Meeting the Workplace Needs of Canada's Disabled High-Tech Workers


Pursuing a career in the sciences can be a daunting endeavour. From the challenges of coursework both in and outside the lab during postsecondary studies, to the challenges posed by the work a new scientist or engineer faces when entering the workforce, there is no question the learning curve can be high.

Add a disability into the mix, and those challenges grow yet again. But Reid Mulligan hasn't let any of that deter him. Mulligan graduated with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 2002, from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Although being an engineering student with cerebral palsy set him apart from others in his program, Mulligan says he got through most of the trials and tribulations sent his way just the same as any other student would.

Mulligan, who used a wheelchair to move around the campus but is able to walk when not traveling long distances, says the chair did pose some challenges at school, such as in the tight spaces of research labs.

"Lab situations were a bit difficult," he says. "But I was able to get up out of the chair when I needed to. If I had had to be in the chair all the time, it would have been harder. Those labs weren't too accessible."

Mulligan says being at Carleton University was helpful in general in terms of accessibility. The university's buildings are all connected by an underground tunnel system that, while designed in large part to allow students to avoid the harsh winter weather in Ottawa, provide a quick and easy way for students with disabilities to get from class to class.

Similar to Carleton, many postsecondary campuses in Canada offer fairly good accessibility for students with disabilities. Perhaps as a consequence, a substantial number of Canadians with disabilities hold college or university degrees. According to 1998 statistics from the Canadian Council on Social Development ( CCSD), more than one-third of persons with disabilities in the country have graduated from an institute of higher learning.

But, the representation of people with disabilities in the labour force as a whole, and in the science and technology fields in particular, remains low. Furthermore, 1998 research by CCSD indicates that of postsecondary graduates age 16 to 34, almost 40% of those with disabilities were out of the workforce for that entire year. By contrast, the figure among those without disabilities was only 2.8%.

Frank Smith, National Coordinator of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students ( NEADS)--an organization dedicated to aiding and improving the educational experiences of postsecondary students with disabilities--says that the high number of unemployed college- and university-educated people with disabilities is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is the different levels of accommodations found on campuses and in the workplace.

"It may be easier to succeed at school than in the workplace, because many campuses already have disability service centres for students and accommodations-related equipment available," says Smith. "Companies don't always have the resources available, in terms of accommodations programs or adequate building renovations."

Sanjeet Singh echoes Smith's thoughts about the divide between accommodations available at school and in the workforce. Singh, a NEADS board representative who completed an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of Calgary and is currently working towards a master of science with a focus on GPS systems, has a visual impairment.

Singh says that he required a computer monitor larger than the standard size to complete his lab work, because he is unable to see the data on a regular-sized screen. Although he says it took a lot of time going through different administrative channels before he got what he needed, Singh ended up getting a 36-inch screen to make use of at school. What he didn't approach the disability service providers on campus to obtain, Singh says, he was able to find through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

But his experience in the workplace has been different. Singh says an internship opportunity at Nortel was a challenge for both him and the company and introduced him to some of the accommodation issues he may face throughout his working career.

Singh uses ZoomText, a software program that magnifies the size of computer fonts for easier readability. As a result, he says he again required a larger computer screen to properly display his work so he could read it. Although he eventually got the larger screen, Singh says it took a good 8 months before it became available.

"The internship was a major transition issue for me," Singh says. "There were certain expectations on both sides. I wasn't sure what to expect in the work environment, and companies aren't always equipped for such sudden challenges."

Smith says NEADS is beginning to expand its mandate beyond helping students with disabilities through postsecondary education, by attempting to first bridge the gap between qualified students with disabilities and employers willing to hire people with disabilities, and then by attempting to provide employers with information on the effective accommodation of employees with disabilities.

"Companies are telling us in some cases that they're willing to hire and accommodate people with disabilities, but they're not getting the applications, Smith says. "Other companies are already hiring people with disabilities, but they may not all be model companies in terms of provision of accommodations. That's where we come in."

A NEADS project currently in the works is the creation of a guidebook for employers. The book will include information on how best to advertise job vacancies to postsecondary graduates with disabilities, how to accommodate, and what organizations employers can turn to for help on these matters.

The book, scheduled for publication late this summer, is a follow-up on the organization's Employment Connections: A Transition Toolkit for Youth with Disabilities , which provides graduates with disabilities information on companies and organizations with programs designed to employ skilled people with disabilities. Both publications are a direct result of the organization's Student Leadership and Employment Forums, which have been held across the country over the past 5 years and bring students and employers together to discuss key issues.

NEADS also provides valuable information on its Web site for students with disabilities in school and those entering the workforce, as well as for disability service providers and employers. CampusNet, a NEADS online project, provides a venue for student leaders with disabilities across the country to communicate electronically. Come September, that venture will also include a job bank for students, which Smith hopes will further assist persons with disabilities make their presence felt in the workplace.

The Government of Canada is currently also attempting to increase the percentage of persons with disabilities within its science- and technology-based departments. Eight of those departments have joined to create the STARR (Science and Technology Abilities Recruitment and Retention) Initiative. Interested applicants can apply to positions through the Federal Students Work Experience Program, if still in school, or through the Postsecondary Recruitment Program if a graduate. Both programs are accessible at

For employers interested in assistance with workplace accommodation, the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work, the Government of Canada's information page for employers of persons with disabilities, and the Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres are but three excellent places to turn to.

Reid Mulligan knows how challenging the employment situation can be for science graduates with disabilities. He says he has actively looked for work in his field since graduating, although nothing has turned up so far. Still, he remains positive.

"It's difficult, but that's also just how the market is right now," Mulligan says. "I'm trying to keep my knowledge up in the meantime, by reading my textbooks. And I'm starting to look at organizations that help people with disabilities find jobs. I'm not too worried."

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