Module 4: Ableism and Accessibility

In the Workplace

Ableist perceptions embedded in recruitment, hiring and retention practices contribute to low rates of employment among persons with disabilities as compared with non-disabled persons. 2017 estimates from Statistics Canada indicate that 59% of persons with disabilities aged 25 to 64 years old were employed as compared with 80% of non-disabled persons. The percentage of people employed drops with the severity of one’s disability. 76% of persons with mild disabilities were employed, whereas 31% of persons with very severe disabilities were in the workforce (Morris et al.). About 37% of employed persons with disabilities require one or more workplace accommodations such as modified work stations, flexible work arrangements, and assistive devices (“Workplace Accommodations for Employed Persons with Disabilities”).


Ableism dictates a multi-pronged approach that includes eliminating or reducing barriers to access to physical and social spaces, learning activities, and workplaces. Therefore, ensuring access is a core pillar of diversity and inclusion strategies. Accessibility refers to the provision and design of services, devices, products, and environments that resolve or mitigate barriers for persons with disabilities. Accessibility includes universal design and accommodation. Universal design is “the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (United Nations). Accommodation refers to procedures and processes that enable persons with disabilities to fulfill work and/or learning activities.

It is standard operating practice for Canadian higher education institutions to maintain an academic accommodation support office for students with disabilities. Typically, students with disabilities must register with the accommodation office to obtain support. This involves a process that centres on disclosure of disabilities, formal letters of accommodations issued to instructors that include the name of the student, the type of accommodation, and an agreement between the student and instructor. No additional information, such as the nature of the disability, is disclosed in the letter to safeguard student privacy. These procedures ensure individualized support tailored to student requests rather than a fixed menu of options. In workplaces, the human resources department undertakes similar responsibilities, although procedures may vary.


Obtaining accommodation requires disclosing needs and presenting biomedical or psychological evidence to support a claim of disability. The decision to disclose may be fraught with tension over whether, when, and how much to disclose to a potential or current employer, or educational institution. At this point, it is important to differentiate between visible and non-visible disabilities. People with visible disabilities may deal with environmental barriers to access, and overt forms of bias, like pitying and infantilizing comments, or questions based on misassumptions about their capabilities. They often have to “prove” their competence. In contrast, people with non-visible disabilities may have to “prove” and defend their claims of impairment if they are to build access, since their needs are not obvious and can be doubted and questioned. For example, they may need to justify why they need flexible deadlines (Trybus et al. 63). At the same time, because they are able-passing, they may have greater discretion whether to (not) disclose a disability. All persons, regardless of the type of disability, need only disclose relevant information about their condition as it relates to the work they are required to perform.

Some persons may choose not to disclose to their employer or educational institution. For example, a student did not declare her dyslexia on enrolment at university, and only did so after failing the first round of exams. While this omission may appear irrational since it denied them the supports necessary for effective learning, research suggests that student disclosure depends on a number of factors including disability type, visibility of the disability, severity of the condition and its impact on job performance, and stigma associated with the condition (Lindsay et al. 1916-1918). Therefore, decision-making involves weighing the potential benefits against anticipated adverse consequences based on judgements on how a request will be received – whether with trust and care or with skepticism and stigmatization by a supervisor, peer or co-worker.

The issue of timing is often an issue for job-seekers, particularly those with an invisible disability. They may choose to disclose this in their application, during an interview, following an offer of employment, or later. There is no right/wrong answer. Alternatively, some persons may opt for non-disclosure as a strategic choice based on previous experiences to avoid being seen as pitiable and incapable and lowering expectations. Given that not all persons with disabilities choose to disclose, it is important for post-secondary institutions and workplaces to create environments conducive to disclosure. Moreover, disclosure is not necessarily a one-time action, but an ongoing process (Lindsay et al. 1918). Disclosure may have to be revisited, as needs change.

The Duty to Accommodate

A request for accommodation triggers a duty to accommodate based on legal standards, including the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA). This means that employers are obliged to eliminate or diminish discriminatory practices by adjusting their rules, policies and processes to ensure that a person can participate in learning activities and fulfill their responsibilities in the workplace.

Examples of the duty to accommodate are:



  • Providing accommodations for interviews or tests that are requisite for recruitment.
  • Providing translators and/or assistive devices, such as special monitors and software programs for employees with visual or hearing impairments.
  • Permitting an employee to attend a medical appointment.
  • Making a workspace accessible to persons with mobility impairments (“What is The Duty to Accommodate?“).

Undue Hardship

This duty to accommodate holds unless it entails undue hardship. While a degree of hardship is acceptable, an employer may be exempt from accommodating workers if they can show:

  • Measurable costs related to the accommodation that poses a significant burden on an organization.
  • A risk to the health and safety of the person seeking accommodation, other employees, tenants, staff or other service users.
  • Other possible funding streams (i.e., government grants) that would offset the costs of accommodation have been explored and/or exhausted (“14. Undue Hardship“).

For example, a small airline company can claim undue hardship to defend its decision to terminate a pilot after he was diagnosed with a visual impairment that left him with limited peripheral vision and unable to fly planes. The airline could argue that, since it has a small fleet and few employees, it could not offer him an alternative position. So keeping him on the payroll would cause undue hardship (“What is The Duty to Accommodate?“).

The current legal provisions for accommodation do not guarantee social inclusion. The duty to accommodate is triggered by a request for accommodation and verification of disability. However, the risk of stigmatization and discrimination associated with ableism, and the desire to protect their medical information may dissuade persons from disclosing their disabilities. Moreover, while the standard of undue hardship allows for reasonable accommodations, persons requiring significant support may be excluded if an employer successfully claims prohibitive costs.


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