How can we make the workplace more accessible to professionals with disabilities?
Post By Gavyn Backus: Gavyn is Skills Society’s part time Media and Community Development guy. Gavyn is also currently studying law at U of A and growing a mean beard in his spare time.
Skills Society’s vision is of a community where all individuals are valued citizens deserving respect, dignity, and rights. We are starting a new series where we will be interviewing individuals with disabilities, community support workers, and allies who are contributing to their community in cool ways and showing us all how our five core values at Skills can come alive. In this issue, we discuss our first core value of “supporting engaged citizenship.” (CLICK to view core values)
Nathanael or Nate as his friends call him, is a friendly, considerate, and energetic man. He is an animal lover, he enjoys watching movies, and he is very career driven. In fact, Nate has years of experience operating heavy machinery and working on his family farm. Those who know Nate best describe him as reliable, hardworking, and enthusiastic. Why then has Nate struggled to find employment?
At the age of eighteen, Nate suffered a traumatic brain injury in a motor vehicle accident. Nate now has trouble controlling the volume of his speech. Further, the accident severely damaged his legs causing him balance issues . Despite his physical injuries, Nate’s desire to work is as strong as ever. Nate wants the opportunity to engage in meaningful work and to contribute to society—just like every other citizen.
As a young professional, I am no stranger to the job hunt; however, I cannot begin to imagine the obstacles that Nate must overcome. Meeting Nate and hearing his story has really opened my eyes and helped me gain a better perspective on what the job hunt is like for somebody with a disability. If we can learn about some of the obstacles people with disabilities face, we can then learn what helps to remove barriers.
My first step in learning from Nate and his story was to meet with Karen Kermath: a Community Support
Worker at Skills Society who has worked diligently to support Nate to achieve his goals. Karen, a warm-hearted and easy going lady, picked me up and we set off to visit Nate at his work experience role at Habitat for Humanity (HFH) ReStore in North-East Edmonton. Along the way, Karen shared some of the obstacles Nate and her had been up against in their search to help Nate find a meaningful role in his community. Karen told me how disappointing it was that most businesses were unwilling to give Nate an opportunity to prove himself even with all his strengths and abilities. For example, businesses would often make false assumptions that hiring Nate would be a liability or that he would be incapable of being fully independent on the job. It is unfortunate that many employers still do not know that hiring someone with a disability is no different than hiring someone without a disability. Karen shared: “when [she] first met Nate he seemed bored and disheartened. When [she] asked him what he did at home during the day he simply shrugged… Now, Nate’s smile can brighten a room. He is a proud volunteer at HFH and is much more energetic.” Karen also explained how Nate has improved both emotionally and physically since starting his position at HFH. She said that “Nate sought a fulfilling life—just like everyone else—and he needed an outlet to let his light shine.”
Karen and I were greeted by Nate and his infamous smile at the front of HFH ReStore. We then began our tour of the building and I started to gain a better idea of Nate’s daily life at HFH.
Gavyn: what are your responsibilities at HFH?
Nate: I guess you could call me a jack-of-all-trades. Whatever they need me to do I’m always willing to try my hand at it. I’ll admit, some things I do better than others but this just shows where I can improve.
Gavyn: what are you interested in right now?
Nate: I am very career driven. My main goal is to get a full time job and I feel like I have the ability to do so. My volunteer experience at HFH has given me the confidence to pursue my dreams no matter what others think. I may even try my hand at farming again at some point…
Gavyn: I was told that you donate your volunteer hours to help a family reach their “sweat equity” quota in order to get a house. Tell me about that?
Nate: Yes, I met a really nice single mother while working one day and I wanted to help her and her children out. It made sense to donate my hours to someone who could use them.
Gavyn: what have you struggled with most while pursuing your career goals?
Nate: I applied to all sorts of places but nobody would give me a chance. Honestly, I don’t blame them because I know how I must look walking around. People judge me based on my appearance and are unwilling to give me the opportunity to prove myself—even though I’m quite capable. I want to be more than just a couch potato and I thank everyone here at HFH for giving me the opportunity to do more.
HFH took a chance on Nate; however, it seems as though the ReStore has also benefited greatly from Nate’s services. Claudine Hagerty, Manager, ReStore North, describes Nate as “a workhorse who can pretty much do anything the other staff or volunteers can do.” I was therefore left with a lingering question: how does HFH
differ from the other organizations that would not hire Nate? Fortunately, Chris Gibson, Director of ReStore
Operations, truly seems to have his finger on the pulse of the organization and was able to provide an answer to this question. He explained: “the general work environment at HFH ReStore is very accessible to persons with disabilities. The business is always changing and this allows for management to create a flexible work environment that is more inclusive. Our staff also recognize that Nate is a hard worker and they are more than happy to use him as a resource.”
My experience at HFH ReStore was enlightening. Nate’s determination inspires me to achieve my career goals; however, the experience also highlights many flaws in our society. Nate’s volunteer position at HFH is an excellent stepping-stone towards full time employment. Unfortunately, this organization’s progressive view towards employment and volunteer opportunities is not shared among many businesses. Consequently, there is a growing need to educate the public regarding the importance of community engagement for people with disabilities. The underlying question therefore remains, what other businesses will step up and act as community leaders to create inclusive work environments? And in particular, who is going to be the fortunate employer to hire Nate and benefit from his contributions?