Stephanie Cadieux on Accessible Workplaces

Episode #26 – Why You Need to Embrace an Accessible Workplace

In this episode of Relationships at Work, Russel chats with Canada’s first Chief Accessibility Officer Stephanie Cadieux on the importance and benefits of embracing an accessible workplace.

A few reasons she is awesome – she is Canada’s first Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO) serving as an independent special advisor to the Ministry of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion. As CAO, she’ll monitor and report on systemic and emerging accessibility issues, and produce an annual report on progress and outcomes achieved under the Accessible Canada Act. She’s a former British Columbia MLA (member of the legislative assembly), and former BC Minister of Children and Family Development and Minister of Social Development. Before all that, she was the Marketing and Development Director at the BC Paraplegic Association.

Connect with Stephanie on her platforms:

Resources Recommended by Stephanie

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The definition of accessibility.
  • What organizations are missing out on by not being accessible.
  • Where to start for your organization.
  • Where organizations go wrong.
  • What she fears the most in trying to implement accessibility standards.

“All [those with disabilities] want is to be included and to be seen as equal and valuable and to be able to access society in the way others do. It’s really not rocket science. But it is very exclusionary and very discriminatory if we don’t do it.”

Stephanie Cadieux

Resources Recommended by Stephanie

 

FULL TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW

Russel Lolacher
On the show today, it’s Stephanie Cadieux and here is why she is awesome. She is Canada’s first bold, underlined first of all of Canada, Chief Accessibility Officer (for you acronym nuts that C-A-O), and she serves as an independent special adviser to Canada’s Ministry of Employment, workforce development and disability inclusion. What does that actually mean? I’m so glad you asked. Well, that means she’ll monitor and report on systemic and emerging accessibility issues and produce an annual report on progress and outcomes achieved under the accessible Canada Act. But this is a new job. She’s had lots of past ones, which includes a former BC MLA (Minister of Legislative Assembly) told you we like to acronyms, a former Minister of Children and Family Development, Minister of Social Development. And before all that big “P” politics, she was Marketing and Development Director at the BC Paraplegic Association. Hi, Stephanie.

Stephanie Cadieux
Hi, Russel

Russel Lolacher
Oh, accessibility in the workplace. So many questions, especially its impact on the employee experience. So I want to get into that, but but I can’t, because I have to ask you another question first, which is, what’s your best or worst employee experience?

Stephanie Cadieux
Best employee experience… The most standout memory would be from when I was first starting my sort of management career. And I say that because I did some, you know, early stuff, but what as I was, I was starting to move up. And I had I had a manager that I was going to and asking, asking for advice, can I do this? Can I do that? Can we do this? Would that be okay? And me said to me one day, you know, Stephanie, sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. And I knew what I was getting at, I thought to myself, Wow, okay, so he trusts me. Right. And it was an opportunity, I think, for me to grow, and, and feel that I had the trust of, of my supervisor to do that the I had room to do that room to make mistakes room to try things. And I think that was really important in my growth as a as an employee, and as a manager, having that that sort of be given that trust, and be given, given that advice, which of course could be, could be viewed as very cheeky, and in some circumstances, probably not acceptable. However, if you take it out, take it out what I think what I think he meant by it, and what I do believe he meant by it was, was, it’s important to trust yourself and to do things, rather than always be looking for, you know, a structure that will allow it, I think, you know, sometimes you have to fiddle around the edges. And, and I think that has served me well going forward.

Russel Lolacher
Getting that kind of permission… As I even just talking today, someone didn’t realize the power she had, she was afraid to ask questions of certain people, because she didn’t know if she’d be allowed to email them. And like, just go email them. The worst thing people can say is that you shouldn’t have done that, but you’ve already done it. So it’s it’s funny that more leaders don’t understand that people put themselves in these boxes of prevention of, of lack of confidence of fear that their own leaders don’t realize are actually a part of this.

Stephanie Cadieux
I think that happens a lot. I think, especially in larger structures, people get removed. Right? And they think, of course, people know that. Well, no, people don’t. Right. And and sometimes the way we wait policies or directives come come down. They they are very limited. And very scary, in some cases, for those people, reading them at the, you know, on the frontline going, Oh, I guess I’m not allowed to do that anymore. And we don’t think about that impact. And we don’t think about the fact that they don’t just have the ability to knock on the door and say, Hello, I don’t know what this means. Or well, do you know how that’s going to impact me? You know, as a minister, when I would go out and talk to talk to our frontline people. One of the things I asked all the time was, what can I do? What can I change that will make your job better? And what can we do to make to work smarter? What do I not know about what’s going on here? And you get you know, most people are afraid to answer the question. But when people did, it was really insightful. And I think more more leaders need to ask those questions and being more curious, more intentionally.

Russel Lolacher
And I think the idea of curiosity and asking questions and understanding people comes in pretty handy with the topic we’re talking about today, which is accessibility. And there’s so many ways that I want to come at this and ask questions of it from a workplace culture, barriers, experience, but I think we can’t do any of that, until we define the term accessibility considering it feels so broad, but also feels very specific for some people. So can you sort of lay that out for us?

Stephanie Cadieux
Sure. Well, in the, let’s do it in the context of the Accessible Canada Act, That’s what I’m appointed under, and, and working with. Under the Act, disability… and I say, and I’m going, I’m going this route, because there’s no accessibility need, if there’s no disability, so we’ll go back We’ll go to disability. Disability is defined as an impairment, including a physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive learning, communication, or sensory impairment, or a functional limitation, whether permanent, temporary, or episodic in nature, evident or not, that in interaction with a barrier hinders a person’s full participation and equal participation in society. That’s a lot to absorb. But it’s important because it’s, it’s much broader than the average person understands disability. Most people understand disability as sort of a medical condition. Right. But it is much broader, and, and often much more invisible. And that’s why that broad definition is so important. It all it’s also important because of the word barrier. Because this is the social sort of this is based on a social model of disability, where the person isn’t the problem. The disability isn’t the problem, the barriers, the problem. So the barriers, then, by definition, are anything physical, architectural, technological, attitudinal, or based on information or communications or result of a policy or practice that hinders full and equal participation. So then accessibility falls from that. Accessibility is essentially the absence of those barriers. It is the removal, the proactive removal of those barriers, so that everyone, everyone, regardless of ability, or disability, can equally access the built environment, the culture, policies, products, communications, and so on. So you know it, there’s a lot to unpack there. But it is important, and I’m glad you asked to get the context. Because it’s not widely understood, beyond those people who are experiencing the barriers.

Russel Lolacher
And I’m worried when it comes to definitions like that, because it’s all encompassing, it’s also very government t. So it is, even the definition makes a lot of sense to me when you go through it. But if you gave this to an organization, a workplace and go here, here you go, I can see it being difficult for them, because it’s not bullet points. It’s not, oh, where’s my checklist of things that I can do? And then I’m successful. And look, I’m done now. It’s it can be even the definition seems almost like a barrier of the lack of being able to define it succinctly, which isn’t easy to do. So how do you approach that to leaders and organizations, the C-suite and so forth, who need to understand because they need to be more accessible.

Stephanie Cadieux
I think it’s really important to personalize… personalize it as much as possible. So some people will have had experience with this because themselves, they themselves may have a disability and just not disclosed. There are other people who have an ID or an education in disability, so to speak, and the need for accessibility because of a family member, or a close friend. But for those who who don’t, or who only have one perspective, I think personalizing in the in to understand that disability doesn’t just happen once or to some people, it often happens. In many ways over a person’s lifetime. People with one disability may have more than one disability. And as people age, almost everyone will acquire one. So at some point in your life, accessibility is going to matter to you, you just don’t know it yet. And if you think about it in that context, and you think about it in the context of that, you know, one in five Canadians, even even more than one in five Canadians now self identifies as having a disability of one form or another. That’s an awfully large part of the population. It’s a it’s a part of the population we cannot ignore. And if we ignore it, we ignore it to their detriment.

Russel Lolacher
I want to get into that more because you talk about one in five that’s A lot, that is a missed opportunity for any organization that isn’t embracing accessibility right now. What else are they missing by not understanding that this is a workforce that is available…?

Stephanie Cadieux
Well, you know, and I’ve tried to have this, this conversation with people to explain, okay, well, it’s, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s between 20 and 25% of the population. So it’s not a discrete group. It’s not, it’s not people with disabilities over there who never come here. It is 25% period across the board, every market every, every segment, every group, so whether it’s your customers, your employees, your stakeholders, their family members, your competitors, it is affecting, it is affecting your business. And today, with the with what we’re seeing in the labor force, the Human Resources crunch, what is being coined as the great resignation, we’re seeing help wanted ads everywhere, from restaurants, to, to emergency rooms. That’s fascinating and scary all at the same time. And businesses have to be worried about how they’re going to meet their labor needs, now and into the future. And with that, there is really no I can’t see how organizations can do that without considering the fact that right now there are 645,000 Canadians that are ready, willing and able to work, more than half of whom have a post secondary education, but because of their disability have yet to be able to link to the, to the to the job market. That’s a huge opportunity, a huge missed opportunity, and for all sorts of reasons. That that are all they all the tangible and intangible reasons why accessibility is important so that you can welcome those people into your business as employees, welcome them as customers, and reap all of the all of the benefits that research shows you benefit from when you have an inclusive culture.

Russel Lolacher
Give me some examples of what a North Star looks like for this. So organizations are figuring it out. They got it. They’re accessible now for obvious and not obvious disabilities. What is that? And I want to say utopia, because that feels like it’s never going to be gotten to its this is something that needs to happen. So what does that Northstar look like? And some examples of that I’m thinking like hiring practices and the workplace culture. What does that look like for you?

Stephanie Cadieux
Well, I mean, obviously, the first things people go to is, is the physical accessibility. It’s the it’s the thing people understand. Ramps, washrooms, power doors. Of course, that stuff’s really important. The fact that we’re still having to have those conversations is, is after 30 years with a disability to me, frustrating, but real. But it’s not just about that. So it’s understanding that it goes beyond that, it’s understanding that you may have an employee that needs voice to text, ability on on the telephones or large print materials, that all your employees are going to need access to the microwave in the break room, so it can’t be up on top of the fridge that your emergency procedures have to include how do we safely get people with disabilities out of the building? There’s so many so many considerations. And then, of course, the most important and the most difficult thing to change, because all of that ultimately, can be done with a checklist, right? What can’t be done with a checklist is the culture piece. And I think that’s the biggest challenge going forward. And it’s the piece we really need to work hardest to crack. We all have and carry biases. It’s our brain, you know, shortcutting. For us. It’s based on our experiences, it’s based on what we learned is based on what we’ve seen, is based on our impressions, and a lot of them are wrong, frankly. And so we carry them but we carry them unconsciously, we don’t go out and say, I don’t believe people with disabilities should work. But when they come to you, in an interview process, your unconscious bias kicks in and goes well. Well, this person clearly can’t do the job. But you don’t even know you’re doing that. And that’s the problem. Right? So you don’t even know that you’re using language in your culture at work that is offensive to people or bear or marginalizes people. You don’t know necessarily that the structures processes, ways you’ve structured your workplace, our keeping people with disabilities away or forcing them to leave if they acquire a disability on the job, which is a huge cost to Isn’t this so that culture piece I think is the most the most challenging. You need to feel to create a culture that is valuing of all persons contributions, regardless of how they show up. Understanding that there is value in that diversity, and welcoming those conversations where they need to happen, about how to how to make things work better. And if you can do that, then people will feel confident and trust that that they can be welcome in that organization that they can ask for what they need to be successful in their job. And that’s where you’re that’s where that that ultimate sort of aha moment I think happens in an organization. The other stuff is checkboxes. The other stuff is easy to achieve. If you if you just put it to task, it is not as easy to change culture.

Russel Lolacher
Absolutely. And that’s everybody’s like, “what’s my takeaway?” “What’s my actionable?” “What am I supposed to do?” “What’s my… give me a checklist! I’ll get through that.” It’s the mindset piece that I’m scared. It is pull much harder to change. We’ve talked about your Northstar. But where do you start? Because I immediately stumble and say, well, it was mandated to me or my boss told me to do X, Y, and Z. So I’ll do those things we’ll put in a ramp. I’m being very realistic. But where does where would you like to see the first steps be when it comes to culture change?

Stephanie Cadieux
It’s leading by example. Certainly. And I think, you know, I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to leave the impression that I don’t think organizations and and leaders are trying to do this. I actually think they are I’m actually very, very positive on the fact that, frankly, right now, I think, you know, sort of all the stars have aligned. The federal government has an act that says we’re going to do this in the federal government that has that says it will be so right now, it’s a matter of Yes, in the federal government and all of its related regulated entities to build that out and to do the work. But it will be so by 2040, the barriers will be eliminated by 2040. And that, as a federal government, making that statement, and that commitment, undoubtedly influences, other levels of government and the private sector, there are regulated private sector entities that will lead in this as a result. And there are private sector companies that are leading ahead of this, that are they’re trying to do this. I’ve worked with lots of leaders over time, that are really engaged and believes in this want to do the right things are trying to do the right things. But as you said also with as with the definition, it’s, it’s it’s a lot of work, and it’s not easy, and it will change. And the goalposts will likely move from time to time, we will learn how to do things better, how we can be even better, and things will change. 40 years ago, 40-50 years ago, we didn’t even have building codes that required accessibility. Building codes today have been modified many times and will likely change more times into the future. The idea though, is that culture shift, we’re getting to that place where people understand that this is the right thing to do. societally we accept that people with disabilities are equal citizens and should have equal ability to participate. That’s, that’s the first step. Now we have to action it. Now we have to make sure that our actions match our intention. And I do think that that will is out there. I don’t have rolled rose colored glasses that it will be easy or, or bumpy, a bumpy free ride, I believe there will be challenges. And part of my role is going to be to highlight the successes. And the challenges as we as we do this, and, and it won’t be done by one person, it won’t be done by one company, organization and government or one company. It is a it is going to be in an all of us effort, if we’re going to be successful, and and I’m just very hopeful that we’re at that stage now where people are ready to have that conversation.

Russel Lolacher
You’ve touched on it a bit, but whose responsibility is this? Because I’m picturing somebody in the C-suite going? Well, we’re going to create an accessibility workforce. Delegate delegate delegate. This actually, how does this happen? How does this change?

Stephanie Cadieux
It has to happen everywhere. So yes, though, that absolutely. The the the political leaders have said this will happen and they have to buy in at all levels. The CEOs have to buy in the boards have to buy in, everybody has to buy in. But if you’re going to change the culture your frontline has to buy into your customers have to buy him everybody has to be on this page, we have to as a society want this. But individually in companies and in inside government, it’s going to be the responsibility of everyone to see the barriers to, to do the work to remove them, to do that work on themselves to make sure that they’re welcoming of their fellow employees and their and their clients and people they serve. It’s on all of us. And, and no one, no one’s perfect. People will make mistakes, people will learn. And that’s, I think, curiosity and openness. Willingness to to learn, is going to be a huge part of this willingness to under to get to know your fellow employees, to get to know the people you work with the people in your company and say, Yeah, okay, I didn’t realize there was more, there was more than met the eye, I didn’t realize you were that that was a challenge. Now, I know that I can do something differently, to make that work better for you. And when we do that, together, we have success.

Russel Lolacher
I want to get more on the personal side of this. Especially because as much as we’re talking about, we need to, we should, obviously we’re going to do these the work, I get that. But I don’t know if people realize by not embracing accessibility, the damage they’re doing to their organization, because of all the people that are in that organization, that are afraid to raise their hand about their disabilities, or, and I was just talking to somebody on Facebook today that have managers that are like you don’t have a disability, because they like literally do not believe them, unless they have a doctor’s note or they can see it, it doesn’t exist. And that’s the person they have to talk to, to make their lives better at work. So what are the impacts of that?

Stephanie Cadieux
If we don’t have that culture, of understanding that culture of inclusion, then those those employees aren’t going to feel valued, aren’t going to feel safe, and are going to leave? Or not come at all. And that’s going to be harmful to the organization is going to be harmful? More broadly, as we’ve talked about, but there are I think there are lots of things that employers can do. And some of its some of its right at the front end, right. In terms of hiring practice, how do we? How do we get out of our own way with our hiring practices? And some of that is asking, asking some questions of yourself, right? Do you have the right expertise in house on this? Do? Are your people trained? And do they understand this? What are the processes? Is your website? The first barrier? Is your website accessible? Are you screening people out? By the way you’re writing job descriptions with things with elements that aren’t actually required for the job? Are you adding a requirement of recent experience when it really isn’t? really isn’t necessary? Because that can screen out somebody who’s had to take a leave for medical reasons? Are your processes accessible? So are you providing applicants with alternatives? So if you’re doing testing as a part of the process, is there? Are there alternative formats available for that test? If somebody is blind? Or has it as a cognitive impairment? What about? Are you using artificial intelligence in your screening tools? Or in your interviewing, interviewing? Are you doing video interviews? Because there’s a study out of the US right now, that is showing that some of these tools have potential to actually violate the Americans with Disabilities Act? So similarly, they would, they would be a problem up here. It’s really good reading in it. And it’s and it questions why we do things, right. Why don’t we put those things in place? Are they necessary? So I think some of that is, is easy. But that, again, that culture piece, is something that has to be nurtured over time. So you can ask the immediate questions, but you have to nurture the culture. And, and that’s an ongoing process.

Russel Lolacher
What scares you about all this? What scares you about a person that’s now the Chief Accessibility Officer of Canada and still working, you know, through your mandate and defining that and so forth? But you’ve also lived in this world for a very long time your work with accessibility Association, personal experiences, what are you afraid of?

Stephanie Cadieux
Apathy I am, I am afraid that that we will, we will say oh, we have this act here, here that we’re doing this work. We’ve put it on paper That won’t do it. That culture shift and the change in how we do things, that willingness to actually be different, has to live. And it has to, and it has to, it has to be a living thing. It is too easy for this to become one of those things that we just push over to the side and say, Well, we did it, you can’t do it once. It’s an ongoing thing. It’s forever. And that’s the piece that that worries me the most is that people will will do what they have to, in my role under the accessible Canada Act, those entities will do what they have to do. But then, but then there will be sort of a stagnation. So I think one of my roles is to remind them that it’s an ongoing process. It’s, it’s to champion it, it’s to challenge them, it’s to inspire them to keep going to keep it on the agenda to talk about the successes to talk about the wins, to celebrate steps forward, because it will not happen overnight. And we have to be aware and conscious of the fact that that even the steps have to be celebrated. And that’s a challenge because for a person, like me who’s lived this for 30 years, a person who has faced the barriers on ongoing basis for 30 years, you keep sort of feeling like I’m running my head against a wall, the disability community, the people who are living, this will be equally frustrated with a lack of progress, they will be equally disillusioned. If we don’t have change. All they want is to be included. And to be seen as equal and valuable, and to be able to access society in the way others do. It’s really not rocket science. But it is very exclusionary. And very discriminatory. If we don’t do that, you know, our human rights laws have been in place for for years and years and years, saying it’s illegal to discriminate based on disability. But it was up to the person with a disability to fight when they came up against a barrier. What is changing now is that the act says we will proactively remove those barriers, we will not build them in from the beginning. And where we do when we make a mistake, we will tear them down. That’s that’s the change. And that’s the change we have to see more broadly. And I believe that government will lead that and now it’s my role to help champion and inspire that change.

Russel Lolacher
Do you feel like anything emerging barrier wise when it comes to this? Or do you feel like as you’ve mentioned, we’re going up the same hill over and over again? Or do you feel like there’s any other emerging challenges that should be noted, as opposed to just oh, we’re dealing with ignorance again, oh, we’re dealing with, you know, building code issues? Like is there anything new or emerging that should be sort of mentioned?

Stephanie Cadieux
There’s a lot of work to do. And as we do the work, we’re going to learn about those challenges. And meeting each of those challenges, and will help us pinpoint not only success, but those the trends. And we’ll start we’ll see things ever emerge. And we’ll see what what what needs to be addressed differently. What What haven’t we thought about, What haven’t we considered. And that’s, that’s part of my role. And I’m going to learn that by engaging with the folks that are doing the work. I’m going to do that by engaging with the disability community broadly with individuals who are experiencing those challenges. We’re going to we’re going to hear them, we’re going to hear the examples one at a time. And we’re going to have to try and enroll out solutions that are more systemic. So individually one at a time, yes, we can we have to do these things. And we have to be really responsive on a one on one basis because no two situations are alike when it comes to people. But systemically when it comes to built environment and all these sorts of things we can we can definitely find systemic solutions. They will continue to arise as we do this work over the next few years. The goal is a barrier free candidate by 2040. My term is four years and we will you know I will want to see whose success by the end of my four years in something. I’m just not sure yet. What that will be I’m still, it’s early days. But I am very excited about the possibilities.

Russel Lolacher
So say I’m a leader is gaining some influence in the organization, they know that they will be a part of embracing accessibility in the workplace over time, but they don’t know where to go for resources now, where would you send them to educate them a bit.

Stephanie Cadieux
There are lots of good resources out there, of course, determining who they are, what they are, when you don’t know is challenging. But in BC, the accessible employers.ca is the President’s group, which was set up by government, and its leaders, CEOs from across the spectrum of employers, small, medium, large, government, and on and they are all committed to this work. And so they are sharing best practices, they are sharing information, they have training they have, they have resources available. And there’s an amazing organization, or an amazing amount of work being done in the UK. On this, the UK is ahead of Canada, I would say in a lot of regards, as it relates to, to employment, maybe not another in some of the other aspects, but in employment and, and one of the things that I love and I would point people to specifically around the culture shift and that and that, and changing the way you think about this, there is a video done by Business Disability International. In the UK, and it’s called it’s on YouTube, it’s called LABELS ARE SO OLD BRAIN (video above). It is fantastic. It’s like a two minute video, easy watch. But it really makes you think about what is disability? Why does it matter? And why does it matter? In the context? Why does inclusion matter in the context of of employment and business,

Russel Lolacher
I will include the video in the show notes. So if anybody’s looking for it, I will absolutely put it in there. Thank you, Stephanie, thank you so much for your brain, thank you so much for your time of helping us think a little differently about accessibility and how important it is. And that it is not what you might think it is. And that it’s I really like the idea of curiosity of maybe understanding your staff a bit more. And understanding what you do now to get better at these things. Because ignorance is the biggest problem of this…

Stephanie Cadieux
None of us know what we don’t know. Really, right. And the best, the best opportunities for learning exist on that on that person to person basis, right? Get to know them, get to know your people, get to know them get to know what they’re bringing to the table, that they’re there as much as their, you know, resume, it brings to the table, so does who they are as a person, and who they are as a person might include a disability. And that disability might mean they are incredibly innovative because they are having to innovate everyday just to accomplish the same things that other people accomplish that innovation that that that way of thinking is, is infectious. And, and it does, it changes how you think about disability, it changes how you think about inclusion, it changes how you think about what you can do with a process or a pulse.

Russel Lolacher
I’m not letting you get out of here without the last question, which is, what’s one simple action people can do right now to improve their relationships at work?

Stephanie Cadieux
I would say get to know people ask, ask a question, a human question, not a work related question. You know, how are you doing? You know, what’s new? What do you love to do? What would you do on your weekend? Now, obviously, within the confines of appropriate, appropriate boundaries at work. We don’t all want to be everybody’s best friend and their their appropriate boundaries. But I think getting to know a person more deeply than their role is really important. Because people bring a lot more than their work related skills to the job.

Russel Lolacher
That’s Stephanie Cadieux. She’s Canada’s first Chief Accessibility Officer, talking all about accessibility. Thank you, Stephanie, so much for your time today.

Stephanie Cadieux
Thanks, Russel.

 

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