Hiring Persons with Disabilities The Questions You May Be Afraid to Ask

Tapping into under-utilized talent pools, like new graduates, women and newcomers, to tackle skills shortages within biotech is a widely discussed subject. As soon as you add persons with disabilities to the mix of under-utilized talent pools, everyone walks on eggshells. All of a sudden, the little we know becomes apparent and often uncomfortable.

During the interview, how can I assess if this person can perform the core duties of the job? How will our company handle accommodations? Can I even legally ask questions related to disabilities? These seem daunting tasks, which contributed to the statistic that only 7.6% of bio-economy companies have persons with disabilities on staff, a figure well below other industries (Source: BioTalent Canada’s Labour Market Report, Sequencing the Data: https// )

BioTalent Canada has recently announced the Opportunities Fund Project, a new wage subsidy program that aims to alleviate the low employment of persons with disabilities in biotech. Many bio-economy firms need the wage subsidy to offset the cost of hiring, but numerous uncertainties seemingly surround hiring persons with disabilities.

To shed light on a few uncertainties and misconceptions about hiring persons with disabilities, BioTalent Canada sat down with Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai, head of the Variant Investigation Group within the Genome Diagnostic division of the Lab Medicine Program at the University Health Network in Toronto and Senior Advisor at the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS)

Dr. Sukhai is one of a handful of congenitally blind biomedical researchers in North America – and the only one who had graduated to date with his PhD. In his current position, he supervises a staff of postdoctoral fellows in a collaborative, team-oriented setting and brings a wealth of experience on employment for persons with disabilities in the Canadian biotech sector from both an employer’s perspective as well as an employee with disabilities.

There is no one single answer. Different individuals and different work environments require different accommodations. Policies are a good start, but can in fact be restrictive. HR staff and hiring managers need to be trained to let go of biases and recognize that talent can have many faces. The best starting point is to let go of assumptions. Flexibility, communication and partnership are key. Rather than assume what the person with disabilities can or cannot do, engage the person with disabilities in the conversation. Take it from the perspective of the work environment and the critical elements of the person’s job description, and collaborate with the person to come to what modifications need to be made to enable any qualified talent to effectively do his/her job. Leverage existing information resources. When at a crossroads, reach out to subject-matter-expert organizations.

Should I be concerned if the disability is not visible? How do I communicate inclusion?

Most persons with disabilities will have “invisible” disabilities – that is, they do not use a visible symbol of accessibility or mobility, and you, as an employer, won’t know unless they choose to tell you. This is in no way a cause for concern. Communicate inclusion by example and by action. Be flexible to work towards accommodations. Persons with disabilities have the legal right to not disclose their disability. They might be uncertain whether your company will be a welcoming working environment. They might also be concerned if effective accommodation is possible within the workplace. By including standard accommodation language in the job posting and during the entire application, interview, hiring and onboarding process, you indicate that merit and talent are priorities and that you are prepared to collaborate with qualified applicants to provide the necessary adjustments to enable them to effectively do their job.

What do I do if I don’t know that my employee has a disability?

Nothing. Employers cannot mandate a disclosure, and it is the employee’s right to be the one to lead a conversation with the employer around disclosure. Legally, the employee should disclose an accommodation need – not a disability. Employers ought to ensure that their workplace environments are welcoming and inclusive; such environments will encourage employees to be comfortable having a disclosure conversation. Setting up such “universally accessible” business practices and embodying them in the fabric of organizational culture is ultimately a better solution than attempting to design reactive HR policies for various scenarios, and also saves potential worry over information and situations that hiring managers and supervisors are not aware of.

How do I avoid singling out a person with disabilities?

Everyone hates being singled out. Are you giving the person with disabilities an accommodation that the rest of the staff resents? Maybe it is time to revisit your policies. For example, if you are providing a flexibility to your employee with a disability, like working from home, but are not extending that policy to the rest of staff, perhaps ask yourself why not. Many policies that are initiated as accommodation for persons with disabilities may be beneficial to the entire staff. Reviewing and expanding HR policies regularly avoids animosity and lessens negative feelings of singling out any employees with special needs.

How do I make everyone “comfortable?”

Set the tone from top to bottom. Educating the staff on a culture of inclusion should be part of your HR priorities. A culture of inclusion is a conscious decision that should be part of the organization’s values and vision. Management sets the tone through leading by example, which will trickle down to all employees. Innovation is the DNA of the biotechnology sector. As an industry, biotech misses out on reaching its full potential when pools of skilled talent remain untapped. The Opportunities Fund wage subsidy program can provide up to $13,500 towards a salary as an incentive for employers to hire, accommodate and train an employee with disabilities.

For questions or more information on how to get started, please contact Pamela Gray at 613-235-1402, ext. 232 or

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About BioTalent Canada:

BioTalent Canada is the HR partner of Canada's bio-economy. As an HR expert and national non-profit organization, BioTalent Canada focuses on building partnerships and skills for Canada's bio-economy to ensure the industry has access to job-ready people. Through projects, research and development BioTalent Canada connects employers with job seekers, delivers human resource information and skills development tools so the industry can focus on strengthening Canada's biotech business.


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