A happy hum emanates from the Tim Hortons at Neilson and Ellesmere in Scarborough, a multi-cultural area where West-Indians happily brush shoulders with residents from South-East Asia. A white-haired senior enjoys her coffee and bagel, while fresh-faced students, plugged into their smartphones, balance lunch-trays with the expertise of Parisian waiters. A tall gentleman, wearing a bright green golf shirt under his jacket and a felt Tyrolean hat, settles down next to the window with a piping-hot bowl of soup which will soon warm his bones, and melt away thoughts of the frigid snowbanks which outline the streets outside.
Amongst this harmonious ballet of lunchtime maneuvers, a short figure dressed in a red Roll-up-the-Rim T-shirt quietly weaves around the dining room. Tables are wiped. Trays and coffee cups are cleared. Carl Sparling, “the mighty Mr. Clean,” is hard at work. Sparling is one of Mark Wafer’s best workers.
Even though Sparling has Down syndrome.
Twenty-one years ago, the odds of a disabled person entering the workforce were even more limited than today. That was when Sparling graduated high school. He remembered knocking on doors, cold-calling on businesses who had no interest in hiring him.
Despite his difficulties, and with the help of guidance counsellors, Sparling was introduced to Wafer who owned a Tim Hortons franchise. Wafer, who has been hearing-impaired since birth, took a leap of faith and gave Sparling a chance. He not only hired him, but paved the way for hundreds of other people with disabilities to make a change in their lives.
Wafer now owns seven coffee-shop franchises in the east-end of the city. Since hiring Sparling, he has employed people with disabilities in every department, including management. The difference his employees with special needs feel after landing a job is like “night and day,” Wafer says.
Wafer believes employing an under-utilized sector of society makes a difference in the workplace by enhancing the bottom-line for businesses and increasing both the commercial and the employee’s productivity.
There are more than 1.85 million people with disabilities living in Ontario, that’s 15 per cent of the population, according to People Access, a division of Excellence Canada (formerly the National Quality Institute) which raises awareness about the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005. That translates to over 40,000 in the Whitby-Oshawa area alone. Of these, 50 per cent are not working. This is despite them being capable, educated and willing to work, according to In Unison 2000.
But people like Wafer intend to change this attitude by spreading the message of his success to employers and community groups.
“The way society looks at people with a disability, I call it the Jerry Lewis Syndrome,” says Wafer, referring to the American veteran comedian who, until recently, hosted a long-running annual fundraising telethon for children with disabilities.
“Jerry taught everybody to look at people with disabilities as objects of pity,” says Wafer. “What we are trying to do is look at people with disabilities as contributors to business,
contributors to society. It’s a paradigm shift to go from one of pity to being a contributor.”
Those people with disabilities who are employed are often under-utilized relative to their education and skill level. They reflect the diversity of society. They are of all ages, genders, ethnicity, education and income levels.
Wafer says people with disabilities live in a perpetual state of economic depression with an unemployment rate of 70 per cent. That’s almost three-times the rate of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Why is this?
John Draper is the founder of Together We Rock!, a socially responsible business with a mission to champion leadership and create accessible and inclusive communities. Draper, who himself has cerebral palsy, communicates with the help of a speech synthesizer and an interpreter who is also his attendant. Draper says employers give various reasons for not hiring people with disabilities. These reasons include negative stereotypes, lack of awareness, fear of risk and cost of accommodations.
Tim Hortons owner, Wafer, says hiring people with disabilities makes economic sense, despite employers and HR departments who think a person with a disability will be slower and less productive.
Today, 46 out of the 250 people he employs have a disability. He says the absenteeism rate for his workers with a disability is 85 per cent lower than the 200 people without a disability.
“Those who are in business understand there is a dollar figure attached to that,” says Wafer. “Absenteeism is expensive.”
Wafer is the envy of other Tim Hortons franchisees in the area. He continuously out-performs in both revenue and profitability.
“I out-perform because I am an inclusive employer,” said Wafer. “The economic case for inclusion is clear and obvious.”
Wafer says there are many myths which need to be dispelled before potential employers step-up to hire someone with special needs. He says he’s never paid out a Workers Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) claim for any of his disabled employees, and their average tenure is significantly higher than the average employee. They are loyal and have significant purchasing power, especially when their family and friends are brought into the equation.
“When we talk to employers and show them how inclusion enhances the bottom line, it makes a big difference,” Wafer says.
Back at Tim Hortons on the corner of Neilson and Ellesmere, 44-year-old Sparling is a proven example of Wafer’s philosophy. Sparling has worked for Wafer since he left high school at four different locations for 22-years. He is married and saved up for a deposit on his own condo with his wages. He loves his job and can be found between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. cleaning tables, changing the garbage or operating the dishwasher behind the scenes. He thinks other employers should think about taking on people with special needs.
“You should give it a try and if it works out, it will be OK,” says Sparling.
Wafer never thought it was a risk to take Sparling on.
“It wasn’t really if there was any risk, it was, ‘how is this going to work out?’” says Wafer
“And it worked out pretty damn good.”
Wafer says you cannot underestimate the importance of inclusive workplaces for all concerned, but especially for the workers who take pride in their work and become contributing members of society by paying taxes.
“It changes their lives, [when] they get a pay-cheque,” says Wafer. “They can now live a full life.”
The missing piece of the puzzle, which may be the hardest to crack, is the shift in mindset.
“The greatest barrier a person with a disability faces to get into the workplace is attitude,” says Wafer, referring to the attitude of employers and the attitude of society.
In a world bombarded with inclusion-rights for every other minority group, the concept of a workforce which includes Ontario’s largest minority population, ahead of the South-Asian, Chinese and Black communities, has been overlooked.
Wafer hopes his mission to convert the business community to open their minds and hearts to this untapped source of workers may solve some of Ontario’s future employment needs, as well as increasing workers’ loyalty and satisfaction.
Sparling proves there is a huge return on disability, and is happy as long as he is up to his elbows in work.
“Without work, I’ve got nothing,” he says.
Sparling goes back to his work. He clears the soup bowl from the table, as the tall gentleman shrugs on his jacket and dons his Alpine hat in anticipation of the cold blast of air outside. He wipes down the table in front of the white-haired lady as she dusts the crumbs from her chin with her napkin. The students, still zoned-out and plugged into their phones, don’t notice Sparling pick up the stray paper wrappings from their spot as they haul their backpacks onto their shoulders and head towards the door. The mighty Mr. Clean still has an hour of work until his shift ends.