Supporting Employees with Disabilities

People with disabilities are often under-employed – but they just might have the skills and competencies you require within your organization. It is important to consider how your organization can tap this potential source of employees.

A disability can be either permanent (e.g., a hearing or mobility impairment) or temporary (e.g., a treatable illness or temporary impairment that is the result of an accident). A disability can also be visible (e.g., a wheelchair or white cane indicates the person has a disability) or invisible (e.g., a mental illness).

In this Section:

Practical and supportive practices

In general, creating an inclusive and supportive workplace involves:
  • Leading by example with a clear commitment from the top down that diversity is important
  • Adopting policies and procedures to support diversity, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment
  • Promoting (both internally and externally) the organization's commitment to diversity
  • Holding all staff and volunteers accountable
  • Providing training and awareness in the workplace

When the focus is on building an inclusive environment that is welcoming to people regardless of disability, you may need to make changes to work areas, consider technological modifications, make information accessible in alternate formats or make changes to tasks or working hours. The term for this is accommodation.

Duty to accommodate refers to the obligation of an employer, service provider or union to take steps to eliminate disadvantage to employees, prospective employees or clients resulting from a rule, practice or physical barrier that has or may have an adverse impact on individuals or groups protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act, or identified as a designated group under the Employment Equity Act. This includes the hiring process as well as accommodating an individual once hired.

Grounds covered by the Canadian Human Rights Act include:
  • Physical or mental disability
  • Race
  • National or ethnic origin
  • Colour
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Sex (including pregnancy)
  • Sexual orientation
  • Marital or family status
  • Conviction for which a pardon has been granted

Note: Different jurisdictions may have different interpretations about the duty to accommodate. It is important to check with your provincial/territorial Human Rights Commission. If feasible, it is also helpful to seek advice from your lawyer. Recent jurisprudence has widened the applicability of accommodation.

Many accommodation options available to you as an employer can be low-cost or no cost. Think creatively!  While you may have to make some changes to workstations or provide an assistive device or assistive technology, many changes are simple. The employee being accommodated will be an important source of information about accommodation needs and resources, and potentially, sources of funding for making the accommodations.

Remember that the accommodation process can be ongoing as accommodation needs change or the work environment changes. Therefore, it is important to have open communication with any employees with disabilities and check in with them regularly.

Accommodation during the recruitment and selection process
  • Contact a local advocacy group for resources and information to support a bias-free recruitment and selection process.
  • Make reference to disabilities in your workplace diversity policies.
  • Look beyond traditional, mainstream sources for job applicants.
  • Post the job ad in alternative formats.
  • When you schedule each job interview, ask if the applicant has any accommodation needs.
  • Ensure the interview site is accessible.
  • Discuss with front office staff how to interact appropriately with people with disabilities before the interview takes place.
  • Be aware of what you can and cannot ask during a job interview and only ask for what is relevant to the job.
  • Focus on skills, abilities, expectations and desired outcomes.
  • Instead of asking if an applicant can fill the job requirements, change the wording and ask how they will fulfill the job requirements.
  • Make your selection process consistent for all applicants.
Accommodation once employed

Start by reviewing the job profile and determine what parts of the job the employee can do without accommodation. Then move on to determine what accommodations can be made to support the employee in doing the other aspects of the job.

Here are some examples of accommodation in the workplace:
  • Attendant services
  • Adaptive technology
  • Converting printed matter to alternative media and reader services for employees who are blind
  • Workspace and furnishings appropriate to the nature of the disability
  • Interpreters for deaf and hearing-impaired employees
  • A quiet workspace
  • Flexible work arrangements
  • Frequent breaks

Before you purchase any special equipment, have your employee(s) test it out first.

Staff members may have varying degrees of experience interacting with a person with a disability. By meeting with staff, if needed, before a new employee with disabilities starts work, you can provide information and build the comfort level of your staff.

What if the person does not request accommodation?

Not every person will self-identify that they have a disability and need accommodation. This may be due to fear of, for example, being passed over for promotion or embarrassment because of society's stigma of disabilities. If you suspect that one of your employees requires accommodation, approach the employee confidentially and non-confrontationally to discuss if there is a situation that could be fixed with an accommodation. Affirm to the employee that they will not be negatively affected by disclosing this information or in the accommodation process.

Grounds for not accommodating

The only grounds for not accommodating an applicant or employee having personal characteristics protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act is if the exclusion is based on a bona fide occupational requirement (BFOR). A BFOR is a standard or rule that is integral to carrying out the functions of a specific position. For a standard to be considered a BFOR, an employer has to establish that any accommodation or changes to the standard would create an undue hardship. Section 15(2) of the Canadian Human Rights Act states that ‘’it must be established that accommodation of the needs of an individual or a class of individuals affected would impose undue hardship on the person who would have to accommodate those needs, considering health, safety and cost’’ in order for the accommodation to be considered too much of a burden. When a standard is a BFOR, an employer is not expected to change it to accommodate an employee. However, to be as inclusive as possible, an employer should still explore whether some form of accommodation is possible. Especially since the jurisprudence is continuously evolving, you should seek appropriate advice with respect to bona fide occupational requirements and accommodation.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Union of Public Employees provide helpful information regarding duty to accommodate and undue hardship.

Retention and promotion
After the hire, the focus shifts to employee retention. Here are some suggestions for creating an inclusive workplace:
  • Encourage employees with disabilities to educate other staff about their disability.
  • Be creative, flexible and look for new ways of doing things.
  • Include staff with disabilities in decision-making and social activities.
  • Routinely promote your organization's commitment to diversity.
  • Cultivate a culture of trust amongst staff.
  • Include opportunities for staff to interact in settings outside of work so that employees feel more comfortable.
  • Conduct exit interviews to find out why a staff person left.
  • Support senior staff so that they, in turn, support a diverse and inclusive workplace by recruiting, retaining and promoting employees with disabilities.

Preferred terminology

It is important to use language that focuses on people rather than on disabilities, and to shift our thinking to focus on abilities and what people can do. The following preferred words and phrases will help you choose language that is neither demeaning nor hurtful.

Instead of

Please use

Afflicted by a disease or condition (e.g. cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, etc.)

  • Adult who has ______

Aged (the), elderly (the)

  • Seniors, older adults

Blind (the), visually impaired (the)

  • A person who is blind
  • A person with low vision

Confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound

  • A person who uses a wheelchair

Crazy, insane, lunatic, psycho, mental, mental patient, maniac, neurotic, mental illness, psychotic, unsound mind, schizophrenic

  • A person with a mental health disability
  • A person who has depression
  • A person with schizophrenia

Deaf (the), hearing impaired (the)

  • A person who is deaf

Disabled (the)
Handicapped (the)
Physically challenged (the)

  • People with disabilities
  • The term handicapped may be used when referring to an environmental or attitudinal barrier as in "a person who is handicapped by a set of stairs leading to the entrance"

Fits, spells, attacks

  • Seizures

Hidden disability

  • Non-visible disability

Idiot, simple, retarded, feeble-minded, imbecile

  • A person with an intellectual disability
  • A person with a developmental disability

Midget, dwarf

  • A person of short stature
  • A little person


  • Person who is not disabled
  • Person who is able bodied

Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services provides additional examples of how to increase accessibility and remove barriers.