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Mark Wafer: Extinguishing Employment Barriers

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

Picture of Mark Wafer smiling
Picture of Mark Wafer smiling

Mark Wafer is an amazing advocate when it comes to the rights and employment of people with disabilities. He is also an internationally recognized expert on the economics of inclusion. He is an advisor to the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario on accessibility standards and is responsible for Canada’s national disability employment strategy. In addition, he helped with the reform of basic income for Canada’s disabled. He has received awards and recognition for his work on disability rights and advocacy, most notably from her majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He was also inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame in 2014. Today, Mark spends much of his time developing and informing people of diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives.

Mark has had experience with what it’s like to live with both physical and attitudinal barriers in both the workplace and his everyday life. Due to him being deaf/Deaf, with only 10% hearing without his hearing aids, and 20% hearing with his hearing aids, he has had to overcome a variety of attitudinal barriers. One example was when he played soccer while going to school in England. He loved soccer, but unfortunately, he didn’t get to participate very much in games. This was because due to his difficulty with hearing, his coaches were worried about his safety on the field. In addition, when he drove race cars, he made sure to have a sticker on his car to inform the staff that he was deaf/Deaf. He did this so that he would be able to communicate better with the racetrack staff, but it turned out to be more of a negative experience because he had a lack of safety warnings for the race. Later in his life, he considered many of these experiences of living a life with a disability and put them as his inspiration for hiring a more diverse team for his business.

In the early 1990s, after working many years in the automotive industry, Mark saved enough money to buy his own business. His wife was an accountant for Tim Hortons and found out about an opportunity to purchase a Tim Hortons franchise. After deciding to purchase and open their first Tim Hortons quick service restaurant, they had a difficult time finding enough dedicated employees, and their shop ended up turning into a bit of a mess. However, a man named Clint came in for a job opportunity and became one of their best employees. Clint had Down Syndrome, but after doing proper training for his job, he turned out to be one of Mark’s best employees. Not only did Clint follow the rules of his job to a T, but he also took very few holidays or time off. In addition, Clint was incredibly loyal to his job and wore his uniform to and from work every day to tell everybody he worked for Tim Hortons. Due to his superior work ethic and performance, Clint still works at Tim Hortons today.

Clint’s dedication and reliability to his job motivated Mark to hire more people with disabilities. In the mid-90s, Mark opened his doors to hiring anybody with any type of disability so long as they could perform the job. One of Mark’s main hiring mottos is real jobs for real pay. People with disabilities shouldn’t have jobs invented for them but be hired for jobs that already exist. This gives them better self-esteem and teaches them more skills in the workplace. By going with this concept, many more employees were attracted to work for his business. Because of his initial business success, Mark eventually owned 14 Tim Hortons in Eastern Ontario. Over his 25 years of running Tim Hortons restaurants, approximately 50 of his 300 employees at any given time had a disability. This accounted for more than 17% or 250 of his total employees. Mark declared that there wasn’t a single job with Tim Hortons that wasn’t filled at one point or another by a person with a disability.

Mark uses this as an example to show that there were also many benefits to hiring people with disabilities. For one, the turnover rate went from the normal 100% for most quick service restaurants down to 40%. This was beneficial because replacing an employee cost more than $4000. In addition, there were very few incident reports at his restaurant because hardly any employees with disabilities ended up getting into an accident. There was also a reduced absenteeism rate among his employees because the staff members with disabilities were so dedicated to their jobs. Lastly, the ability to innovate and problem solve with Mark's business increased dramatically because his employees with disabilities were so good at creating unique problem-solving ideas.

While talking at an inclusive hiring event, Mark recently learned about BC Partners in Workforce Innovation (BC WiN). He later ended up having meetings with Jamie Millar-Dixon and other employees of BC WiN, as well as Presidents group. Together they discussed ideas on how to inform other businesses about hiring people with disabilities. Mark has attended many diversity hiring events and has spoken at Tim Horton’s meetings and conferences. At one of these events, he met Randy Lewis, a former CEO of Walgreens who was also dedicated to hiring more people with disabilities. He saw the effects and benefits of this while doing studies and reports about the benefits of an inclusive workforce. Mark and Randy have been friends for more than 10 years, and together they worked towards improving employment for people with disabilities in North America and around the world.

When it comes to the Four Pillars of hiring people with disabilities, many of Mark’s concepts align with the mandates for commitment, readiness, recruitment and retention in hiring people with disabilities. For one, Mark believes hiring more people with disabilities attracts more talent because people look at the organization and feel attracted to working for a more inclusive employer. This improves the process of recruiting people with disabilities to higher-level positions and reduces the rate of turnover. Secondly, to be ready to recruit a worker with a disability, Mark believes in the method of ATP (ask the person). By asking the worker with a disability about what can be improved in their workplace, they are more successful at their job and more innovative with problem-solving.

Additionally, employers should analyze their job postings more thoroughly to ensure that they cover the position's primary responsibilities and is not just another boilerplate job description. Department managers are also better at assessing whether the person with a disability has the main skills for the job and should participate in the interview with the human resources worker because they are more aware of whether the candidate's skills are relevant to the position. Hiring people with disabilities should not be put off by the diversity, equity and inclusion departments because, quite often, they have less awareness about hiring abilities and adapting the workplace to their needs.

Lastly, Mark believes that for more people with disabilities to be employed, the beliefs and mandates need to start at the top. The CEOs and business owners need to be the ones that enforce and encourage the employment of people with disabilities. This will trickle down to the department managers and will not only start the process of improving the businesses’ diversity but also improve the businesses’ efficiency and attraction for employees. Having a more inclusive workforce reduces costs and turnover rates and retains more commitment from staff and employees. Mark sold his Tim Hortons businesses more than four years ago but he still continues to encourage employers and stakeholders to hire more people with disabilities and looks forward to the day when people with disabilities have more equal opportunities for employment.

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