As Deputy Minister of Public Service Accessibility -- the first position of its kind in Canada -- Yazmine Laroche is making the workplace better for the disabled. She’s a veteran senior public servant who is herself coping with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a rare progressive neuromuscular disorder.
When this job was offered to me, I had to think hard before taking it. I was concerned about the tendency, if you are somebody from an equity seeking group, for people to assume that “she got the job because of her disability, rather than for her qualifications.” I said yes in part because I was at a place in my career where I didn't have to prove myself as much anymore. I also felt it would be a positive to have somebody with a disability leading this initiative, because I think my lived experience actually helps to make better policy and strategy.
One is not to think you can't afford the necessary changes, financially speaking. Some really good work has been done in the US and Canada that shows typical accommodation costs are no more than $500 -- to cover, say, buying a screen reader, so an employee with vision impairments can have documents read to them, or a standing desk, so someone with arthritis doesn’t have to sit all day in order to work.
Also, be careful to build alliances not only with the people you’re trying to help but with others across your organization. I see myself as an instigator, as a catalyst. I put a lot of emphasis on working through, and with, others who own or have responsibility for the things we're trying to change. That’s not only more effective, but more enjoyable, too, because I get to work closely with some wonderful people.
I think we've accomplished a lot in the two years since we launched our accessibility strategy for public service in Canada. But I know there's still a long way to go. I know that in part because I am learning about efforts in Canada and around the world.
The idea that some of the [Canadian] industries we're seeking to regulate might actually be doing better in accessibility than the federal government terrified me at first. But I quickly realized the value of that knowledge. For example, when I talked to one of our major [Canadian] banks, I came to understand how organizations can make a big difference with their purchasing power. The bank had made a conscious decision to procure only stuff that met a certain accessibility standard. And they put in a great process to ensure the standard was met, and for supporting their employees with disabilities.
Here’s one encouraging sign: The question I am most often asked has shifted since I started this job. At first, it was...I have no idea about this area; please help me understand the problem. Now, two years later, it’s...please show me how I can do this, how to make this change happen. We’re moving from raising awareness to taking action.
There’s also a generational shift, I think. Younger people have the assumption that they’re going to have access to whatever they need. They've grown up in school systems that have comprehensively provided accommodations, and their expectation is “I should be able to do whatever I want to do,” and they won't settle for less. So I believe we're going to get there.
COVID is having a huge, huge effect on how we're all we're thinking about work. It’s a really interesting time to focus on accessibility and disability inclusion.
Because of COVID-19, most Canadian public servants were working from home. For Laroche, this created an opportunity. "The pandemic has blown up some myths about work: where it gets done, how it gets done, and who can do it. This will create more opportunities to recruit great talent with disabilities."