Challenges in the Workplace by Mary Dufton

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For all of us, having a job offers a sense of purpose, an identity and an opportunity to contribute to society. But of the one million Canadians aged 15 to 64, 44 per cent of those with disabilities are unemployed. Few have the training, education, knowledge and experience to compete with the rest of the population. There is still a perception that individuals with disabilities cannot perform their jobs as well as those who do not have a disability. Some employers have lower expectations for an employee with a disability than they do for an employee without a disability.

"With today’s recession, it is even more challenging for an individual with a disability to find a job," says Jeanne Riendeau, a vocational rehabilitation services counsellor. "There are fewer entry-level positions, in particular clerical positions, that are ideal for many people with disabilities because they are sedentary. However, although fewer employers have the time and resources to offer positions to individuals with disabilities than before, there are still opportunities in the community from employers who are willing to give them a chance."

Rhonda York, a coordinator for the acquired brain injury support program at the March of Dimes, suggests that people with visible disabilities tell a potential employer during an interview, "As you may have noticed, I do have a disability," then explain how it will not impact on your ability to do the job. She tells job- seekers that looking for work is like a full-time job. "Research the company to learn all you can about their hiring practices for persons with disabilities. This way you can bring the company’ success stories to the interviewer’s attention."

"Let practically everybody know that you are looking for work," says Steve Kean, SBHAO’s adult services coordinator. "Don’t waste time; be clear on what you want. Look at what education skills you need for the job you are looking for and make sure you have them. Above all, stay positive and don’t give up."
When he was hired by the Bank of Nova Scotia as an administration officer, Steve found that some of the learning problems associated with spina bifida and hydrocephalus interfered with his performance. He could not remember many of the teller’s instructions or keep up with the hectic pace. He could not work with his supervisors to find solutions. He became stressed, lost interest and motivation. Eventually he realized the job was not for him and quit.

Through his experiences, Steve has learned to adapt himself to his work environment and be more productive. He writes instructions down and has his own filing system to be more organized. He makes a point of being more forgiving of himself when he is forgetful or makes mistakes.

A part time food vendor and cashier at the Corel Centre in Ottawa, Sally Thomas has struggled with the prejudices of some of her co-workers. One co-worker grabbed Sally’s wheelchair and began to push her until she told him forcefully to stop, but most of her co-workers are team-oriented and helpful. When Sally cannot reach some of the food items, a food attendant reaches them for her.

Although Sally has a diploma in recreation management from Algonquin College and is employed, she still receives a disability pension to supplement her income. She would like to take more courses, perhaps computer-related, so that she can eventually work full-time and get off the disability pension.

Like many young people, I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I took a series of psychological tests to determine possible areas of employment. I considered secretarial work after spending the summer after high school in my mother’s office. I considered business college. I had experience as a secretary. I thought it would be easy.

It was the worst academic experience of my life. I was frustrated with many of my courses, achieved poor grades, missed details in oral instructions, failed to line up numbers in columns in accounting and, overall, was not up to speed with the rest of the students. But I didn’t quit.

I fared well in interviews, was always well dressed, well presented and articulate. I got hired for many secretarial and receptionist positions. The trouble was keeping them. I decided to seek professional help. One therapist said I was cognitively rigid. She said that if I could be more flexible, the rest would fall into place. But she did not tell me how not to be so rigid. Another therapist blamed my mother for being over-protective, doing too much for me and having very high standards that I could rarely meet. All of this, she claimed, eroded my self-confidence and self-reliance.

None of this in formation showed me how to deal with my limitations. A co-worker once told me that it might help if I got into the habit of writing instructions down. Once I started doing that, my performance improved, but not significantly. I still felt much more deficient than the average person, which I probably wasn’t. I soon became so consumed with my weaknesses and past job losses that they became full-blown anxieties. Whenever I made a mistake, or was criticized, I felt threatened, sure that I was going to be out the door.

I have since discovered that secretarial work does not suit my particular skills. I have also learned that, like Steve, it is typical for an individual with spina bifida to be easily distracted, to have difficulty remembering verbal or visual instructions and keep things in order. Sometimes if I forget how to load the paper in the printer I think I screwed up. But I stop myself before I get too anxious and say, "Anybody could have done that. It’s not such a big deal." I don’t expect my insecurities to go away completely, but, more and more, I am learning to be in control of them, rather than the other way around.