the “low hanging fruit” – only taking on individuals with disabilities for whom they can easily find work, or placing them in nominal positions that contribute to on-going under-employment. Government billing funding schemes are partly to blame, but these agencies are not representing the disability community; they are representing themselves.

Families and individuals

There are very few people with disabilities who don’t want to contribute to society and live a full life. Unless we give these people the chance they deserve, they will never grow and gain the confidence the rest of us take for granted. But an attitude change is often required within families. When a child has a disability, parents and caregivers are understandably worried about safety and whether the child will be looked after in the future. It takes a leap of faith and courage to accept that a child with a disability can function independently, including financially. (Support payments for a children with disabilities often go directly to mom and dad, but when the individual finds a job, the paycheck goes to the individual.)

Rather than focusing on assuring their child with a disability that they will be “looked after,” I believe parents should focus on communicating to their child that work is both expected and possible.

And it is possible! No-one is immune from making assumptions about people with disabilities, not even families and certainly not employers or agencies. I have hired almost 100 people with disabilities in 19 years and I have been wrong 100 times when trying to predict their capabilities. The capacity of an individual with a disability, especially an intellectual disability, is far higher than we expect – but this is not realized until they get into the workforce and away from their parents, caregivers and social service agencies. With an employer who has expectations, their confidence and capabilities emerge.

The reality is that a person with a disability has the same hopes, dreams, wants and needs as a person without a disability. This includes having a meaningful and competitively paid job so that they can live a full life. After all, having a job is one of the most important aspects of our lives; it allows us to participate fully in society.


To help children with disabilities achieve the full participation they deserve, I challenge our school systems and post-secondary education institutions to do a better job of increasing the soft skills employers require. University students with disabilities are often shut out of summer and part time jobs, as well as opportunities to volunteer or join sports teams – all of which help build soft skills. When they graduate, their resumes are blank. The best indicator of success in landing a job after graduation is having a job before graduation; this applies to disabled and non-disabled individuals. It is for this reason that I have encouraged our governments to provide funding to ensure students with disabilities get summer and part-time, after school jobs.

Lessons from the past

Many of today’s arguments regarding the barriers to inclusion have been used before, primarily during two periods of recent history: the civil rights movement and the push to include women in the workforce.

It seems unbelievable to us today that business owners argued that black people and women work less safely, are less productive and innovative, require extra supervision and time off, and are a burden to the workplace. Hard wiring takes passion, energy, and commitment to change – but it can and must be done.

Today, it is the turn of the disability community to emerge from this discrimination. The private sector has the power to rally support and bring about change and achieve what the NAACP and the Women’s Movement did for the massive and marginalized populations they represented.

I encourage all Canadian business leaders to take on this vitally important challenge.


[1] Review an excellent compilation of myths and stereotypes at: Myths About Hiring Persons with Disabilities (pdf)

[2]James P. Kaletta, Douglas J. Binks & Richard Robinson, “Creating an Inclusive Workplace: Integrating Employees with Disabilities into a Distribution Centre Environment,” Professional Safety, June 2012, page 71. Creating an Inclusive Workplace (pdf)

[3] This is based on a manager earning a salary of $45k taking 45 minutes to find a replacement who will be one hour late, and a $6.78 loss in sales per worker in a five person team.

[4] Creating an Inclusive Workplace, page 63

[5] Canadian Business SenseAbility is activating learning from a 2012 panel on labour market opportunities for persons with disabilities, Rethinking DisAbility in the Private Sector.