Champion of Change: Mark Wafer Talks Canadian Disability Stats and the Business Case for Inclusive Employment

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Mark Wafer has channeled his own personal challenges to become a driving force in the pursuit of inclusive employment in Canada’s private sector. As the owner of six Toronto-area Tim Horton’s franchises, Wafer’s company Megleen Inc. has witnessed first-hand the business case for hiring people with disabilities.

Wafer, who was born deaf, faced a number of barriers growing up — mostly from well-meaning teachers and coaches — and upon entering the business world, quickly realized people with disabilities were facing the same, if not greater, barriers that he had. “My disability didn’t actually prevent me from continuing with other things,” says Wafer, who has about 20 per cent hearing and relies heavily on lip-reading.

“When I opened my first [Tim Horton’s] store and needed to hire somebody to look after the dining room, the person that came through the door was a man by the name of Clint Sparling.” He was Wafer’s first employee with an intellectual disability. “I worried if he kept walking down the street knocking on doors that he would face the same types of barriers I did. I was afraid he wasn’t going to find a job, so I gave him a chance — and he’s still working for me today, 21 years later.”

It soon became clear to Wafer that when you train people with a disability to do a job, they will do it only one way and that’s the right way. “They will only do it the way you teach them how to do it, and of the 41 employees I had at the time, Clint was the best. He came to work early and we couldn’t get him to take a break. The loyalty he had for the job was beyond anything I’d seen in other employees.”

As business grew, Wafer added people with varying degrees of disabilities in meaningful positions and made sure they were paid the same as everyone else. Within two years of starting the practice of inclusive employment, Wafer began to see a change in his business. Staff turnover and sick days declined, workplace safety and productivity increased. “People with disabilities have a different set of problem-solving skills — they think outside the box to get things done and that drives innovation.”

Over the past 20 years, Mark and his wife Valerie have hired 127 people with disabilities — from entry level to logistics, production to management. They currently employ 46 people with disabilities in a workforce of 250.

It didn’t take long for the Wafers to become well-known for their hiring practices, winning a number of awards and garnering media coverage. Soon, government and agencies began to reach out, curious to discover what the Wafers were doing differently. “I kept focusing on the economic service,” says Wafer. “If you want other employers to buy into progress, you can’t tell them it’s the right thing to do, because then they might hire one [token] person [with a disability]. But if you start to look at the statistics and the market data, the business case becomes clear — I’ve got a great safety rating (zero claims), great productivity, much lower turnover (38 per cent turnover rate in an industry that experiences 75 to 100 per cent) and much lower absenteeism.”

Wafer feels there’s a misconception among employers that if you hire people with disabilities, your safety rating is going to suffer “because they are going to fall and hurt themselves; they are going to claim WSIB. But it’s the opposite. Take me for example. I’m deaf and I can’t cross the road without looking — I’m more aware of my surroundings. People with disabilities tend to be less of a risk factor. The proof — in 21 years I have never filled out a WSIB claim for a disabled employee.”

Speaking Up
In 2006, Wafer found himself as the keynote speaker at a disability conference after the original speaker failed to show up. “I’ve never done anything like that before but I went up and told my story. Afterwards, a few people approached me and said ‘we have never heard anything like this before and we have somebody we would like you to meet.’” Within 24-hours, he was at Queen’s Park sitting in the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, discussing how, in order to decrease the economic burden on the government, people with disabilities needed to be integrated into the work place. “We’ve got to do it by showing businesses that there is an economic case for inclusive employment. There are programs out there, the government is spending over $11 billion a year but most of that money is spent to keep people with disabilities at home. It’s unsustainable and it’s an economic issue not just for companies but for society.”

According to Statistics Canada, 15 per cent of Canadians have disabilities — that’s the entire population of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta combined — constituting Canada’s largest minority by far. Seventy-per-cent of those people are unemployed and today, the country has 500,000 recent graduates from the last five years who haven’t worked a single day only because they have a disability. “The talent pool is massive,” says Wafer.

Food for Thought
The foodservice industry, especially the QSR segment, is one of the largest employers of people with disabilities, especially those with visible disabilities, thanks in large part to the work of agencies such as Community Living, says Wafer. “These agencies, which represent people with disabilities and help them find work, are not going to go to General Motors and try and find a job for somebody with Down syndrome. They are going to go to McDonald’s or Tim Hortons and get them a job working in the lobby, doing dishes, cleaning tables or taking the garbage out. Typically, the largest percentage of people with those types of disabilities who are working are working in foodservice.”

The problem, Wafer says, is the position is usually a token one — managers aren’t looking at their business critically and realizing that positions such as team leader or trainers can be filled from the disabled community. “If you look at how we are doing in the foodservice industry overall when it comes to inclusive employment, we are doing poorly — we’re discounting the disabled community when it comes to hiring line cooks, sous chefs, managers, matradees, servers and bartenders — people with disabilities can do all of those jobs. There is no job in a restaurant or in the food industry that cannot be done by a person with disability. It’s about finding the right fit, making sure the person is capable of doing that job and involving them in the conversation around how they are going to do the job.”

Change is Coming
Five years ago, Wafer recalls trips to Queen’s Park and Ottawa for meetings with MPs who rushed him out the door — if they’d meet with him at all. Fast-forward five years and government now comes to him.

“There’s more interest [in inclusive employment] now. Businesses, especially large corporations, need to realize this untapped labor pool can help solve the problem of labour shortages. You’ve got all these people in your own backyard, not working. You don’t need to go to Mexico and the Philippines to get somebody — they can hire somebody qualified and invested right here at home.”

Inclusive employment has come a long way but, says Wafer, we still have a long way to go. “The disability community is the last community or demographic in the world that we can still openly discriminate against — we don’t do that with any other demographic. No matter how smart or how educated a person is, people see somebody in a wheel chair and the first thing that comes to their mind is a judgement on that person’s disability — that’s why they can’t get jobs.”

But Wafer says he also sees an increase in the number of advocates for people with disabilities in the workplace “and I think the activism is important. That’s how we will make significant change over the next five to 10 years.”

But a significant barrier to disabled people succeeding in the workforce continues to be training. Not a lack of available training, but a lack of understanding by large corporations whose training programs weed out — whether intentionally or not — people whose disabilities interfere with their ability to carry out the training as it is set out.
“For example, I’ve had an employee for 10 years who has a very significant learning disability but she is one of the best people on the front counter — she can serve 10 customers to everyone else’s one. She is a dynamite employee but she can’t sit in front of a computer and learn about a new product using the [traditional] training program.”

At this point, he says, many employers choose to discount that person, rather than modifying the training program. At Wafer’s restaurants, he has a trainer show the employees how to make new products. “It takes 30 seconds; it’s not rocket science.”

He cites programs outside of the business, such as George Brown College, as examples of institutions making sure people with disabilities come out of schools with skills to help them find jobs. He also runs a co-op program with Centennial College, which gives students with significant disabilities a chance to try out the restaurant business. “They spend three days a week working at my stores so when they graduate they’ll have practical experience and will be able to get a full time job at a Tim Horton’s or anywhere else in the industry.”

Volume 48, Number 3

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