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Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

Underneath the veneer of her successes and accomplishments in Canada’s charitable sector, Wanda Deschamps struggled to make sense of the duality she experienced at work where she says she was both “highly praised and harshly admonished.”

Ms. Deschamps says she was often misunderstood because she lacked the intuitive ability to interpret her colleagues’ non-verbal social cues. Even though she was highly intelligent and competent, she could come across as blunt.

While her innate ability to process complex information quickly helped her excel and gain a reputation as a subject matter expert, she says her inter-personal and communications skills proved inadequate.

And because she couldn’t ‘”read” her colleagues’ non-verbal signals, she tried to “fit in” by closely observing and adopting her behaviour to those around her. Ms. Deschamps was understandably always riddled with anxiety, stress and confusion. In the spring of 2017, she had a breakdown at work.

The fog of confusion lifted when at the age of 46, Ms. Deschamps was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a neurodevelopmental condition affecting the development of brain. Those with autism often have communication problems.

“The diagnosis changed everything,” Ms. Deschamps, now 51, says. “It was like finding a piece of my brain that was missing and putting it in place. It made me feel whole for the first time. I [realized] ‘Oh, I have a different brain make-up.’ This isn’t Wanda choosing to be difficult, which is what had always been foisted upon me.”

Dec. 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. According to the most recent Statscan numbers, one in five (22 per cent) of people in Canada lives with a disability, both visible and invisible.

Despite the fact that most people with disabilities are capable of being productive members of Canada’s workforce, the survey found that persons with disabilities are less likely to be employed (59 per cent) than those without disabilities (80 per cent). Indigenous and other racialized groups in Canada face greater barriers and disability remains under-diagnosed in these groups. The real numbers are likely to be much more, says Ms. Deschamps, adding the current system, right from recruitment to retention is flawed.

Disability in the workplace

Ms. Deschamps sought accommodations at work but was eventually fired. Sometime after, she founded Liberty Co, a consultancy working to help increase the participation level of the neurodiverse population in the workforce through the IDEA (Inclusion - Diversity - Equity - Accessibility) framework.

“Our workplaces are not geared to understand disabilities,” says Ms. Deschamps, who is also the CEO of Liberty Co.

“The majority of disabilities are invisible and when it comes to invisible disabilities – dyslexia, neuro-diversity, anxiety, addictions, etc.– we still come from a place of judgement,” she says.

Ideally, leaders must focus on understanding their employees by suspending judgement and operate from a place of empathy and understanding. For instance, ask why the employee in question appeared to be out of it during a meeting instead of calling them “difficult.”

Discrimination occurs largely in organizations that lack inclusive leadership, she says.

The stigma is real

A recent report by the Canadian Psoriasis Network (CPN) and Canadian Association of Psoriasis Patients (CAPP) titled, “Working it Out,” identifies some of the challenges people with invisible disabilities such as psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis (PsA) face at work – including discrimination.

Psoriasis, which affects an estimated 1 million Canadians, is a chronic skin disease with no cure that causes red, itchy scaly patches on the knees, elbows, trunk and scalp. Psoriatic arthritis is a chronic, autoimmune form of arthritis that causes joint inflammation and occurs with psoriasis.

Unlike some conditions, where accommodation needs may be more predictable and permanent, with episodic disabilities like psoriasis and PsA, symptoms tend to ebb and flow, requiring flexible approaches to workplace accommodations to support people when they need them most, says Rachael Manion, the executive director of CAPP.

There’s a stigma associated with psoriasis, which is not a contagious condition. The report calls on workplaces to provide those with psoriasis information on the tools, resources and accommodation processes available to them; create inclusive policies that will allow them to work, and increase sick leave and access to health benefits. One of the recommendations calls on workplaces to maintain accommodations that were given to those with psoriasis during COVID-19 such as the option to work from home.

The Gartner Research

New research from Gartner, titled How to Measure Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), addresses the challenge of establishing the right metrics to track – and measure – an organization’s DEI efforts. Based on interviews with more than 30 DEI executives and 10,000 employees across the globe, the report identifies seven main drivers of inclusion within an organization. These are: fair treatment, integrating differences, decision-making, psychological safety, trust, belonging and diversity.

Organizations can improve company-wide equity by monitoring and evaluating outcomes of diversity and inclusion initiatives through each and every stage of the employee life cycle, especially promotions, recruiting and performance management.

Gartner defines inclusion as a work environment where all employees feel respected, accepted and supported whereas equity is, “fair treatment and equality of access to opportunity, information and resources while eliminating unfair biases, stereotypes or barriers.”

One of the suggestions in the Gartner report is that if a team within an organization is unable to meet its goals for hiring under-represented talent, then it should consider introducing blind resume reviews or a diversity referral program to increase the pipeline of high-quality, diverse talent.

“As we are designing a post-pandemic workplace and society, we need to consider how to include people with disabilities and chronic health conditions to ensure we aren’t leaving anyone behind,” notes Laurie Proulx, human resources consultant and patient advocate.

What I’m reading around the web

  • If you’re curious how the chatbot revolution is going for companies, this article in Zdnet.com discusses how this emerging technology, mostly associated with call centres and virtual assistants/chatbots, can find uses in every vertical industry. Thanks to machine learning and AI breakthroughs during the last couple of years, conversational AI has evolved substantially.
  • In Norway, battery-powered vehicles account for 77.5 per cent of all new cars sold. The country’s electric aspirations are the result of a series of tax breaks and other incentives offered to manufacturers of electric vehicles (EV) that allow them to compete on price with combustible engines. Norway’s program is so successful that it’s now running out of “dirty cars” to tax, says this article in Wired.
  • Quebec company Winter Farm has become the largest controlled-environment vertical strawberry farm in Canada. According to this story on techbomb.ca, every year, between October and June, the farm will grow more than 180,000 kilograms of strawberries, equivalent to production yielded by more than two hectares of traditional greenhouse area.
  • In an article for Maclean’s, Shannon Proudfoot writes how Canada’s working class, a politically silent group until now, is fighting back to have its voice heard. The article describes the growing anger and skepticism among retail workers who were praised for their hard work during the pandemic but are largely ignored when it comes to reflecting that gratitude via wage increases.

More from Globe Careers

My boss has made me in charge of a diversity initiative and I’m uncomfortable taking on the task. How do I approach it? In this week’s NinetoFive advice column, a reader, who is one of the few people of colour in the office, says their director has requested they spearhead the company’s EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) initiative. With an already full plate and no additional compensation, how can this reader bring up their concerns?

When it comes to vaccine mandates, how do unionized workers differ from non-unionized? Mandatory vaccination policies are a perfect example of how unions can make decisions on behalf of employees, as many unions are quietly siding with employers’ efforts to implement these policies, even if a smaller proportion of members are very opposed, writes columnist Daniel Lublin. The lawyer has received many calls and e-mails from unionized employees who are searching for answers when it comes to their workplace rights. Many are very surprised to learn how those rights differ so vastly from their non-union peers.

Leadership Lab is a series where executives, experts and writers share their views and advice about the world of work. You can find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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