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Turning disability to diverse-ability is a win for business

Lisa and Patrick Beecroft employ a crack team of specialists at their Port Moody bakery, each seemingly faster and more skilled than the last.

Aaron can perfectly fold dozens of pie boxes in less than two hours, and when they have enough, he is outta there.

“We sell huge, heavy pies, so we need these heavy boxes built fast and properly, and Aaron flies through it,” said sales manager Sarah Breitenbach.

Part-timers Ryan, Chris and Alex come in to scoop and weigh cookie dough, which they do by the hundreds with speed and accuracy.

The key is ultra-short, ultra-intense shifts, that require a special kind of worker.

What is special about the workers at Gabi & Jules Handmade Pies is that these hired guns are people with autism, some of whom are non-verbal.

Seven of their 15 staff have some form of autism. If you think you have an inclusive workplace, just think about that number.


Sales manager Sarah Breitenbach at Gabi & Jules Handmade Pies.

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“We also have dishwashers, and you might not think that’s challenging, but we create a huge volume of dishes and they all have to be dealt with in a certain way,” said Breitenbach. “So we get the tunes going and hammer through dishes like you wouldn’t believe.”

Rather than being a drag on productivity, workers who have autism at Gabi & Jules are matched with jobs they can knock out of the park.

“If you are a small business owner in B.C., you know that it’s incredibly challenging to find quality, engaged, loyal staff,” said owner Lisa Beecroft. “We’re very lucky that we’ve found some amazing people over the years that have worked for us, and that is something that’s hard to find.”

Beecroft’s daughter Juliana has autism, so creating opportunity for people like her was the inspiration for the bakery. But Gabi & Jules is also a key cog in a larger empire, supplying baked goods to the Beecrofts’ three Caffe Divano locations.

Lisa is a member of the Presidents Group, made up of about two dozen B.C. business executives committed to creating inclusive workplaces.

It’s a group that also includes heavy hitters such as Vancouver Airport Authority CEO Craig Richmond, B.C. Hydro president Chris O’Riley, and Ledcor president of construction Peter Hrdlitschka, among others.

The Presidents Group held a roundtable last week to share their innovations and successes and to prepare for federal accessibility legislation already working its way through the House of Commons. Their website, accessibleemployers.ca, is a one-stop shop for employers who want to know how it’s done.

YVR knows how it’s done.


Steven Woo is a communications assistant at the Vancouver Airport Authority, but maybe not for long. He has already started an MBA.

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Steven Woo was hired full-time as a communications assistant at the airport after a student co-op stint as a community ambassador.

“If you had asked me when I was working on my (undergraduate degree) where I saw myself working, never in a million years would I have said the airport,” he laughed.

But YVR was combing universities for candidates with disabilities, and a chance meeting between Woo and a former instructor who was in the loop opened a door.

Woo is visually impaired and works with an assistance dog, Horatio. To help him do his job, Woo acquired a large-screen monitor and video magnifier from the Neil Squire Society.

He is often the first point of contact for people who reach out to the airport.

“I provide support for our community investment program … our employee giving program and our employee volunteering program,” he said. “I’m the first point of contact for a lot of community members, so a lot of emails come to me first and I handle the community relations phone line as well.”

As a member of the airport’s diversity and employment equity committee, Woo is able to promote his employer’s culture of inclusivity.

But even bigger things are on the horizon. Woo is completing a Masters in Business Administration and has every intention of climbing the career ladder.

The dividends of inclusion extend far beyond good karma.

The Presidents Group maintains there is a strong business case for diversity. Not to mention, there are tens of thousands of people with diverse-abilities ready to solve your skilled labour shortage.

Labour market studies show that diverse workplaces are more likely to meet their financial goals and consumers prefer to engage with companies that show some heart.

Companies that figure out how to help employees with disabilities thrive are six times as likely to innovate and to anticipate change. Your diverse-abled employees also tend to stay longer and have better attendance.

Add it up and the business case is pretty clear.

“This may be one of the last conscious biases that employers have,” said airport CEO Richmond. “When a young person comes through the door and has an obvious disability, you initially will say, ‘This is going to be hard.’ I’m here to say it’s not.”

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