One in five Canadians has a disability, yet people with disabilities continue to be underrepresented in the workplace. The RBC Employee Resource Group (ERG) REACH aims to change the statistics by promoting awareness and education throughout the organization.

In recent years, there has been increasing dialogue about Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace. But as Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin pointed out at RBC’s 2021 celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, disabled people are often left out of the conversation. Given that 645,000 Canadians with disabilities have the potential to work in an inclusive labour market – yet are currently not working – it’s a conversation that clearly needs to change.

Several years ago, a group of employees at RBC set out to do just that. The Employee Resource Group (ERG) REACH has a mission to eliminate the stigma and stereotypes around disability and make sure it is top of mind within the organization. In a recent conversation with the current national chairs of REACH – Kelly Bimm, Joel Dembe and Meghan Hines – they shared their ERG’s work to bring people with disabilities into the inclusion conversation and help create a workplace where people with disabilities can thrive.

Dembe, a former Paralympian who originally came to RBC through the RBC Olympians program, points out that everyone is affected by disability. “In one way or another, we are all connected to disability, either through lived experience or through the ones we love or care about,” he says. “Being in the Paralympian space, you realize disability can happen to anyone at any time.”

Recognizing that disability can be visible or invisible and that many RBC employees are caregivers of family members with a disability, the need for support, community and education is significant. REACH has national and regional chapters in order to have both corporate-level and local presence for people with disabilities, their families, friends, co-workers, caregivers and managers.

A Community for Everyone

REACH has nine regional chapters in Canada that focus on storytelling as a means of sharing experiences and providing support for people with disabilities. “Our chapters host events with members, hold networking and education sessions and fireside chats with senior leaders,” says Hines. Part of their work involves sharing the different perspectives of disability, which they do through blogs, newsletters, sharing articles and profiling their champions.

While some may feel they’re disclosing their disability by joining an ERG, the team emphasizes ERGs are for everyone and anyone. “You can be a person with a disability, a caregiver, know someone with a disability or be an ally who wants to learn more,” says Bimm.

On the national level, the team focuses on education and awareness – of the strengths and competencies of people with disabilities and the existence of other groups within the organization that support an inclusive workspace. “Many employees were hired or changed departments in the pandemic and will be returning to premise in a new location,” explains Bimm. “Navigating the accommodation process can feel like a big task. Sometimes well-meaning managers assume people with disabilities would rather continue to work from home — but it’s really an individual preference.”

Resources such as the Accommodations Team, Accessible Technology Team and Human Resources exist to help employees and managers implement the accommodations needed to work efficiently – within or outside the office. REACH can offer additional help and support beyond what these teams provide, often “connecting the dots” to help ensure RBCers are aware of the resources and how to access them.

“Just Ask”

One of the main messages the ERG tries to convey is: Just Ask. The group recognizes that many people feel awkward or uncomfortable around people with disabilities and are afraid to say or do the wrong thing. Their “Just Ask” message tries to encourage dialogue and reduce the fear of offending. “When coaching someone on your team, you ask them what they need and what they prefer to do their best work,” explains Bimm. “It’s the same with someone with a disability, but people just get very worried that they’re going to say or do the wrong thing and as a consequence shy away from having those conversations.”

“I don’t know everything about every disability or the most politically correct terminology in every situation,” she adds. “Should we say: a person in a wheelchair or a wheelchair user; disabled or differently-abled; or just person? Everyone has their own preferences, and by just asking, you will be showing respect for your colleagues and your desire to be inclusive.”

Hines, who is a wheelchair user, adds there is a great deal of diversity within the community. “As someone with a physical disability, I can’t say I know everything about the experiences of every person with a disability,” she explains. “We try to explain that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to how to work or interact with a person with a disability appropriately. Don’t overthink it, just focus on treating everyone as people first and be open to what support they may, or may not, need.”

Gaining Momentum

The REACH co-chairs share that the corporate events supported by RBC’s Diversity & Inclusion team have helped raise a great deal of awareness outside the Persons With Disabilities (PWD) community. The Marlee Matlin event, for instance, was attended by employees from across the organization in Canada, the USA, the Caribbean and Europe. “It is really exciting for us to grow our audience of people who don’t necessarily have a connection with disability,” says Bimm.

She encourages other RBCers to join REACH – whether they have a disability, know someone with a disability, wish to be an ally or simply learn more. “It’s a great community. Members foster this beautifully inclusive and supportive space by sharing authentic stories and being vulnerable. It’s an opportunity to learn about others’ experiences, different resources and ways to be supportive.”

With the increased acknowledgment that mental illness is a disability, the team is particularly encouraging those with invisible disabilities to reach out and get the support they need within a community of people who can relate to their experiences.

Dembe encourages those who care for people with disabilities to join. “There are many RBCers who are caregivers who look after their parents or their children. Through REACH, they can learn about disabilities, learn more about the challenges we have in navigating the world and learn how important independence is. The real story of REACH is that we are all independent – we’re able to accomplish not only our work but also manage around our disabilities.”

The co-chairs agree that REACH is moving in a positive direction, gaining momentum, generating awareness and broadening its circle of support. Through ongoing events, storytelling, networking sessions and more, they hope to expand the conversation around inclusion and eliminate the stereotypes that have created barriers in the past.

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