AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Yazmine Laroche. ex-Deputy Minister of Public Service Accessibility in Canada.

August 04, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Yazmine Laroche
AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Yazmine Laroche. ex-Deputy Minister of Public Service Accessibility in Canada.
Show Notes Transcript

 

Before recently retiring, Yazmine Laroche was Canada’s first Deputy Minister of Public Service Accessibility. In this role, she was responsible for overseeing the efforts of the Canadian public service to meet the requirements of the Accessible Canada Act.  A career public servant with extensive experience, she has served in a variety of leadership roles in many federal departments and agencies.  

Yazmine is proud to have been the Deputy Minister Champion for Federal Employees with Disabilities and the Deputy Minister Champion for her alma mater, Carleton University, from whom she received an honorary doctorate in 2019.  She is a board member and the past chair of Muscular Dystrophy Canada. She was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of her charitable work and her efforts on behalf of people with disabilities.  

This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. It is not a commercial transcript and will need to be checked if you wish to publish it. AXSCHAT Yasmine Laroche

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm delighted that we are re-joined today by Yasmine Laroche. Yasmine has just finished her tenure as the Deputy Minister for Accessibility in Canada and is on a well is well earned break before plunging into the next thing. So, Yasmine, welcome back. I'm delighted to have you. I know you have been doing some really great work. Maybe you could tell our audience, those of us that didn't follow the first interview, a little bit about what the role was and what it was like and how it changed over the period of your tenure?

YAZMINE:

Thanks Neil. And I'm so happy to be back on Axschat. I'm just delighted that I can come and kind of give you an update on all the work that we have done over the last four years. So, to go back to 2018, that was when my work started as the Deputy Minister for public service accessibility. And the thinking behind it was the government had just introduced the Accessible Canada Act, a very comprehensive piece of legislation that was going to cover seven key areas in what we call the federally regulated sectors because Canada is a federation and there's a division of powers between the federal government and the provisional governments and so, this was to create legislation that would govern this whole federally regulated sector and that includes of course, the Government of Canada, itself and the public service and the Government of Canada is the largest employer in the country and owns a lot of property and has a huge presence right across the country. So, the government wanted very much to lead by example and say we want to be leaders in accessibility and disability inclusion and so, I was asked to come in and create the strategy and then oversee the implementation of the strategy. So, the first year was really all about designing the strategy and what we did was a very comprehensive set of consultations and engagement. In the end, over six months, we probably engaged with about 12,000 people and we did a lot of surveys, we did in person, we did online, to try and understand what were the real, what were the priorities for action because you know strategy can be many things but you want it to be as meaningful as possible for the people you are serving. And so, we did a lot of engagement to try and narrow down what were the key areas of focus that we should be tackling in our strategy and out of all of those consultations and a lot of co design with the community, we sent out drafts, we sent out ideas and we got a lot of commentary. And that culminated in late May of 2019 with the unveiling of our strategy, which is called, 'Nothing without us.' And Neil, you will remember there was a very conscious decision about the language about that because of course, coming out of the UN Convention the mantra has been, 'Nothing about us, without us.' And yet, as you look at the size of the disability community and you know all credit has to go to Minister Carla Qualtro who said, 'Why are we saying, 'Nothing about us without us?' And she said you know really, she said it should be, 'Nothing about us because everything is about us, ' and I think that really that goes to the heart of what we are trying to achieve which is accessibility and disability inclusion isn't an afterthought. It isn’t a side bar. Disability inclusion means that you always consider people with disabilities, no matter what you are doing. And that accessibility has to be built in from the start of anything that you are doing. It doesn't matter if you are designing a policy around trade. If you are designing a policy around emergency management. It means you need to pay attention to, from the start to issues around accessibility and disability inclusion. And so, our strategy was unveiled, as I said at the end of May in 2019 and then the challenge was, and okay how do we implement this. And so, that was what we spent the rest of our time doing, was we were in full implementation mode.

ANTONIO:

So, Yasmine, you know, we are talking about engaging at the highest level in government and then with different entities and then with people, you know and I'm sure that is rather a complex process to deal with. So, how do you succeed in navigating in all those little rivers where you know, people have different objectives. People have different areas of knowledge and sometimes people even have different political objectives. How do you succeed then?

YAZMINE:

That is a great question, Antonio and to go a little bit geeky on you it's about governance and it's a strange word to be using in the context of a discussion around accessibility. But really what we’re talking about was true change. We were trying to change the culture of a huge institution and to do that you do really to get the governance right because think about it. There was me, the Deputy Minister and a very small team of people. I think at our max we were 25 people. You can't do culture change if it's just that small group. Culture change means a whole lot of people have to have a stake in what you are doing and so, you have to design a governance structure that allows you to start connecting with the people who are actually going to help you to drive the change. You know, we were a small team, and I didn't have any, I call them the policy lovers, I wasn't the lead for any of the key policies that actually were necessary to drive the change and to help advance the strategy. For example, I didn't not own VHR policies for the government of Canada. I didn't own the procurement policy, nor did I own the IT policy or the service policy. So, there are all these pieces that were critical to the strategy, but other people were the owners. So, they had to be part of our governance table. So, I had something called the Deputy Ministers Accessibility Group and I pulled together the key Deputy Ministers in the government of Canada and these are the senior leaders of the organisation to be part of my team, as it were. They were part of my governance table. And we had similar mechanisms flowing throughout. So, at every level we had people engaged. We had technical working groups that were actually looking at the how of what we were trying to accomplish. And of course, a constant, constant engagement with the community of people with lived experience. I would say the other thing that is really important, when we designed the strategy, we also, our strategy was not built just out of good intentions. It also started from the basis of evidence. So, what we did you know, as part of our homework, leading up to the strategy was looking at all the data that we had, all the data points that would give us a better sense of where the challenges were and could actually give us a baseline that would allow us to start to measure progress. So, for example we have an annual, public service does an annual engagement survey of all of its employees. It has a very, very high response rate and it's a very, it's a detailed questionnaire and what we discovered out of that questionnaire were a few things. First of all, public servants with disabilities had the highest reported rates of harassment and discrimination of any. So, that was, you know, that enabled us to probe and we did follow up surveys then to try and understand what that was and we discovered that really one of the biggest pain points was workplace accommodations, that's what we call it in Canada and in North America, I believe you call it adjustments. But that was the single biggest driver for that area of concern. It took too long to get the necessary adjustments. Every time you change jobs you to re-litigate to get what you needed, and this is not uncommon, I know you are both very familiar and I know that you’re you know, the viewers are very familiar. This is not uncommon. This is something that we see around the world. We don't do a very good job of providing people with the tools that they need to succeed in their jobs. So, we knew that that was a big issue, and we knew we were going to have to tackle that in a very, very proactive way. So, that was one area. We also knew for example, we knew that IT was a huge issue and again that is kind of linked to the workplace adjustments. But we have a multiplicity of programmes and systems and hardware and software across the public service and a lot of it, not accessible at all and so we knew that that was going to be another area of focus. Of course the built environment is a huge priority for people and you know, we had a lot of feedback in terms of the lived experience of people engaging with their built environment and so, you start with evidence and then you set some goals and you, it's really, really important to be able to measure. The government had set as a target that they wanted the public service to hire five thousand new employees with disabilities by 2025 and so we were able to work with our colleagues at the public service commission to try and understand okay, what would it take to get us there. How do you design a model that allows you to take into account what we call the churn? So, people coming in and people leaving. How do you actually get to a net increase of five thousand?

ANTONIO:

Yasmine, I need to ask you a question in right in that area. So government wants to hire more, but will the environment in the space of social services in Canada open will actually let people who have not identified themselves with a disability to identify themselves because sometimes you want to hire more but you already have people there who are not self-identify. How do you handle that?

YAZMINE:

I think that is a great question, Antonio. And in fact, it's both. So, we know, so we had data that showed that our hiring rate of people who self-identified with disabilities was about 3.4% a year. That is not going to get you, that is not going to get you to five thousand and it's not going to get you in Canada to what we call workforce availability or labour availability, which is a measure that is often used to determine where you are in terms of representation. So, our workplace availability or workforce availability measure of people with disabilities is about 9%, it's 9.1% let's say. Well, our representation rates were 5.6% when I started. And you're right Antonio, that is the people who self-identify. And we know, particularly people who have less visible, or invisible or perhaps episodic disabilities may not choose to self-identify. I mean, there is always you know, there is a lot of fear about self-identification. The fear of reprisal. The fear of being stereotyped. And so that is an issue. That is definitely an issue. Interestingly, so, we have two ways of measuring and there is an annual formal process and it's actually required by law something. We have something called the Employment Equity Act and federally represented institutions have to report on their representation rates of key groups. And so, there is a formal process that each of these organisations go through. So, our representation rates come in from that. But if you contrast because we also asked people to self-identify in our engagement survey and there was a gap of at least 2% between those two. And the reason, I think is that the employee engagement survey is completely anonymous. And so, you get people perhaps more willing to disclose. So, you're right Antonio I don't think we have a really good understanding yet of what our true representation rates are. But I also know that we don't do a good enough job of recruiting people with disabilities so, we knew we had had to put attention and focus on a lot of focus on that. So, there were programmes that were designed. Apprenticeship programmes. A lot of focus on student hiring. So, a lot of different initiatives. And what we were able to do, were actually able to develop metrics for every department in the federal government and we could then share those data with the leaders of those organisations to say, okay here where we are. Here's where you need to be, if you are going to actually help move the dial on representation rates and needing that target of five thousand net new hires. So, again data are hugely important to this. You need evidence, you need to be able to show people because it gives you something concrete. That was really, really, really important. And so, why don't I stop there because I am sure you guys have more questions for me.

NEIL:

I definitely do. So, I think that the challenges that you have talked are not certainly unique. They exist in all organisations, and we have experienced similar things within our own organisation where we are running our sort of accessibility programmes in terms of disparities of disclosure, and we have got a great case actually where and talking to the point that you just made about people being more prepared to disclose in certain circumstances than others. We have a colleague of mine, who is clearly visibly disabled, who is Workers Council's Representative for disabled people. But refuses to register officially as disabled because he feels that that then puts him in a position where he's getting special favours, not that he is but that he does not want the perception that he's getting an easier ride than anyone else. So, there are all kinds of different motivations for why people may not wish to disclose and in his case he's obviously disabled. It's his job. He has worked in accessibility. But he still doesn't appear on the official figures. So, there are all sorts of things we have to do culturally to persuade of this and I still have a job convincing him that its actually in our interest for him to register and in his interest too because it's more important that it's about him than our corporate interests. But I think that every organisation is struggling with creating a culture where people feel that it is safe to self ID and to have that logged and even when they are not anonymous surveys, the fact that they are not going into HR systems also has an impact because we have a disparity between the people that are openly members of our disability networks and the number of people that have input their data into our HR systems because those kinds of things also, people view sort of an official HR system very differently to responding to a survey or belonging to a network.

YAZMINE:

Can I mention something then, in that context because I think there was something that we worked on and I'm particularly proud of it. And I think it's just telling, in terms of the approach that we took. So, I mentioned you know how one of the biggest challenges is workplace accommodations and so, we designed something called a workplace accessibility passport and it was a, right now it's still in paper form because it took us a long time to find a truly accessible digital solution. I'll come back to that in a minute but what is so interesting about it. So, sometimes you know, sometimes people will say, well, you don't design like a digital or a paper solution until you have fixed your broken business processes. We saw the passport as a way of actually driving improvement to the business process because by using this passport, organisations had to look at workplace accommodations differently because the passport was essentially an agreement between the employer and employee as to the barriers that they face in the workplace and what the agreed upon solutions are and what is so interesting about the passport is, it tells you every step of the way, this is not about a medical diagnosis, please do not share your medical diagnosis. This is about the barriers that you experience in the workplace. And so, the passport is design the to focus not on, you know the thing that bothers a lot of people with disabilities, myself included, is that you kind of end up in a conversation which is all about what's wrong with you, as opposed to what are the barriers that we have created and how can we eliminate them. So, like again getting back to the culture piece, I think that is really a key piece. We have been working very closely with the Chief Information Officer for Canada to design the digital solution and I believe it's going to be ready to launch this Fall and I genuinely think this is going to be a gamechanger because that passport then is something that the employee has forever. It can updated as the condition changes or as new solutions are found. But it's theirs. And so, their solution will go with them wherever they go, and I think that will help to address a number of things, including the low promotion rates for individuals in with disability in the public service. So, again the lowest promotion rates of anybody. And I do believe that is linked back to if I've got the solutions I need here and I don't know I'm going to get them in my next job. Why would I even try? I'm safer where I am.

NEIL:

So, Antonio popped in the chat, how to pronounce this, it's something we have done in certain parts of our organisation and certainly other organisations in the UK have done similar things as well and the passport enables people to have that mobility within an organisation, to be able to move jobs without having to start conversations from scratch or even have some of those difficult conversations because it's an official document that says these are the my needs to be able to do my job properly and it's already been agreed and therefore this is all you need to know to support me, to be my most effective self.

YAZMINE:

And I don't know why more organisations it doesn’t do to be honest because I'm looking at your question Antonio about the private sector. It's a productivity issue like why on earth would you want to have a segment of your workforce that's not as productive as it could be. So, even just like from a bottom-line perspective. In the public service, again I get we have a different bottom line, our bottom line is the public interest but why would you want a segment of your workforce not able to produce and not able to make their best contribution. It just doesn’t make any sense. And yet, you know, we've allowed a situation to exist, and I do believe it makes us much less attractive as an employer. So, back to the issue of bringing in five thousand new employees, if they're coming into a work environment that is not welcoming. They are just going to turn around and leave. I mean Canada is like many other countries, where we've got kind of a demographic time bomb. People like me are leaving the workforce and there is going to be a huge, there is already a huge competition for talent and so, if you don't have an organisation that is welcoming to everybody then you are not going to get the top talent that you need.

ANTONIO:

At the same time, like, if you go back to the results of the survey and to the wellbeing of employees, you know that is also something important to bring to the table, when people have that feeling that they can be productive that improves their wellbeing, who somehow even became more important when we all started working from home, isolated in this pandemic space. Who also brought new opportunities and new challenges?

YAZMINE:

Oh Antonio, I am so glad you went there because you know apropos of our engagement survey, so what was really interesting during COVID when everybody was working from home, pretty much not everybody, there were obviously, there were segments of our workforce that had to be in the physical workplace because of the nature their work. But the harassment and discrimination rates went down, for everybody including people with disabilities. So, you know that is fascinating isn't it. So, in other words, and if you, because the survey allows you to drill down, you can actually ask and what was the major source of your harassment discrimination and you know, more often than not, it was either my supervisor or my colleagues. And so, if you take that out of the equation and somebody is now you know working from home or working remotely and they don't have those daily stressors, so those rates went down across the board.

NEIL:

I think that is interesting because it's also concerning because essentially that doesn't change the fact that people have prejudice. All that has done is removed them from the proximity of prejudiced people.

YAZMINE:

Or they may not just be prejudiced people, but it could be, like I actually have the set up I need at home. Or imaging you have a disability that flares, so going back to the pre COVID times we know that the number one accommodation was flexible work arrangements. Well you know all of a sudden everybody needed flexible work arrangements like everybody and flexible meaning my child is at home now because they can't go. day care so I can't actually work during normal working hours, so I am going to need different working hours. I'm still going to be productive, but I just need. So, all of a sudden everybody was in the same boat. Everybody needed adjustments. And it was fascinating for me to see you know, what came out of COVID. So, we had originally a three-year plan to migrate. We had a gazillion different software systems across the public service, and we were migrating to Microsoft Office 365, we were going to get everybody there. That was supposed to be a three-year process, you know it was very rigorous, which departments would go first, which would be wave one, wave two, wave three. Well, it was done in six months. It was done in six months. So, all of a sudden, we all had the same tools, which is amazing. So, everybody then had the same kind of equipment and it meant that, I hate this expression, but it levelled the playing field for a lot of our employees, not just employees with disabilities, but everybody was using the same platform. So, you know, it made it a lot easier then to work with your colleagues. Boy, did we make a great shift to Microsoft Teams and Zoom and video. Video work. So, coming back to my strategy. So, we launched our strategy in late May of 2019. A year later, like we were all participating like this, online. And in thinking about what that meant from a governance perspective, it made it so much easier for my colleagues to participate in meetings because they didn't have to worry about getting to my office in downtown Ottawa. Like there was just, we removed a lot of the friction from the system. We made it easier for people to participate and I honestly think it helped us to accelerate some of the work that we were trying to achieve through our strategies. So, that is one of the unintended consequences of COVID.

NEIL:

Yeah, so, we work for a large IT company. The amount of roll outs, rapid role outs of collaboration tools and communication tools that happened at the beginning of COVID was amazing to watch. Because stuff that would have taken, as you said, three years was done almost overnight. People were throwing a switch and it's on. And that had and the consequences you talked about of people being able to work flexibility and to collaborate across you know large geographies without of the difficulties of travel. But it also had other less positive impacts in terms of what that has done in terms of the impact on people's mental health and wellbeing and their distractedness. As, someone with ADHD, I'm easily distracted anyway. But the constant flow of notifications only increased as part of COVID and the roll out of all of these collaboration tools. And the fact that you don't have a water cooler to have a conversation around anymore mean that people set up meetings or if everybody is in back-to-back meetings then also the etiquette of waiting until someone's free goes out of the window. So, you can be doing something, and you are getting someone pinging you or ringing you or you know, it's almost constant. So, I think that there is real definite tangible benefits in terms of the change attitudes to flexibility of working. But also, I think that several years down the line there are a lot of people that are feeling pretty tired, and we need to find, you know redress that balance and I'm not talking about returning to the office so much as actually looking at the intensity of work.

YASMINE:

I think that is a really good point, Neil and I know that in our own experience what we have been experimenting is what we call hybrid work models and in our own shop, we really experimented with that. So COVID allowed us to have staff not located in the national capital region. So, we had somebody in Prince Edward Island, somebody in Vancouver and somebody in the Eucon and somebody in southern Ontario, which was great. The interesting thing about that and I think from a public service perspective, really interesting, too often we look at Ottawa and the national capital region and like everybody has to be there if you are really going to have a good career. But all of a sudden it gets back to the question of where the talent is and so, we were table to find talent that we wouldn't otherwise have been able to find, and I think that is a huge, huge advantage. What we are looking, but the challenge then is, as you're experimenting with hybrid where some people are going to be coming back into the office, a couple of times a week, how do you create a new work eco system that is not going to disadvantage some people? I think that is a really, really important point that we need to be working on. A lot of the conversations as we were kind of moving back into some people coming back into the office was, so are we all of a sudden going to be creating two different classes of employees? Those who are physically present and therefore have more facetime with their managers in person and therefore maybe likelier to get promotional opportunities? What does that do for the people who then you know have opted to spend most of their time working remotely. So, I think there is a risk there and something we have to be paying a lot of attention to. But I do think that it's created a situation that has made it much more humane for a lot of people to not force them into one kind of work model or another and my great hope is that we don't lose that. I know you that know that institutions are funny and there is this terrible tendency to want to go back to the way things were. And my real hope is that we are not going to do that, and we'll seize this opportunity.

ANTONIO:

We are going to take too much time of your time there and with this topic. I think something that is particularly important for organisations is starting to embed training on how to collaborate, how to communicate, how to do community management because this has been absent from learning and training programmes. So, I think an effort needs to be done here to support leaders, to support employees, to better manage this kind of realities. So, but I think myself and Neil are also very eager to learn, what have you learned from all this? You know what, because there are other governments, there are other entities like European Union, where they are going through a similar journey of employment accessibility across the different countries. What were the big lessons for you during this journey?

YAZMINE:

I'm so glad you asked, Antonio. A couple of things, so I started I think talking about, it starts with evidence, right? You have to understand what the situation is, what is it you are trying to fix. Number two is, 'nothing without us ' is at the heart of it. Never, ever, ever do a change initiative without including the people you are trying to help, like you will not succeed. That is number two. Number 3, this is something that actually somebody told me the last time I saw Neil in person in Geneva, 'Don't boil the ocean.' Too often, when you are trying to do a big change initiative, you want to do everything. And so, I think it's really, really important to, it's not just, people use this terrible expression, the low hanging fruit. There is the easy stuff that you are going to do anyway. But it's really important to focus on what are those key things that will make the biggest difference. That is important. And then you have to be able to measure your process. I talked about governance. You cannot do a change initiative unless you have other people who are willing to own it and drive it. So, never make the sole responsibility of a small group of people. It has to be owned by the collective leadership and it has to be informed by employees and their views and their thoughts. That is really, really important. Allyship. Allyship is critical. We are having all these discussions these days around diversity, inclusion and equity. And sometimes it feels like we're almost pitting groups against each other. You know, whose turn is it this time? You know I think back to the Valuable 500 wonderful videos. And sometimes, it’s just like, okay, who is the group d'jour or the group of the year. And that's just wrong. You know, we are trying to build a society and a workplace where people can give their best. And so, when you eliminate barriers, you need to be looking at everybody and people who face barriers need to be great allies. But people who face barriers also needle allies. And sometimes, and this is something really important, it's the people with the privilege and the power who have to be great allies as well. It can't just be the job of the people who are dealing with the discrimination. You need the people with privilege as well. So, and I guess last thing I would say is, always be ready to adapt and be ready to deal with sure surprises, like COVID which taught us a lot of lessons that we perhaps hadn't anticipated when we first drafted our strategies. And we had to pivot in some areas. So, it’s that ability to not be stuck and recognise that circumstances can change, and you need to be able to change with it. So, those would be some of my lessons learned but I am incredibly optimistic about the future of accessibility and disability inclusion in Canada. I think we have made a big difference already. There is still a long way to go. But I'm very, very optimistic about where we are going to go.

NEIL:

Thank you Yasmine. I think that it’s clear that there's momentum behind it. We can see real evidence of progress. You know, congratulations to you on your four years of progress along the way and I wish you all the best for a few months of rest and recuperation before we see you pop up and doing something else. I would just like to thank My Clear Text for keeping us captioned and accessible. And we look forward to you joining us on Twitter shortly.

YAZMINE:

Can't wait.