Sun Times photo by Ian Martens
Tim Hamilton, a long-time volunteer at Chinook Regional Hospital, hasn’t allowed the challenges of cerebral palsy to prevent him from being involved. While disabilities can make it difficult for people to take an active part in society and in the workforce, there are organizations which are working to remove the barriers.
Jan. 2, 2013: it is a date Cyrena Cameron will never forget. The previous four years had not been easy for Cameron, who endured one hardship after another in the pursuit of a fundamental right that always seemed just out of reach. Although the odds were stacked against her, the mother of three was fiercely determined. On that fateful day in January, her determination finally paid off. She found what she had always wanted: meaningful employment.
For nearly a year, Cameron has worked at Canadian Tire as a cashier; it’s a position she loves. While life is easier for her now, it wasn’t always that way.
Throughout the first decade of the millennium, Cameron worked various jobs, which included store supervisor at the Brooks Canadian Tire, laundress at the Lethbridge Shelter and cook at McDonald’s. While she had a desire to work hard, Cameron was plagued with severe mood swings that affected her ability to keep steady employment. In 2007, she was finally diagnosed as bipolar.
“I was crying one minute, angry the next . . . my moods were just all over the place,” says Cameron. “Being diagnosed with bipolar was a relief, like a big weight lifted off my shoulders, knowing what was wrong.”
Cameron was immediately put on medication to treat her condition, and the mood swings subsided. Things were looking up. What would happen the following year, however, would set Cameron back once more: while crossing the street, she was hit by a car, leaving her with neck and back injuries that pulled her out of the workforce and into intensive physiotherapy for a year. In a cruel twist of fate, in 2010, she was hit by a second car, limiting her opportunity for employment and leaving her unemployable for four years.
While many in her situation might be discouraged, Cameron never gave up.
“I wanted to get back to work so badly, so I worked at it every day,” she says. “I had therapy two to three times a week, I did acupuncture and everything else.”
The reality is that there are many like Cameron who have barriers to employment but are eager to get into the workforce, including people with disabilities. According to Statistics Canada, as of 2012, more than 360,000 Albertans aged 15 to 64 live with one or more disabilities, and more than 60 per cent are employed. As of 2007, just under 50 per cent of Albertans with disabilities obtained a post-secondary education.
While the numbers may seem high, many with disabilities still struggle to find a place in the work world.
“I think that (employers) just don’t know what hiring someone with a disability means for them,” says Linda Rawbon, employment services co-ordinator at Job Links Employment Centre. “That creates a fear for the employer, and it’s easy for the employer to reject the idea.”
A division of the Rehabilitation Society of Southwestern Alberta, Job Links specializes in providing employment services to people with medical barriers or disabilities through workshops, one-on-one job exploration and preparation, job searching techniques and more. The organization also creates partnerships with community employers to break barriers and orchestrate job matching between employers and clients. Additionally, Job Links provides workshops and a resource room that is open to the public.
To be eligible for services, clients must fill out an intake package and provide a doctor’s note stating their condition or barrier. Following this, clients meet with an intake specialist to determine what their goals are and once this is determined, clients are assigned to an employment specialist who helps them hone their resume, identify suitable jobs and prepare for interviews. The organization serves approximately 250 people per month, equating to between 2,500 and 3,000 per year. People served could include those supported by Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD), Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH), those who have sustained work-related injuries or those who have an invisible barrier such as arthritis or fatigue.
“There are no two people alike, and we take on that attitude,” says Rawbon. “We’re very good at listening to what the person is thinking about and where they want to go. We’re not in a hurry to just immediately get them into a job where they’re not going to be successful.”
As much as the organization needs to work with its clients to ensure success, it puts just as much effort into informing employers about people with disabilities in the workplace. The organization currently has connections with more than 100 businesses in the city. Those businesses can place job postings at the organization at no cost.
“I think a big part of this is educating the employer to know more about people with disabilities and how able they are to work,” says Job Links team leader Doug Sanders.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” adds Rawbon. “We need to talk to employers and we need to explain what people with a barrier can bring to their business.”
She adds people with barriers can often make the best employees.
“A lot of people with any type of barrier are so excited about getting employed, they help the morale in a business,” she says. “They show up, they’re more reliable and their work ethic is stronger than somebody that’s been employed there for some time. The clients we serve have waited a long time to get a job, so they treat it differently.”
Both Sanders and Rawbon add while there is still progress to be made, attitudes are getting better, noting that 73 per cent of the organization’s clients on PDD are working.
“We’re pretty proud of that,” says Sanders.
“We know that we’re helping people to succeed . . . that’s the bottom line, that’s what we’re about,” adds Rawbon.
From the time they begin with Job Links, clients can be placed in a job within four to six weeks, approximately. Sanders says it depends on a few factors, such as job availability and how motivated the individual is.
People can secure everything from entry-level jobs to working as office administrators, heavy equipment operators and even becoming self-employed. Cameron credits the staff at Job Links for the employment she has today.
By 2012, Cameron was ready to re-enter the workforce; she tried job searching on her own for several months, but the four-year gap on her resume created difficulties for her. Cameron then decided to give Job Links a try; she says it didn’t take long to discover what she was missing.
“(Linda) said my resume was all wrong,” says Cameron. “It was. . . not specific to any job, so she had me fill out paperwork for all my skills and each place I worked at, and she redid my resume.”
Her newly adjusted resume now brought her customer service skills to the forefront. The pair also did mock interviews. With her resume up to date and a new sense of confidence, Cameron began distributing it to businesses in the community. Two days after she visited the local Canadian Tire, she was called for an interview; two days after that, the job was hers.
“I was ecstatic,” she says of hearing the news. “There was a huge smile across my face and I couldn’t wait.”
When asked what kept her going, Cameron said:
“I wanted to show my kids that if you work hard, you can get what you want out of life. I’m not the [type] to just sit at home and watch TV all day. I’m better than that.”
Today, that seems to be the sentiment among many who live with disabilities and other barriers. Work is more than just a source of income, it’s a way to contribute valuable skills and gain fulfillment. The Ability Resource Centre, another service operating under the Rehabilitation Society of Southwestern Alberta, is all about providing people with that opportunity. Funded by PDD, its mission is to “provide supports to adults with disabilities to access opportunities, facilitate individual growth and promote inclusion.”
The organization focuses on skill building through community involvement, both in work and volunteer settings.
“Part of our core values are about . . . the dignity and respect [that] come from feeling valued, contributing what you have to give to the world and I think all of us are filled up by that,” says Paige McCann Sauter, the centre’s executive director.
“I think for those who want employment in their life, it’s the same as you or I . . . if you want a job, you’re hungry for a job — you want that part of your life. Employment can give us lots of other things other than just an income; it’s a way that we are contributing to our society. I think individuals feel that strongly . . . it’s a connection to other people. When you meet people, they often say, ‘So, what do you do?’ It’s important that people are doing things that they feel they want to be doing in their life.”
The Alberta government seems to share this sentiment. According to an Oct. 25 news release, Frank Oberle, associate minister of services for persons with disabilities, will spearhead the creation of an employer advisory council so more Albertans with disabilities can improve their lives through meaningful job opportunities. The council will include employers from across industry sectors across the province. Members will meet regularly to discuss challenges and identify solutions to help more people with disabilities enter the workforce.
“The work of this new council will move us closer to Alberta’s Social Policy Framework vision of ensuring everyone has opportunities to fulfil their potential and benefit from . . . Alberta’s thriving social, economic and cultural life,” said Oberle.
The “Social Policy Framework” is the Government of Alberta’s Employment First strategy; the government aims to work with service providers such as the Ability Resource Centre and Job Links to help more individuals with disabilities become employed. PDD staff speak directly with individuals and their support networks about the possibility of pursuing employment and increasing people’s independence.
“I think the government is putting a new expectation on Alberta, that Alberta needs to step up to the plate, all of us, every single person, and really include all the people in our communities, whether they’re different for any reason, (to) include people in a diverse way in our work environments,” says McCann Sauter.