If the goal is diversifying Canada’s work force so that individuals with disabilities are better able to contribute and earn a living, it can be very tempting to think in terms of obstacles — we all know that gainful employment often comes only after a wide range of issues has been resolved. But if there’s one thing that operating an Employment Resource Centre has taught us, it’s that Canadians with a disability are willing and able to wrestle with these issues that can make work a difficult prospect.
Employers are realizing that everyone benefits from diverse, inclusive workplaces where knowledge and talent are valued over physical characteristics. Governments are supporting individuals and community organizations in their efforts to see everyone contributing to Canada’s working life at the level of their capabilities. There are challenges for sure, but there are also real opportunities.
The information age has opened up many of these new opportunities. In the same way that many of us have come to rely on computers, e-mail, voicemail and pagers to help us manage our lives, the business world has adopted technology almost universally for controlling its operations. The ability to manage information and the ability to communicate effectively have become highly marketable characteristics.
This new age has opened the doors to employment opportunities that were previously closed to individuals who have a disability. A 1996 study on computer use after spinal cord injury put the average salary difference between those who use computers at work and those who don’t at $500 per week (that’s right, per week). Companies are willing to pay for people who can manipulate information effectively.
Gaining the ability to manipulate that information is not always straightforward. Computers have been designed with the needs of the general population in mind — they are often inaccessible to persons with disabilities. Keyboards, mice and monitors often need to be modified or replaced so that a person with a disability can use them. People really need to be familiar with their computer accessibility needs before their first day on the job! Also, if the disability has been the result of an injury, there may be a need to go back to school to become a proficient
computer user before going to work. Finally, technology is always changing, and to get a foot in the door in today’s working world, a person has to be up on the most recent developments. All of these things take time and cost money.
Our Employment Resource Centre (ERC) has been funded by Human Resources Development Canada to help job seekers with disabilities and employers build productive relationships that lead to long-term gainful employment. Computer technology is one of the areas where we focus attention. (Other areas include career counselling, peer mentoring, job development and accessibility consultation for employers.)
The ERC has working examples of the many possible computer accessibility modifications, including alternative mice, trackballs, keyboards and joysticks, voice recognition systems and screen magnification software. This equipment permits clients to take their time and experiment
before they have to make purchase decisions. Clients can discuss their needs with occupational therapists and technology consultants who have specialized knowledge of these accommodations. Staff also help people understand their options for acquiring government grants to cover the cost of the solution that makes the most sense for them.
Lately, ERC staff have been called in to do ergonomic assessments at businesses, either for an individual client who has a job there, or for the human resources department that wants to know how generally accessible its workplace is. We welcome the opportunity to do this kind of work in the community — besides the immediate benefit to employee and employer, seeing how accessible technology works in the real world helps us find ways to recommend better solutions.
In the three years that the Employment Resource Centre has been operating, there have been important lessons about the sometimes
complicated process of getting useful computer accessibility devices. Probably the most important thing to keep in mind is the need to try before you buy. Our service works best when clients are able to invest some time and energy when exploring their possibilities.
Another good piece of advice is to talk to other consumers and find out what’s worked for them. (If you happen to have a spinal cord injury, check out the Spinal Cord Injury Peer Information Library on Technology (SCI PILOT) at www.scipilot.com. SCI PILOT contains people’s stories about their experiences working with assistive technology — readers can get a kind of virtual peer support from reading these stories.)
Finally, remember that perseverance pays off — technology can sometimes seem like more frustration than it’s worth, but if you have patience (and it helps to have lots of nerds for friends), you can put technology for work for you.
If you are a person with a disability or an employer who would like further information on employment and diversity, or if you would like to access our services, please contact us at email@example.com, visit us on the web at www.cpaont.org, or call us at (416) 422-5644.
(Sandra Mills is the Acting Manager of Employment Services at the Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario. Tom Nantais is the Coordinator of the Assistive Technology Program at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, Lyndhurst Centre. These two organizations work in partnership to operate an Employment Resource Centre for individuals with a disability, with funding from Human Resources Development Canada.)