Embracing neurodiversity will build a more prosperous Canada — but the onus on inclusivity falls upon all of us

The vast majority of people with a disability are willing and able to work, and can make valuable contributions to society with the right supports.

The United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities falls on Dec. 3. It’s a time to evaluate efforts to create meaningful job opportunities for people with disabilities, and highlight the benefits inclusive employment brings to employers and society at large.

We certainly have a long way to go — especially for neurodivergent people.

About 6.2 million people in Canada over the age of 15 live with a disability. Yet only 59 per cent of working-age adults with a disability are employed, compared to 80 per cent of those without a disability. For the hundreds of thousands in Canada with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, autism, intellectual disabilities and other neurodivergent conditions, the rate of employment drops to a mere 26 per cent.

The underrepresentation of neurodivergent individuals in the workforce does not reflect their talents, skills and employability. The vast majority are willing and able to work — and with the right supports, can make valuable social and economic contributions to society.

The Azrieli Foundation aims to open doors to opportunity for all, and is committed to strengthening and expanding the network of organizations seeking to remove barriers to employment for neurodivergent people. These barriers include lack of sufficient transportation, workplace accommodations, assistive technologies, work experience prior to leaving school and long-term supports.

So, what are the solutions?

Creating more opportunities for early work experience and post-secondary vocational training; developing programs to promote job advancement, self-employment and business ownership; and ensuring neurodivergent employees (as well as people with various abilities) receive fair wages without losing eligibility for needed public assistance. We must also tap into the often-unique contributions that people with disabilities can make to a business’s long-term success.

To eliminate direct barriers to inclusive employment, employers need to start thinking differently about employee recruitment, training and retention. Policymakers, health-care workers, educators, architects and engineers should work collaboratively to create inclusive and accessible work environments, and to advocate for social change within and beyond their organizations.

The benefits to society are enormous. Enhanced employment opportunities for people with disabilities will significantly ease recurring labour shortages, spur economic growth, increase prosperity for all Canadians and help millions lead more joyful and fulfilling lives.

Perhaps the greatest barriers to employment for people with disabilities, particularly neurodivergent people, are low societal expectations and the reluctance to embrace true inclusiveness.

The initial challenge for those without a disability is to acknowledge any discomfort they may have about working with and accommodating people who appear or act differently. The second challenge is to overcome that discomfort.

Making Canada truly inclusive — and consequently more prosperous — is not only the responsibility of government and humanitarian organizations. That onus also falls upon the shoulders of all Canadians.

Naomi Azrieli is chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation, the largest noncorporate foundation in Canada.