Montreal business wins prize for work supporting neurodivergent employees

‘There isn’t a lot of support out there for those that are past early stage’

A business that opened just before COVID hit is the first winner of a $100,000 award for its exemplary work with those who are neurodivergent.

Zera Café is a not-for-profit business that provides prepared meals to order, and delivery. It was honoured recently by the Azrieli Foundation with its inaugural INfinity Prize.

Neurodiversity includes neurological disorders such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Down syndrome and others.

The award also includes two years of support and mentorship to help the café scale its operations.

Providing support and money

Unlike other prizes that only include cash, the foundation is hoping to enable growth for Zera.

“Oftentimes with existing programs, they don’t always tell [prize winners] where to go afterwards: you complete that accelerator, or incubator program and they’re just, ‘Good luck!’ and so we wanted to make sure that they have a place and a network that they can lean on for what their needs are moving forward. That was the thinking behind the competition,” says Orly Fruchter, manager of neurodiverse initiatives at The Azrieli Foundation in Toronto.

“What we realized is that there isn’t a lot of support out there for those that are past early stage, or that first idea and so we’re really looking to help support those that have gotten past that point, and are looking to actually scale and grow their proof of concept.”

The organization was founded in 1989 by David Azrieli, who wanted to use his fortune as a developer to help others.

In addition to the prize, the foundation also hopes to provide ongoing guidance to any business that wants to employ neurodivergent workers, who sometimes have trouble even entering the job market.

“So oftentimes one of the greatest barriers that that they face is that first point of contact. So what ends up happening is that these individuals will complete high school; they’ll graduate but if they’re not moving on to university or vocational training, and just sitting at home so that first opportunity of entering the workforce, it’s probably one of the biggest barriers,” says Fruchter.

Neurodivergent people also sometimes have difficulty fitting into the work culture with some specific instances, she says.

“These individuals have sensitivities around the clothing, what happens then? If they’re suddenly wearing a specific T-shirt that’s actually not conducive for them, what then happens? So it’s thinking about, what is the actual work environment, that is needed for us to be feeling comfortable and successful to do our job.”

ADHD drugs are one of the fastest growing segment of health-care plan spending, found a new study.

Small workplace adjustments can help

In order to help these folks succeed, some simple accommodations at work can make all the difference, according to Fruchter.

“Whether it’s light or noise, or not having the right setup, that can really interrupt their ability to do their jobs, and have the focus that they need to complete a task and so sometimes, being more open as an employer to what an individual needs, could really make a difference on whether an individual can work or not work.”

This small investment can pay off in many ways, says Fruchter.

“I try not to generalize but oftentimes neurodivergent individuals — which itself is a very broad spectrum — are reliable and accountable: they will be on time, they will show up every single day to do their job exactly how they’ve been trained to complete the tasks and their responsibilities at the highest level and they like routine. They’re not leaving this job and they’re probably going to even just excel at the job that they’re doing.”

Benefits for employers

By accommodating this cohort of employees can also reflect well to other workers, says Fruchter.

“Another aspect of it that we hear the work culture in general, when you become more accommodating, people are willing to stay because employees know that an employer is going to invest in them to make sure that they are in the best environment they possibly can be. The percentage and level of retaining employees, not just those who are neurodivergent, but neurotypical, also goes up.”

“A space that is available and welcoming and warm, also oftentimes generates more clients, and hopefully the right kind of clients that a business is also looking for so that’s why it really is a win-win,” she says.

For HR departments, perhaps the time is ripe to add another letter to the diversity-effort acronym, says Fruchter.

“Everybody’s talking about EDI: equity, diversity and inclusion but within the sector in the world of disabilities, we oftentimes talk about adding the letter A for accessibility so when all of these businesses are talking about EDI, oftentimes it is racial, or various backgrounds. Well, what about accessibility? What about disability.”

Originally published in HR Reporter. View the original article here.