December 3, 2018 is International Day for Persons with Disabilities. This year’s theme is “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality”.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to go really fast. That I happened to use a wheelchair certainly wasn’t going to get in the way of that.

I was born with a spinal tumour. It was successfully removed, but it caused a spinal paralysis and severe scoliosis: meaning standing or walking would be incredibly difficult for the rest of my life. I spent much of my childhood in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation clinics. The most frustrating aspect of having surgeries was that it took me away from my true passion: sport.

Whenever I played a sport, I would forget about my wheelchair and the fact that I moved differently from classmates at school. Sport was pure fun. And it gave me the motivation to continually surpass my limitations. But most importantly it gave me the opportunity to experience inclusion—especially after I was introduced to wheelchair tennis.

Through tennis, I had the opportunity to spend time with some of the older athletes, all of whom used wheelchairs. I saw in them the things I wanted for myself: confidence, independence and dare I say…swagger. Wheelchair tennis truly gave me a sense of belonging and community.

From then on I was completely hooked into the life of a wheelchair athlete. I traveled the world independently, played countless tournaments and represented Canada at the Paralympics.

After winning a medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games, I retired from sport and joined RBC. As part of our Executive Communications team, I help shape perceptions of RBC’s brand, business strategy and role as a thought leader, supporting the communications activities of our CEO and Economics team.

Just as wheelchair sport gave me a sense of inclusion, I have had a similar experience as part of RBC REACH, our Employee Resource Group for Persons with Disabilities.

One of my priorities since retiring from wheelchair sport has been to elevate the conversation around disability in Canada’s public and private sectors. I feel incredibly passionate about the value persons with disabilities bring to the workplace. And I believe disability should be a greater point of focus for organizations when it comes to hiring and advancement of employees with disability, as well as the servicing of clients with disability, taking an inclusive design approach to developing and distributing products and services to enable better access.

In Canada, 41 per cent of persons with disabilities between the ages of 15–64 (both visible and invisible) are unemployed—and the percentage in other countries can be similar or higher. Important services, such as transportation and buildings, remain inaccessible for too many in this country. And this number will only grow as our country grapples with an aging population.

There are more than six million Canadians who identify as having a disability. This segment controls more than $55.4 billion in disposable income, $311 billion if we include their friends and family, according to Rich Donovan, a leading voice on the potential impact this relatively untapped segment of the population can have on our economy.

Certainly the proposed Accessible Canada Act will help remove some of the barriers and give important rights that Canadians with disabilities have waited on for so long. Corporate Canada must take a bigger leap and refocus efforts to enable persons with disabilities to make a direct impact on our nation’s future. If anything, it makes sense that a workforce should reflect the palette of Canada’s diverse population.

I realize that simply sharing my story cannot solve all issues faced by persons with disabilities. But I think it is incredibly important that we all speak up for inclusion and have more conversations about inclusion so that every individual has opportunities and access to the resources to reach their full potential.

By Joel Dembe

Share

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.