Mark Wafer wants employers to “DiscoverAbility”

Photograph by Aly Beach

Mark Wafer speaking at the DiscoverAbility event.

Businesses understand economics. Inclusivity? Sometimes not so much.

Fifteen per cent of people in Canada have a disability and according to former Tim Hortons franchise owner, Mark Wafer, hiring people with disabilities can increase a business’s profits.

“We’ve talked about this from a legislative point of view. We’ve talked about it from a charity point of view. And we have done it in the past, but it hasn’t worked. We’ve got to talk about this to businesses from an economic point of view, because that’s what they [business owners] understand,” said Wafer.

Wafer and his wife hired almost 200 workers with disabilities in their seven Tim Hortons restaurants over the course of 20 years. On average, there were about 46 out of 250 employees who had disabilities. Because of his success he believes being an inclusive employer can increase the bottom line for a business.

Wafer was in a car accident with a tractor trailer carrying steel when he was 18. He broke several bones, including his spine. He also lost most of his hearing. He was not expected to live, and considers himself lucky to be able to walk again.

“This showed me and it shows us, how quickly, in the blink of an eye, that your life can change, you can become disabled. You can join that demographic…the only demographic that you can join,” said Wafer.

Wafer spoke at a morning keynote event called “DisccoverAbility” at the Whitby Abilities Centre on March 15. The event promoted the hiring of people of disabilities and was attended by accessibility advocates and accessibility advisors from government agencies and organizations.

As of 2012, one in seven Canadians have a disability. That is roughly 15 per cent. According to Statistics Canada, 50 per cent of this demographic are unemployed. Wafer explained, anecdotally, this number is higher because of people who are studying in post-secondary schools or have never worked before. If you re-evaluate the numbers, Wafer suggests, this would mean people with disabilities actually have an employment rate of 70 per cent.

“During the great depression the highest unemployment rate went up to 24 per cent. That was considered a national tragedy. And today with 70 per cent unemployment, people with disabilities live in a perpetual depression,” said Wafer.

Wafer attributes these number to employers and managers believing misconceptions and stereotypes about people with disabilities, such as working slower and being less productive and innovative.

“The greatest barrier a person with a disability faces in order to get into the workplace is attitude. The attitude of our employers, the attitude of society towards people who have a disability,” said Wafer.

In Wafer’s experience, employee absenteeism among people with disabilities was 85 per cent lower than those without.

“These workers were not looking at the clock to see when was their next smoke break. These workers were working in a safer manner. These workers didn’t take time off. They required no supervision,” said Wafer.

Wafer stressed that people with disabilities are innovative, despite stereotypes. He explained people with disabilities have to find different ways to do things to accommodate their disabilities.

“They’re already doing things totally different to you and me. Innovative thinking, differently thinking. And that innovation is created in the workforce,” said Wafer, “it’s not created by hiring brilliant people. It’s created by hiring regular folks, who think differently, who problem-solve differently.”

Hiring people with disabilities will make a business more money,  according to Wafer. In the fast food sector, the average employee turnover rate is 100 per cent to 125 per cent. Wafer said his was under 40 per cent. It costs about $4,000 to train a new server or cashier. So by having a lower turnover rate, he was making more money than other Tim Hortons’ in the area because he did not have to spend more money on training new employees.

Wafer opened his first Tim Hortons in the early 1990s. He needed a dining room attendant and hired Clint Sparling, a then 23-year-old man with Down syndrome was hired. Sparling opened Wafer’s eyes to how inclusivity is good for business.

“I realized very quickly that Clint was my best employee,” said Wafer.

Clint has now been working at Tim Hortons for 22 years. He is now the dining room manager, married, owns a condo and is living a full life, according to Wafer.

“He’s living a full life because he has a job, and more importantly, a paycheque. That’s how we all live a full life: paycheques. And the fact that we’re able to contribute to society,” said Wafer.