Harnessing the power of a diverse workforce- Mark Wafer, disability rights activist and former owner of 14 successful Tim Hortons Restaurants shares his experience of building an inclusive workforce

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Harnessing the power of a diverse workforce- Mark Wafer, disability rights activist and former owner of 14 successful Tim Hortons Restaurants shares his experience of building an inclusive workforce

Written by: Mark Wafer

To celebrate Deaf Awareness Month, the International Week of Deaf People (Sept 19-25), and World Deaf Day (Sept 27), I wanted to share one of the highlights of our 25 years as Tim Hortons franchise owners: the remarkable contribution of our employees, especially those who experienced disabilities. Over the years, we employed almost 250 workers who experienced disability. While entry level positions were often filled with workers who had intellectual disabilities, workers with other types of disabilities often held positions in logistics, production, and management. We believe we have hired from every disability type and have at some point filled every single position in our business with an employee experiencing disability, with many of them becoming our best employees. This is how we were able to create a clear and concrete business case for inclusion; we experienced lower absenteeism and employee turnover, as well as higher safety standards and increased innovation.  

I believe the success of our business is due in large part to the fact that we employed workers experiencing disability in real jobs for real pay. Many employers however, are still reluctant to hire people experiencing disability, especially in a capacity driven way. One of the most common myths is that accommodations will be too expensive, which contributes to the extremely high unemployment rate for those experiencing disability, perhaps as high as 70% when those without marketplace attachment are considered. For the deaf it is almost 80%, but doesn’t have to be this way.  

Many of our employees were deaf, hard of hearing, or late deafened. Some were profoundly deaf yet held significant roles in the company including management. Not only were they employed to do a job, they were included in every aspect of the company’s strategic goals from staff meetings and training updates, to corporate social gatherings.  The cost of accommodations were very low and in exchange, we obtained a skilled worker who problem solved in a completely different way because of their disability, bringing tremendous benefits and innovation to our workplace.  

An example I often share is a story from 2011 when we hired a young graduate who, despite holding an MBA, could not find work because she was profoundly deaf.  Employers often believe the myth that workers experiencing disabilities, including deafness, will negatively affect productivity. The young lady in this example initially worked on a tandem team helping during busy times. One day, I posted an internal production position and she applied. The production systems we used worked on audible warnings therefore it would have been easy to dismiss her as being incapable of doing the job. Instead, we practiced what I call A.T.P. - Ask The Person. Instead of judging, I let her show me how she could do the job.  She had been observing the production systems for a long time and had already figured out how to do the job as well as anyone.  

Not only was this young lady an exceptional employee, she set the standard for productivity in our company by outperforming the average productivity rate by 18%. Her disability, or the fact she was deaf, was not a barrier to remarkable outcomes.  

This level of success isn’t unusual and actually was fairly typical for us with our workers who experienced disabilities.  

Today we have a massive labour shortage across the country so now more than ever, is the time to include workers experiencing disabilities in real jobs for real pay.  

About the Author

Mark Wafer is a disability rights activist. Until recently he was the owner of 14 successful Tim Hortons Restaurants in Toronto.  

Mark is an internationally recognized expert on the economics of inclusion. He is an advisor to the Government of Canada and to the Government of Ontario, and is responsible for Canada’s national disability employment strategy as well as the reform of basic income for Canadians experiencing disability. He is also an Honorary Canadian Citizenship officiant.

Today Mark spends much of his time on international diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.  

Mark has received many awards and recognition for his work most notably from her majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He was inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame in 2014.  

A prolific connector of people, Mark has raised almost $100M in the disability and broader non-profit sector.  

He is also a race car driver and the 2008 Canadian historic sports car champion.