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How This Franchisee Is Giving Hope -- and Jobs -- to the Disabled Community Disabled people make great employees. That's why this Tim Hortons owner keeps hiring them.

By Jason Daley

This story appears in the May 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Bobby Fisher

Mark Wafer could fake his way through interviews. "My speech is good," he says, so the interviewer didn't realize that Wafer has about 85 percent hearing loss. "But once the boss found out I was deaf, I was fired. Usually quickly." After losing many jobs this way, he finally landed a solid one, built confidence and 21 years ago bought his first coffee-and-doughnut Tim Hortons unit. Soon he hired a man with Down syndrome, who was excellent: hardworking, happy, friendly and loyal. Disabled individuals, Wafer realized, make great employees and improve the bottom line -- but it's generally believed that only about 17 percent of people with disabilities are employed, he says. So over the years, Wafer has become a public advocate and hired 125 disabled employees at his six Tim Hortons.

Are disabled employees really better for the bottom line? I think most people see hiring them as charity.

We have less absenteeism and turnover with disabled employees than with those who are not. Employing people with disabilities in meaningful and competitively paid positions leads to a more loyal workforce, higher productivity, greater safety ratings, higher innovation, lower absenteeism and a much lower annual employee turnover for both workers with disabilities and those without. Employees with disabilities are human, too, so we will see some poor or unacceptable work behavior at times, but it is rare.

Are there conflicts between able-bodied and disabled employees?

When we hire new recruits we say, "You will be working with people who might have a disability. How do you feel about that?" If we don't get the right reaction, we don't move forward with that candidate. Being inclusive changes the culture of your workforce. Every second person in North America either has a disability or has a direct family member with one. For this reason alone, workers without disabilities are happy to work alongside those who do. And customers also like it.

Do you have to make accommodations for disabled employees?

About 60 percent of new hires with disabilities don't require any, and for those that do, the average cost is low and usually a case of extra training or modified schedules. We are in business to make money -- we don't run a charity -- so it's important that a new hire be a good fit, be skilled or be trainable to do a job properly. We have, on a few occasions, had to make more significant accommodations, such as lowering workstations or installing large-screen readers over cash registers, but again, the value such employees bring to the table are well worth the expense.

What's the solution to fixing low employment for disabled workers?

Governments can't fix this problem. My hope is that business will step up. We need more corporations to set the tone and the intent to build capacity within their operations. We need a civil rights movement of sorts in the disability community. One thing is for sure: There is a massive untapped talent pool just waiting to get started, and business needs to be aware of this.

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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