Case Study

David C. Onley Initiative

Closing the employment gap for students and graduates with disabilities.

Closing the employment gap for students and graduates with disabilities.

In challenge lies opportunity

Ontario is home to nearly 50,000 post-secondary students with visible and non-visible disabilities.

When these students graduate, they are often at a disadvantage—overshadowed by myth and overlooked by employers. This problem persists even though these students and graduates are educated, skilled and qualified—just like their peers who do not have disabilities.

In 2018, the city’s four major universities and colleges—Carleton University, University of Ottawa, Algonquin College and La Cité—came together under the lead of Carleton’s David C. Onley Initiative (DCOI) to inspire nation-wide inclusive hiring. The DCOI launched a competitive bid in 2018 to find a communications agency partner capable of helping the team achieve its public awareness objectives. Stiff’s winning bid convinced the DCOI that we were the right choice to craft a communications campaign that would engage employers and hiring managers, equip them with knowledge and tools to make tangible changes to recruitment and hiring practices—and ultimately, weave inclusion into the fabric of employment in Ottawa.

An informed approach

Research and analysis

Stiff makes strategic recommendations based on bulletproof research and analysis. For the DCOI, our researchers engaged with stakeholders, employers and students, delved into online resources and analyzed materials provided by the partner schools. We aggregated our research in a 36-page report with 12 overarching findings to inform strategic planning. We conducted a detailed environmental scan that examined the current market, including 61 employers, 73 local organizations, communications channels and networking groups. We also performed four separate risk assessments to address potential campaign hurdles identified by employers, students, and advocates of those with disabilities and critical disabilities.

Establishing target audiences

Our research helped us identify our main audience as employers in three groups:

  1. Employers who are receptive to hiring students with disabilities but are unsure how to do so.
  2. Employers who are reluctant to hire students with disabilities but could become willing to do so.
  3. Employers who are highly reluctant to hire students with disabilities but whose attitudes we could begin to change.

Secondary target audiences include the regional public and post-secondary students, who could help us take advantage of the inclusive networks that already exist within Ottawa’s post-secondary institutions, building the confidence of students with disabilities.

We did not envision a campaign that would be an exercise in diplomacy; it would be a call to action.

Putting the research to work

The key to our strategy would be two hooks—both crisp, creative expressions that would connect with audiences and make employers in Ottawa consciously representative of the inclusive character of our city.

The first key was the visual brand—a brand that resonated not only with audiences, but also the four post-secondary institutions partnering in the initiative. Our design team zeroed in on a simple five-colour palette inspired by the Hilroy exercise books—or “scribblers”—most Canadians grew up with. This academic familiarity connected with audiences at a fundamental level and confirmed their common experience. The pastel palette was intentionally soft to ensure a gentle sensitivity to the look and feel of the brand, which is never harsh or abrupt.

Given that our audience included people with disabilities, the brand would also need to comply with Web Check Accessibility Guidelines. For example, this involved ensuring that image contrast was discernable for people with low vision, as well as building in alternative text for screen-reading apps.

Turning disability on its head

The second key to our strategy would be a compelling text-based expression. We wanted an expression that would turn disability on its head. It would have to focus on what people can do, as opposed to what they may be limited in doing. It needed to be adaptable and easy to understand, something people could take ownership of. The idea had to be empowering and unapologetic, express urgency and optimism. The idea needed to catapult a campaign to the level of a movement. We created it.

AbleTo presented three impressive strengths:

A powerful story. The AbleTo story is about the potential of employers make their workplaces more inclusive by hiring students and graduates with disabilities. The story also focuses on the personal, academic and professional achievements of those students and graduates.

Flexibility to connect with likeminded people on multiple platforms. Campaign platforms include social media, a campaign website, traditional media such as print and radio, and employment or recruitment events.

A clear call to action. Our campaign asks all audiences to join a movement. For employers and hiring managers, this means committing to change and pledging what they are AbleTo do in their workplaces to help close the employment gap. For students, educators, service providers and members of the public, their pledge of what they are AbleTo do could mean spreading our campaign’s message, or supporting a friend or family member who is living with a disability.

Executing the strategy

We began rolling out a fully integrated campaign in a phased, two-year approach. In year one, we took major steps to deliver education to and build awareness among employers.

  • We created extensive out-of-home advertising
  • We identified and engaged potential AbleTo ambassadors
  • We built and deployed a dedicated AbleTo campaign website in both official languages
  • We created and distributed shareable graphics
  • We took control of all AbleTo campaign social channels to generate awareness and promote the website
  • We built a database of employers and influencers we can share best practices with
  • We coordinated all media relations

We have assessed the success of our communications based on a variety of engagement metrics, activities and media executed thus far. Highlights since launch include:


  • A total of 768,400 impressions, with an average of eight retweets and 17 likes per day
  • A total of 523 link clicks, 551 retweets and 1,200 likes
  • A total of 191 new followers, an increase from 149 to 340


  • An average organic post reach of 141, more than three times the average post reach of 41 before campaign launch
  • An average post reach of 9,084 per paid post
  • An increase of 34 new followers, from 85 to 119


  • An average of 2,500 post impressions per day
  • An average of 10 post engagements per day
  • An increase of 125 new followers, from 49 to 174

Results inform campaign in year two

As year two of the AbleTo campaign begins, it is fully informed by the results of year one.

Year two will remain digital-first and focus on these tasks to equip employers with the tools and knowledge they need to be more inclusive:

Expand our powerful story. Year two’s approach will feature more employers, growing our champion stories and ambassador network.

Augment platform from which to connect. We know from feedback and analytics that employers are keen to access tools and tips to support their actions. In response, we will further develop the AbleTo website to share more practical content.

Establish a clearer call to action. Year two will strive for a greater commitment to change, encouraging audiences to take action and pledge what they are AbleTo do to help close the employment gap.

Expand our audiences. Year-two’s primary base will include students and post-secondary institutions. Instagram will be a key broadcast channel on which to launch layered strategies to reach high-school and post-secondary students, graduates and alumni.

Use video. Year-two content will be led by video, which will guide all paid activity and set the tone online at events such as job fairs.

“Stiff’s strategic thinking, in-depth research and creativity has allowed us to create an impactful and attention-grabbing campaign.”

Julie Caldwell