Opportunity Access

Late in the Spring of 1987, Joyce Gillis sat facing one of her students at the Atlantic Provinces Resource Centre for the Hearing Handicapped (APRCHH) in Amherst Nova Scotia. Talking about the uncertain future with graduating students was the down side to a job she otherwise loved. David Ward was an intelligent, enthusiastic and talented young man who had easily absorbed the lessons and skills taught in the program for the Hearing Handicapped. Using eloquent sign language he asked Gillis, "Where do I go from here?" Gillis knew she had few answers to give him. Between 50 and 75% of all disabled persons in Canada are unemployed, although they make up 10% of the potential workforce.

"I don't want to discourage you David," she said, "but you will have to be realistic in your expectations for employment. It will not be easy for you to find a job. If you do find one, you may have to settle for a job that doesn't satisfy you or utilize your full potential." She gave him a short list of agencies that might provide some help and sincerely wished him luck. It was a conversation she had had many times before and was likely to have again, but each time she found it frustrating and less acceptable.

Shortly after this difficult farewell with David Ward, Joyce Gillis and Stewart Fraser, a co-worker at APRCHH, approached the administrators of the resource centre with a proposal. They asked for time away from their regular duties to help find employment for students graduating from the centre. Eventually, they managed to place the majority of the 1987 graduates.

Encouraged by the success of this limited placement trial, Gillis and Fraser began to consider opening their own business. The concept for Opportunity Access was born. Now, in September of 1989, they met to discuss developments

This case was prepared by Professor Peter D Sianchuk at Mount Allison University for the Atlantic Entrepreneurial Institute as a basis for classroom discussion, and is not meant to illustrate either effective or ineffective management.

Copyright 1991, the Atlantic Entrepreneurial Institute, an Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency funded organization. Reproduction of this case is allowed without permission for educational purposes, but all such reproductions must acknowledge the copyright. This permission does not include publication.

in their mutual efforts to establish the new business. Gillis was very enthusiastic about their chances. "I'm convinced Opportunity Access can be a successful business," she said. "There's a strong need for a service in the Atlantic area to show employers the advantages of hiring persons with special needs. Both employers and disabled employees need help with adjustments and training in the work place." Fraser agreed, having faced many of the same frustrations as Gillis while working with the hearing impaired. His immediate concern, however, was to solve the more practical problems involved in setting up a new business. Market research might be necessary, financing would definitely be a problem, and many marketing issues would have to be fully explored before proceeding with plans to open an Opportunity Access office. They had discussed many details of the proposed operation in the last few months, but Fraser still had doubts. He was haunted by the question "Are there any areas, crucial to our success, we have not yet considered?"


Both Joyce Gillis and Stewart Fraser had extensive training and experience in the educational field. Each had attained a Master's degree in Education, and had taught in Amherst schools twenty-five and thirty-two years respectively.

With over forty years of combined experience at the APRCHH, they had ample knowledge of dealing with people with special needs. They had seen first hand the difficulties these people faced in a world that either ignored or failed to recognize the needs of minority groups.

Because Gillis and Fraser had no previous business experience, they were very cautious in their approach; they were determined to get as much information as possible and not to rush into the new venture prematurely. Fraser had always had more than a casual interest in business. He was well read in business topics, had several close contacts in the business world, and kept up to date with current business events. He had studied recent legislation on employment equity and done some preliminary market, industry and consumer analysis for the prospective firm. Gillis, the more creative partner, concentrated on defining the objectives of the firm, designing services, and studying possible start-up promotional techniques.

Gillis and Fraser sat down in September, 1989 to review their findings.

Recent Legislation

On April 23, 1986, the Canadian House of Commons passed Bill C-62, the "Employment Equity Act" (Exhibit 1). The purpose of the Act is to ensure equal opportunity to employment for all Canadians. The Act goes beyond treating all persons in the same way by recognizing that employment equity might also require special measures and the accommodation of differences. Groups identified in the Act as being at a disadvantage include women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities.

Employers falling directly under the legislation were limited to federally regulated employers with 100 or more employees. Therefore only 400 companies in Canada were affected, and most privately owned firms were excluded. Legislators hoped that an example would be set by the affected firms, and eventually be followed by many Canadian employers.

There were no penalties for failing to make progress in minority hiring, but firms falling under the legislation were to file a yearly report. Failure to file reports was subject to a penalty of up to $50,000. Copies of the reports would be sent to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Firms were also required by the act to set equity goals and plans for implementation. The government would periodically release consolidated reports and rank firms according to their progress in hiring designated groups.

Marked improvement had been shown by at least one federally regulated work force in 1989. Chartered banks reported that numbers of disabled employees had increased from 2.2% to 4.4% in one year. The Royal Bank had established an employment equity program as a result of the legislation, and had worked hard to recruit disabled people. The bank later won an award for its hiring record from a group representing the deaf.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Exhibit 2) had stated Equality Rights which by law protected groups similar to those named in the Employment Equity Act. The Charter recognised that certain disabilities might require "special kinds of assistance and protection from discrimination."

Social Climate

There was some evidence to show that the corporate world was becoming more socially responsible, more willing to listen, and more willing to respond to the needs of society. For example, McDonald's and the Royal Bank had taken a lead in trying to integrate special needs persons into their workplaces, and served as an example for "Corporate Canada". They had each produced videos illustrating the benefits their organizations had received by employing special needs persons in their workplaces.

The media was paying more attention to the problems of disabled citizens. The "Decade of the Disabled," declared in 1983 by the United Nations, brought many of these problems, and their solutions into the spotlight. Certain popular TV series, such as L.A. Law, included disabled characters who functioned as worthwhile contributors to the workplace and to society.

Industry Analysis

Through work contacts Gillis and Fraser had become acquainted with profit and non-profit Maritime organizations that provided services to the disabled. Not considered a competitor in the usual sense, Opportunity Access was to be designed to complement and co-operate with these organizations, thus avoiding duplicate services whenever possible. Examples of non-profit organizations included the Canadian Paraplegic Association, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and the Access Program for Disabled Persons sponsored by federal and provincial governments. These groups all worked to help special needs persons adjust to living in today's society. They were located in almost every town and city, and offered their services free of charge. Although non-profit organizations might be less costly, they did not provide the range of services considered vital by Gillis and Fraser for successfully integrating special needs persons into the workplace. They envisioned Opportunity Access as providing these services.

Groups like the Moncton Employment Training Centre (METS) in Moncton, NB, and Bill Finley Punnit in Amherst, NS, also helped integrate special needs persons into the workplace. They charged a fee, but provided more services than the non-profit organizations. METS worked as a vocational centre and placement agency for special needs individuals. The METS organization offered specialized job skills training for special needs individuals and helped to ensure that they would fit into their work environment. METS dealt mainly with the disabled worker, not with the employing firm. Bill Finley Punnit helped mentally and physically disabled persons on employment assistance to find jobs compatible with their individual disabilities. This company also dealt directly with the disabled worker and not with the employer.

Market and Consumer Analysis

Opportunity Access planned initially to target a well defined group of Maritime businesses to find consumers for their services. Targeted firms would be chosen from among crown corporations employing 100 or more workers; suppliers falling under the Federal Contractors Program; service industries; private sector industries and educational facilities. An example of target companies under consideration is given in Exhibit 3. This exhibit provides a list of 20 large, successful Maritime firms which could be divided into two distinct groups: one group falling under Federal Government jurisdiction regarding Employment Equity legislation and the other group consisting of private sector firms.

Gillis felt that crown corporations, federal agencies and federal public service departments should also be target clients for Opportunity Access. These organizations, although aware of legislation urging them to hire more disabled workers, were perhaps not aware of the benefits of doing so.

Crown corporations and federal agencies were already under pressure to adhere to equity legislation. Gillis felt, therefore, that they could be the prime focus of educational and training seminars showing employers the simplest and most cost effective means of integrating special needs employees. Since federal public service departments were also relatively large employers, they should also provide a market for the placement services offered by Opportunity Access.

Private sector organizations were recognized as a distinct market, possibly requiring a distinctive marketing approach. Benefits of hiring disabled individuals would again have to be stressed, but emphasis would also have to be placed on motivating these firms to contribute to the greater good of society rather than on meeting legislative requirements. It might require more effort and creativity on the part of Opportunity Access to persuade these employers to expend the time, effort and financial investment necessary to integrate disabled persons into their businesses. Services provided by Opportunity Access would have to be well worth the costs incurred by the organization using them.

Company Objectives

The aim of Opportunity Access was to create an independent service agency devoted to equity employment for disabled persons. The primary task would be to interest businesses or employers in a program to increase understanding of the special needs of disabled persons. Ultimately the program would enlist employer support in integrating disabled workers into the regular workplace. Fraser and Gillis wanted to stress the advantages of equity employment to the employer, to the disability groups, and to society. As an integrated service, Opportunity Access would cooperate with existing services to ensure that the most appropriate placement of disabled individuals occurred. Acting as a placement agency, Opportunity Access would work with employment equity consultants, advocacy groups, rehabilitation services and special needs counsellors. Initially, services would be provided through information workshops and seminars. These would be followed by task analysis; assessment and placement assistance; and follow up and support.

Fraser believed that lectures, videos and presentations should be aimed at all levels of the client organization. Content of these media would highlight firms with which disabled individuals have been successfully employed. Printed materials would be used to help overcome myths currently associated with disabled workers. Employers could be educated to focus on "abilities" before "disabilities". That is, for those who possess the skills required for a job, disabilities might be irrelevant. Disabled workers have been shown to take great pride in their work, to be highly productive, to be punctual, to have low absenteeism and to contribute to high morale among their co-workers. The focus of Opportunity Access marketing, would be on the disabled as an underutilized human resource, with special contributions to make to the labour force.

Opportunity Access would also provide information on incentives and federal funding available to firms trying to employ special needs individuals.

Task analysis would involve Opportunity Access working with the employer to examine the work site and identify areas that would be best adapted to persons with special needs. Realistic ways of modifying the work environment by making "reasonable accommodations" would be identified. By simultaneously working with employment equity consultants, advocate groups, rehab services and special needs counsellors, Opportunity Access could achieve the best "fit" between employers and disabled employees.

When necessary, follow-up employer/employee support would be provided through further consultation, mail contact, training and on-site aid to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. Opportunity Access clients would therefore feel they could draw upon an ongoing resource.

Financial Considerations

Fraser and Gillis had each contributed $2,000 from their savings to finance the start-up of Opportunity Access. In addition, they could be eligible for government grants and funding programs such as the Student Challenge Program, the Rural Industry Program, the Women's Entrepreneur Program, Business Improvement Loans and other Provincial Government loans (Exhibit 4). Grants were also available for new business start-ups, and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) offered services to assist new business ventures. Fraser was aware that to receive any financial aid, Opportunity Access must be presented as having a clear set of objectives and a feasible plan to meet them.

Fraser had been busy compiling a list of initial financial requirements. Fixed costs would include rent, equipment and office staff. They knew they would need to hire an office manager/secretary and at least one instructor or trainer. During start-up Fraser felt they could get along with apart-time office manager and part-time trainer at a cost of approximately $23,000 per year. They would also need office supplies, a telephone, letterhead stationery, and supplies for workshops and training seminars. These needs would change, depending on the volume of work they could generate and the availability of loans and grants. They knew their $4,000 would not go far, and they had discussed the possibility of first identifying clients who would pay a deposit for Opportunity Access services. This would increase cash flow during start-up of the business. They each had full-time salaries from APRCHH to fall back on, at least initially.


A definite pricing policy was yet to be established. The cost of services would have to be determined individually, and would depend on factors such as training time required, number of trainees, staff requirements etc. They had previously charged $25/hour for their time but this did not cover additional expenses. Travelling expenses, costs of teaching aids and equipment, and contributions to overhead would all need to be incorporated into proposed fees. Fees would then be discussed and agreed upon with prospective employers. First year profits would depend upon the ability of Fraser and Gillis to secure jobs, find the time and manpower to complete the work necessary, and to cover both anticipated and unexpected expenses. Capital and other expenditures would have to be kept to a minimum during start-up and Gillis and Fraser were willing to do much of the initial work themselves to keep salary costs low.

Fraser estimated that for the first two years, they should aim at completing 10 jobs per year; these would require approximately 25 professional hours per job. In addition to hourly fees, he estimated they would need to charge employers, on average, $4,000 per job to cover expenses and overhead.


Amherst seemed to be a good location for Opportunity Access, not only because Gillis and Fraser worked in Amherst, but also because it was centrally located to serve the Maritimes, their chosen geographical market (Exhibit 5). Gillis and Fraser were studying a number of options for opening an office in Amherst. The house Gillis rented in a residential section of Amherst had an upstairs apartment available for use by Opportunity Access as an office and training facility. The cost would be $850 per month. While this option was convenient for Gillis and provided a greater opportunity for monitoring the staff and training activities, the office would not be wheelchair accessible without major renovations. There would also be less public exposure than in a commercial area. Rental costs for prime locations on Main Street in Amherst were approximately $10 - $15 per square foot, a total cost of between $900 - $1,200 per month depending on space needed. Long term leases might be required. Second floor office space was available for less ($350 - $500 per month), but would again present accessibility problems for some physically disabled clients.


Gillis had been examining various forms of media in order to determine what might be the most effective way of introducing and promoting the new business. She knew that in order to obtain clients they would have to promote themselves well. She had determined that $2,000 could be set aside for a communications budget in the first year. This amount would later be reassessed after analyzing the effectiveness of the communications plan. Gillis had tracked down the costs of several advertising options. Her estimates of the cost of printing business cards, letterhead and envelopes are shown in Exhibit 6. Exhibits 7 and 8 provide selected print media costing breakdowns.

With a small promotional budget and the entire Maritimes to cover, Opportunity Access would have to be very cost effective in reaching its target market. Major centres like Halifax, Moncton, Fredericton, Charlottetown and Sydney (Exhibit 5) would provide the majority of the clientele. Each of these centres had a Chamber of Commerce or Industrial Commission (Exhibit 9); these could assist in reaching prospective clients. Gazing at what seemed like an enormous amount of information, Gillis realized the need to set clearly defined priorities and objectives before finalizing a communications plan.

As his long discussion with Joyce Gillis came to an end, Stewart Fraser tried to summarize his thoughts. "We need to have a plan of attack," he offered, "but I think we still need more information." They agreed to meet in one week to deal more specifically with the planning issues facing Opportunity Access.

Exhibit 1

Employment Equity Act


Exhibit 2

Equality Rights

Exhibit 3

Sample: Large Maritime Businesses

Exhibit 4

Loans and Grants Available to Opportunity Access


Rural Industry Program

  • must be a select service industry.
  • capital expenditures of firm must not exceed $30,000.
  • business can receive a maximum grant of $7,500 or 30% of capital expenditures.
  • Provincial Government - Small Business Development.

Women's Entrepreneur Program

  • women must have 50% ownership in the business.
  • capital expenditures of firm cannot exceed $30,000.
  • business can receive a maximum grant of $5,000 or 50% of their maximum outlay.
  • very few restrictions on the grant - almost any type of operation is eligible if they fit the above description.
  • Provincial Government - Small Business Development

Consulting Assistance

  • available to all small businesses during start-up.
  • business must locate and hire a business consultant.
  • government will pay 50% of the consultant's wages.
  • Provincial Government - Small Business Development.

Canadian Employment and Immigration Centre

  • wage assistance program.
  • employees must have physical or mental disabilities or they must have been out of work or on Unemployment Insurance or welfare.
  • government pays a percentage of wages depending on the circumstances.
  • Federal Government - Department of Employment and Immigration.

Student Challenge Program

  • businesses must apply for grant; concerns only hiring students.
  • students must be hired through the Employment Centers; family members can not be hired.
  • government will pay half of minimum wage for each student.
  • students must work 37 hours a week.
  • grants are given for 10 weeks.
  • Federal Government - Department of Employment and Immigration


Small Business Loans

  • all applicants must apply to the Small Business Development Bank.
  • all small businesses are eligible to apply.
  • rate of interest on loan set by Nova Scotia Government and not tied to the prime rate.
  • present rate of interest is 12% for loans under $50,000 and 13% for loans over $50,000.
  • Provincial Government - Small Business Development.

Source: Department of Commerce and Technology. Province of New Brunswick; Small Business Development, Province of Nova Scotia.

Exhibit 5

The Maritime Provinces

Exhibit 6

Business Letterhead, Envelops and Business Cards

Exhibit 7


Exhibit 8


Exhibit 9

Chambers of Commerce