Halifax Job Search Strategies Forum Report
September 30, 2006
Welcome and Overview of Forum
The forum in Halifax was the fifth event in a two-year NEADS’ Job Search Strategies Forums Project, addressing practical aspects of successful transition from school to the employment market. Delegates represented a number of colleges and universities in the Atlantic region. Student participants were attending the following post-secondary institutions: Nova Scotia Community College, Mount Saint Vincent University, Saint Mary's University, Université de Moncton, Dalhousie University, Acadia University,and Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Altogether, about 65 people took part in the day-long employment session: students, graduates, service providers, employers, career counsellors/professionals and representatives from non-governmental organizations.
The NEADS Halifax Job Search Strategies Forum included two workshop panels, an exhibit area, and one-on-one resume consultations with career counsellors or HR professionals over the lunch period. The exhibit area included displays and representatives from: BMO Financial Group, Casino Nova Scotia, Convergys Corporation, EastLink, Public Service Commission and RBC Financial Group.
Jennifer Dillon, the National Educational Association of Disabled Students’ (NEADS) Job Search Strategies Consultant, welcomed participants. She explained that NEADS has developed the Job Search Strategies program with support from BMO Capital Markets’ Equity Through Education program. Eight forums are being held across the country in 2005/2006 and 2006/2007. Events have already taken place in Toronto, Edmonton, Victoria, Montreal and now Halifax. After the Halifax forum, there will be a project workshop at the national conference in Ottawa in November and forums in Winnipeg (February 2, 2007), and St. John’s (March 30, 2007).
The purpose of the Forum is to provide job search strategies and techniques for success in the job market for post-secondary students and graduates with disabilities. “It’s also an opportunity to bring together students, graduates, service providers, and employers to discuss employment issues,” she added.
Equity Through Education Program Vision
Video Presentation • BMO Capital Markets
A video on the Equity Through Education program was shown to Halifax Forum participants after the welcoming remarks. BMO Capital Markets’ Equity Through Education program raised $1.6 million in one day of trading in May of this year from commissions of equity trades throughout North America, and directed it toward opportunities for students to support the work of 7 organizations. There were testimonials in the film from Jason Mitschele, NEADS’ Vice-President External who is a visually impaired Crown prosecutor, an African Canadian woman who was attending Rutgers University (“There’s no limit to my future!”), and an Aboriginal youth who had received scholarships through the program.
Comments by Stephen McDonnell
Senior Manager, Diversity and Workplace Equity, BMO Financial Group
Stephen McDonnell has been travelling with NEADS to represent the bank at all of the Job Search Strategies Forums to raise awareness about employment challenges and opportunities for students and graduates with disabilities. He explained that in 2004, BMO Capital Markets realized there was a need to reach out to address the external barriers people with disabilities face so the company created the Equity Through Education program. To date, $3.12 million has been raised over two years. The premise of the program is that everyone should have an equal opportunity to develop his or her talent.
NEADS is one of seven charitable organizations BMO Capital Markets chose to work with. “NEADS was a natural choice,” said McDonnell “because of their important work as an organization, articulating the real voice of students with disabilities.” He then paraphrased Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of people—thoughtful committed ones—can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only one that has.”
Overview of the Day
Jennifer Dillon encouraged participants to practice networking and to benefit from sharing ideas and experiences, saying “I hope you leave today with plans and strategies on how to move forward in your job search.” She encouraged participants to take advantage of the opportunity to receive resume assistance over lunch.
Panel Presentations A
Stephen McDonnell: Transitioning from School to Work
Stephen McDonnell said that the fact that his employer (with 33,000 employees) has freed him up to cross Canada with NEADS says something about the priority to create an inclusive workplace. He added that major companies across Canada share this priority.
He suggested that job-seekers visit an organization’s website to see if it talks about values, and to see if it has statements about diversity and equity in the workplace. If it doesn’t, that company may not be a good fit.
In 1992, BMO Financial Group realized that people with disabilities were underrepresented in its workforce, and recognized misperceptions it had about people with disabilities. BMO discovered that 80 per cent of accommodations could be achieved at a very reasonable or no cost. He added that people with disabilities do not take a disproportionate amount of sick leave, and that changes in technology have allowed the company to build an inclusive workforce.
BMO Financial Group now offers internships, cooperative experiences, work placements, and job shadowing. He added that the company understands it may take five or six years for a person with a disability to earn a BA degree, largely because of a lack of accessibility in some post-secondary programs and institutions. Since the lack of practical work experience may be an issue, he suggested including volunteer experience on one’s resume, and staying in touch with people at the organizations where one has volunteered so they can provide references.
He stressed the importance of “captaining your own team,” by assembling a “success team” of four or five supportive people, such as a fellow graduate, an entrepreneur, and someone at the university placement office. With this group, the individual creates a resume, conducts mock interviews, and receives advice.
McDonnell said persons with disabilities only have to say what their accommodation needs are. There is no need to disclose a diagnosis.
He advised participants to check if the company is federally incorporated. If so, it is governed by the Employment Equity Act. If the company does business with the federal government, it must have a representative workforce and understand disability and the importance of accommodation. Annual reports provide information on corporate values and social responsibility. By reviewing the company’s organizational structure, you might discover that a member of the board sits on the board of another group that, for example, supports people who are visually or hearing impaired. “Do your research!” he stressed.
An inventory of work-related experiences, skills, knowledge, and academic achievements is an essential tool for marketing oneself. Mentoring experiences are very important to include. McDonnell stressed the importance of keeping in touch with mentors and volunteer organization contacts who can be used as references. “The holiday card you send every year, send one to them. Then, if the employer calls, they will remember.”
McDonnell also recommended keeping resumes up to date. Many companies are now scanning them, so they should be submitted electronically—and be no more than two pages in length. Start the sentences with action words, and organize the information either chronologically, functionally, or with a combination of the two (which can be the best approach for people with disabilities). He stressed the importance of ensuring that they are free from spelling and other errors, that they should not be the story of one’s life, should focus on recent jobs, and should be free of extraneous material. “Don’t attach a picture of a cat or talk about your interest in stamp collecting,” he advised. There is also no need to list age or marital status.
Experience with JAWS® or Kurzweil is a plus and should be included, indicating the level of proficiency, where applicable. “I have employed people who are visually impaired, etc. at a junior level using adaptive technology,” he said.
When called, McDonnell advised, you should state your accommodation needs for the interview (if an ASL interpreter, power doors, etc. are required). “Professional companies understand that,” he said.
He further advised candidates to use the interview to determine if the job is a good fit, not as an opportunity for advocacy. “If someone says, ‘You’re such an inspiration, you make me so proud to work here,’ think twice,” he said, adding, “You’re not there to be a dream person; you’re there to be a colleague.”
In preparing for the interview, he suggested visiting the location in advance to ensure it is accessible, and stressed that first impressions are important. He listed the “four Ps” of an interview—Prepare, Participate, Practice, and Perception. If you travel with an animal, have a Plan B in case the interviewer has an allergy (a friend can sit outside with the dog). Be sure your wheelchair is clean, and that you are dressed appropriately.
“I’ve done a 1,000 interviews in 22 years,” said McDonnell. “If I get a whiff of something, I know there’s going to be a problem in workplace.”
Other recommendations are to go over appearance with the success team, and be clear on how to articulate your abilities. Confirm the time of the interview, take extra copies of your resume, and have the consent of the people used as references. Be clear about your own boundaries regarding disclosure, and ask for all the tools you need to get the job done.
Regarding disclosure, he advised, find at least one person in occupational health and safety who understands your wishes should you have a seizure or a manic episode in the workplace, so your dignity is respected.
Be open to learning, independent, self-sufficient, and proactive. “Your disability is a small part of who you are as a person,” he said. “First, you’re a person with abilities.”
Michelle Martin: Job Searching Effectively: Portfolios, Strategies, and Next Steps
“A portfolio is an instrument that is filled with information about your talents, skills and achievements,” said Michelle Martin, Employment Counsellor, Hants County Community Access Network. She added that it highlights employability and technical skills, and establishes a personal record of your learning beyond your certificate/diploma.
For those who are planning to be self-employed, the portfolio is an excellent tool to show clients. It can also be used as a “great pick-me-up,” to see what you have accomplished. For people who are already employed, it can be used to show what you have already done for the organization. It can also be used as a prior learning assessment tool: Students can use the portfolio to track their learning experiences and for the job search. Graduates can include reports, grades, and transcripts that validate their education and experience.
Putting together your own personal portfolio, added Martin, can be an emotional process whereas assembling your professional portfolio is more straightforward. This could include: statement of career goals, resume, work samples, computer skills, skills inventory, and other evidence of your knowledge and ability including newspaper articles you’ve written or appeared in and conferences you’ve participated in. This shows an interest in continuous learning and professional development. The portfolio can also indicate where you see yourself in five years, so it needs to be updated as goals change.
In strategic job searching, the Internet is important but it’s only one tool that can help you access other tools. Martin traced her own evolution, from taking any job she could get fresh out of school, to realizing she was a great product for a company once she had developed some skills. She suggested researching companies’ mission statements, etc. and then requesting a meeting to get an overview of the company. She pointed out that the “open market” (the job bank and newspapers) accounts for only 20 per cent of all job listings. The remainder are the jobs that are never posted because companies have an inventory of resumes. “Make sure you’re in that inventory!” she said.
Her final point was that searching for a job should be done full-time, not an hour or so a day. She declared “it takes a lot to pound the pavement!”
James McKee: Preparing for Behavioural Interviews
James McKee, Manager, Human Resources, Halifax International Airport, said that it has become more difficult to recruit people. At a recent conference he learned that for every four people who retire, there is only one person entering the job market, meaning it’s becoming a “buyer’s market” for people looking for jobs. He added that a lot of organizations are looking at diversity.
Having worked in Human Resources for eight years and conducted between 600 and 700 interviews, he uses the Certified Behavioural Interview. McKee was trained by Development Dimensions International and is a Targeted Selection Administrator (which means he can certify others in this method of interviewing).
The premise of a behavioural interview is that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour. He pointed out that this is different from the traditional interview that focuses on the person’s knowledge and technical capabilities. The process begins with an analysis of the competencies and requirements needed for the job. Interviewees are asked to relate their life experiences to the competencies and requirements of the job. The interviewer is also focusing on whether the job and organization are a good fit for the applicant. Having been tested in the courts, he reported that this method has been shown to be equity compliant. “The same job-related standards are applied to all applicants,” McKee said. “Individuals are only screened out for job-related reasons, not diversity.”
The successful candidate is selected based on previously established requirements. This involves more than one person’s perspective.
The interview comprises four sections:
The interviewee is interviewed multiple times by different people in this team-based approach to evaluation. The ratings are established and a final decision is made by consensus.
McKee suggested that the best way to prepare for a behavioural interview is to study the job ad, see what experience is required (both in terms of work experience and competencies), and think of examples to cite that show your fit for the job.
The acronym for this is STAR: Situation, Task, Action taken, and Result of that action. McKee summed this up by saying, “Tell us a story.”
Additional preparation includes researching the company, finding out about the job, and going through a mock interview.
Jana Kaiser: Transition Experience of a Recent Grad Who Has Entered the Nursing Field
Jana Kaiser, Graduate Student in Nursing, St. Francis Xavier University, emphasized the importance of seeking help with resume writing, if that’s not your forte. She concurred with the other presenters who suggested assembling a team of friends and supporters from university, etc. who can coach you through the job search process.
Kaiser noted that in order to enter the nursing profession, she had to write a professional exam. She found out that exams can be accommodated, but she had to keep asking because professors and the chairperson of her department were not aware of this.
Regarding disclosure, she decided to keep her disability to herself but in retrospect, said that she would do it differently. Kaiser advised applicants to evaluate the respect the organization shows for confidentiality in its management of the paper trail.
Finally, she stressed the importance of both mentoring and networking. “It’s nice for employers to see you remain active, and that your disability is not keeping you from achieving your goals.”
Participants questioned panel members about a variety of issues. The discussion has been organized thematically, with questions presented first, followed by responses.
Preparing for interviews
A participant wondered if it was appropriate to ask the manager if there are opportunities to work at the company in the future while one is on a work placement.
McDonnell replied that the financial services sector only does placements if it is looking to hire. “If you appear able to do the essential nature of work,” he said, “trust me—something will arise if it’s a major corporation governed by the Employment Equity Act.” You can ask if it’s OK to go into the company’s computer system to look for a position. Ask for a mentor who can help you look for a job.
A participant asked about the practice of sorting through resumes by scanning them to a computer.
“Because we’re often flooded with electronic applications, we’re moving toward accepting only email applications,” noted McKee. McDonnell concurred, adding that his company only accepts resumes electronically. It’s therefore very important that the resume contain keywords.
During the interview
A participant asked the panel members what they (the interviewer) look for first as the interviewee enters the room.
McKee said that he looks for two: communication and impact. Communication is how you provide information and interact during the interview. Impact is about professionalism, such as being dressed appropriately.
“Ninety per cent of communication is non-verbal,” said McDonnell. “Your success team should give you feedback on your body language, including eye contact and posture. If your legs always shake because of your disability, tell the interviewer.”
A participant asked about the perception part of the “four Ps.” “Is that perception as in intuition, or how you look?”
McDonnell replied that perception works both ways. The interviewer may perceive that the interviewee is untidy, or nervous, for example. Conversely, when an interviewee sees signs of an accessible workplace, he or she knows the interviewer understands disability. “It’s what goes on in the gut—emotional intelligence—which is a two-way thing,” he said. You want the interviewer to perceive you as competent, well put together, neat, organized, and able to work adaptive technology.
“What do you suggest for people with intellectual disabilities, who give one-word answers and who don’t present well?” asked a participant.
McDonnell responded that it is very helpful for someone to talk to the interviewer in advance, and explain their vision of what the person can do. By setting up an internship, the employer can give the applicant a chance to show his/her skill sets that may not come across in the interview.
Another participant asked what interviewees should and should not include in the portfolio they bring to an interview.
Do not bring learning narratives, stories, timelines of events, self-exploration, personal mementos, and photos (unless photography is one of your skills), said Martin. She suggested bringing articles that highlight your skills such as letters of reference, awards, and certificates of training.
McDonnell said that it’s best to negotiate in advance with the employer for five minutes to share some items in your portfolio. “We love to see letters of reference, academic awards, and volunteer experiences,” he said, “but negotiate the time in advance so we know there’s a limit.”
Martin recommended organizing a portfolio into different sections: work experience, credentials, and transferable skills. “I would pull out whatever experience relates to that position,” she said. “The personal stuff doesn’t need to be seen, like cards and letters from clients.” It is also valuable to state on your resume that your portfolio is available on request. Make photocopies of your portfolio you can leave with the employer; keep your originals.
“If, during the interview they ask you about your strengths,” said a participant, “is it OK to talk about overcoming certain disability-related issues?”
McDonnell stressed the importance of making the interview about the essential nature of the job. He advised drawing on academic or volunteer experience.
Obtaining job experience
A participant asked what a recent graduate is supposed to do when a job requirement specifies three to five years’ experience.
McKee replied that the answer depends on the position. For example, a company might not get applicants with the number of years’ experience it desires. He acknowledged that some jobs—for example, an electrician—have no flexibility for experience, but others might. Kaiser recommended the graduate look at the skills required for the job, and then go out and get experience in those skills. In other words, “Prepare yourself for the future.”
Mr. McDonnell suggested finding out if the company has a diversity office for people with disabilities. If so, ask for an information interview with someone in that department. The company could also create an internship or a cooperative opportunity to help prepare you for the position.
A participant suggested those in school identify a goal as soon as possible, and then identify the skills needed to reach that goal. That way it’s possible to take the necessary courses, and build experience through summer employment and volunteer work.
Mr. McDonnell commented that in a customer service environment, it’s possible to translate experience into real work experience, especially through volunteer work. Break down and explain your volunteer experience on your resume. “You learn to understand that resumes from people with disabilities should be evaluated in a different way,” he said.
What kind of networking environment is effective for students to communicate with employers?
McKee replied that since his company is relatively small, it’s most effective when students contact it directly about employment opportunities. “We will meet on an information basis,” he said.
McDonnell advised students to write to the diversity council at their BMO Financial retail bank (BMO Financial has 14 diversity councils). Tell them the area you want to work in and request a mentor from the diversity council to contact you.
A student said that he has had great success by getting involved with different conferences in his field of interest. He found great contacts and organized a placement for himself.
Another student suggested student recruitment as a good venue to learn about jobs.
“When do you disclose accommodation needs?”
McDonnell explained that there are three possible times. (1) Listing your level of skill with adaptive technology on your resume is one way of disclosing. (2) When called for an interview, tell them your accommodation needs for the interview. (3) During the interview, tell them what accommodation you will require in the workplace on a regular basis.
At university, added a participant, someone at the resource centre told me what was available. Sometimes finding out is just a matter of luck.
Another student noted that mathematical tests are sometimes administered during an interview. It’s best to articulate accommodation needs in advance so no one is caught off guard.
“Is it necessary to disclose any sort of accommodation needs in the workplace?”
Kaiser replied that she met with a human rights lawyer to see if she legally had to disclose. “In the case of ADHD, I did not have to disclose unless I expected them to provide me with adaptive technologies,” she said. “I’ve chosen to take those on myself.”
“If an employer knows your accommodation needs and won’t meet them, what do you do?”
“Find a really mean lawyer!” replied McDonnell. Sometimes a voice of an authority is all that’s required. It means finding the right person to talk to.
Locally, reachAbility might be able to assist, suggested Jennifer Dillon.
What about mentorships?
Asked if she had ever had a mentor, Kaiser replied that she wished she had, adding, “I really could have used one at university and in the work environment.”
A participant agreed that having a mentor was worthwhile. “I’m in college for the second time and it’s my best year, because of mentorship. One of my instructors has taken the time to explain things. He’s been customizing my learning, and I’m learning more quickly. It’s made a huge difference in that class, and in other classes,” he said. “If anyone hasn’t take that step, it’s probably one of the most important things I‘ve learned from school so far.”
McDonnell suggested asking if the company has a mentorship program. In the financial services industry, personnel at the regional diversity councils are pleased to act as mentors. He encouraged participants to think about what they want to get out of a mentoring relationship and what they want to put into it. “It’s best if both you and the mentor know what will be discussed in advance of each meeting, so you can prepare,” he said.
“If you don’t get the job, how do you ask for feedback to see where you can improve?”
McDonnell suggested that the best course of action is to negotiate feedback in advance (during the interview). Then work with your success team on what may have gone wrong. If they said it was lack of skill or experience, explore with your success team what you need to do.
McKee cautioned that the employer may wonder if providing feedback is a prelude to legal action.
“What if you find that people are discriminating against you? What should you do?” asked a participant. “A university wouldn’t accommodate me to participate in an internship.”
McDonnell advised the student to first ask the university’s office of disability services to advocate for him or her. If that is not successful, take the issue higher up at the university.
Panel Presentations B
Donna Gray: Understanding What Employers Seek—How to Become Their Ideal Candidate
Donna Gray, Human Resources Manager, Casino Nova Scotia, started off the afternoon presentations by acknowledging that “it’s tough out there.” She said that she hoped the information she was about to provide would energize participants in their search for optimal employment.
Gray first provided some relevant facts about the local job market. The unemployment rate for Halifax and vicinity is very low—a mere 1.5%. However, Halifax is not representative of other Atlantic regions where unemployment rates are much higher.
Despite this low unemployment rate, jobs are not plentiful everywhere. Some industries and sectors have few available positions but many qualified job seekers, resulting in considerable competition for any job openings. On the other hand, other industries have lots of open positions but few potential employees to fill them. Complicating the latter picture is the fact that many employers in these industries would rather go short than lower their standards to fill their openings.
Despite this, Gray stated that there is hope on the horizon. Encouraging participants not to despair in their own job searches, she presented “seven rules for success to make them the right candidate for the right job with the right employer.”
Rule #1: Know yourself
(One participant added, “And to thine own self be true.”)
Job seekers should ask themselves the following questions:
Gray noted that people stay in jobs they enjoy. Job seekers need to look beyond what employers are looking for to determine what they are looking for in an employer—what will help them succeed and become a satisfied employee. Understanding who you—the job seeker—are and what you need is an essential step in your quest for a job. This process of self-discovery should continue even after you land a job, as jobs evolve over time. You need to impress upon your potential employee that you know what you want.
Rule #2: Search with purpose and remain patient
Job seekers need to conduct their job search in a targeted fashion from a wide variety of sources. These include search engines, university campus resources, employment agencies catering to people with disabilities, networking, etc. As a person searching for employment, you need to cast as wide a net as possible. One of the most important resources for any job is all the people you know: more job seekers find work through their personal and professional networks than through any other source. It is crucial to engage the people in these networks to help with your search. Inform everyone you know and meet that you are looking for work.
If you don’t already have these kinds of networks established, start building them. You can also “cold call” potential employers for whom you would like to work.
Job seekers should treat their job search as if it were a full-time job and devote plenty of time to it. Gray added that looking for work while on the job with a current employer is a definite no-no! Whenever a suitable job opening is found, the job should be evaluated against the job criteria the job seeker has set. This way valuable time will not be wasted going after jobs that just are not a good fit. Before applying for a job in any organization, Gray suggested candidates try to visualize themselves working there. If you can’t imagine working there, “Don’t apply,” she advised.
Rule #3: Look good on paper
The job candidate’s resume/cover letter/application says much more about a person than one might think, said Gray. This paperwork is essentially a “calling card” since it is often the initial contact with potential employers and provides them with a first impression and sample of your work. Cover letters should be tailored to every application. Resume and cover letters should be neat, organized, honest, and error free. Ask someone to help proof-read if spelling is not your forte. Prepare a portfolio of your work and experience, and above all, be prepared to substantiate all the information presented.
Gray also advised job seekers to prepare their lives for contact with future employers. Look at the impression that is conveyed by voice mail messages, email addresses, telephone answering etiquette, etc. If any humour conveyed is off colour or awry, then change it, particularly if you are applying for jobs in professional organizations. For example, having “hotbabe.com” as an email address may be great if you are seeking a job in a casino but less than ideal for other job positions.
Rule #4: Be prepared to sell, sell, sell (yourself)
As a well-informed job candidate, you will have a plan to help navigate the interview and present yourself in the best light possible. Start by finding out everything possible about the company before the interview, and then align yourself with its values. Tailor the documents you present to the position for which you’re applying. Researching a company will no doubt uncover questions that you might be asked. Gray advised job seekers to think about potential questions and rehearse answers until they sound natural. This will also help you be more comfortable during the interview.
The most important question in the interview to get right, stressed Gray, is, “Why are you interested in working here?” Your answer will speak directly to your motivation (or lack thereof) and tell the interviewer if you are aligned with the company. The next most important question asked in an interview is, “What will you bring to the organization?” Many candidates forget to consider what they can contribute to a company’s success.
Rule #5: Show pride in yourself
Gray noted that her advice was not just for “the pretty people of the world” or those who could afford to dress in expensive clothes. She advised job seekers to pay attention to their grooming and appearance, and leave potential employers with the impression that they are prepared for the job. An employer, according to Gray, forms a lasting impression of an interviewee within the first four minutes of an interview. Although she acknowledged that it’s unfortunate that many people judge on appearance, “Why lose points on something that is within your control?”
Always look your best for interviews. If you are unsure about a company’s dress code, visit the establishment or call to inquire. As a rule, candidates should dress one level above a company’s dress code. For example, if the dress code is casual, wear tailored clothes; if the code is business attire, move up to a nice suit. You should never show up in extreme casual wear for an interview, no matter how casual the dress code.
Be punctual! Gray noted that for many potential employers, being late is never acceptable. If you suspect that you will be late, contact the employers to explain.
Rule #6: Sell, sell, sell yourself during the interview and work your plan
The interview is the execution stage. You should expect to be a bit nervous rather than totally poised. Gray said that employers understand when candidates are nervous during an interview and can tell the difference between candidates who are nervous because they haven’t prepared adequately or those who are nervous because they care and want to do well. She suggested that you place your resume in front of you during the interview and refer to it for answers. If you know or suspect that multiple interviewers are going to be present, bring multiple copies of your resume with you.
Take the time to answer questions thoughtfully and carefully. If caught off guard and stuck for an answer, give yourself time to think before responding. If you think you are taking too long before responding to a question, Gray suggested asking the interviewer if you could return to the question later. Most will be very amenable to that request. Finally, Gray advised ending the interview by asking a few insightful questions about the job and company and by restating your interest in working there.
Rule #7: Follow up your interview appropriately
How you do this, noted Gray, will really set you apart from your competition. Take the time to send a note or to call following an interview. If asked to provide additional documents or references, do so as quickly as possible. Gray cautioned candidates to be patient and to stay interested. If you have not heard back from the company after a reasonable time, make gentle inquiries but never criticize company timelines. If you are not interested in a position after the interview or decide to accept another job offer, let the employer know immediately. This will ensure the client’s memory of you as a potential employee is positive.
Bob Racine, Employment Assistance Services Manager/Case Manager, Teamwork Cooperative, Halifax, noted that Teamwork Cooperative is a cross-disability referral agency that refers people with disabilities to various partner agencies.
Disclosure, Racine explained, refers to letting people know about one’s disability. Disclosure may protect the legal right to any accommodations needed by people with disabilities to get or keep a job. However, he noted that revealing a disability can also affect one’s chances of getting a job in the first place or fuel biases that limit opportunities for advancement. Thus the decision to disclose or not is a complex one that should be made with careful and deliberate thought. If the decision is made to disclose, the disabled person also has to decide who to tell and how and when to make the disclosure.
Individuals have to decide for themselves the timing of disclosure. There are ways to disclose before an interview such as through previous volunteer or work experience or training cited on a resume or through the communication of needed accommodations prior to job interviews. Persons with invisible disabilities may not need any accommodations for interviews but require accommodations in order to perform the job.
If you are to be interviewed for a job, inquire in advance whether any tests will be administered to determine if you need to request an accommodation. If you wait to disclose an accommodation need during the interview, the employer may be unable to accommodate you.
Regardless of when disclosure is made, be prepared to discuss your disability and to help employers find out more about it by offering resources or referrals. Providing this help is a good way to get employers on side, but Racine cautioned that it is important to use this discussion to help employers understand your needs vis-ŕ-vis the job and not to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities generally. It is also a good idea to provide some examples of how your disability requires accommodation.
As a caveat, Racine noted that it would be unlikely that an employee with disabilities would be protected under the law if he or she postponed disclosure until just before he or she were about to be fired. Employers, he stated, are much more likely to respond favourably to an employee’s disclosure of disability if employers feel that it is done in good faith and not as “a last-ditch effort to keep the job.”
Racine offered tips for disclosing. First, be positive and always focus on skills and qualifications rather than on your disability. Be fully prepared to address any concerns employers may have. Racine noted that some persons have multiple disabilities, some of which can be quite severe and difficult for potential employers to grasp. Nonetheless the focus should always remain on the workplace accommodations needed and not on the disabilities themselves. He advised job seekers to be prepared to provide leads about sources and costs of accommodation and funding available to employers. Eighty per cent of accommodations suggested by the Job Accommodation Services for persons with disabilities can be made for less than $500.
Workplace accommodation can take many forms: making facilities accessible (e.g., ramps for wheelchairs), modifying work schedules (e.g., allowing 1 to 9 rather than 9 to 5 work hours to allow for personal care in the mornings), restructuring work requirements (e.g., allowing more time for reports) or acquiring or modifying equipment, software, or devices (such as JAWS). Workers in some cases may decide to provide their own accommodations.
For workers requesting accommodations from employers, Racine provided several tips to keep in mind. Workers with disabilities should take a factual approach in their requests and be open, honest, and clear about their needs. Do some of the lead work for employers by finding out exactly how much it will cost for your accommodations, where they can be obtained, the possible funding sources. This shows the employer that you are willing to take a proactive approach in solving problems—that “as an employee, you will be more likely to come to them not with problems but with solutions.”
Once you have decided to disclose a disability, you must also decide how much to disclose. Will you describe it in general terms (such as an unspecified disability or medical condition), in more specific but still broad terms (such as a neurological problem, a brain injury, difficulty with stress, or a mental or physical disability) or refer to the exact diagnosis or condition (such as schizophrenia, cerebral palsy, or bipolar disorder)? Regardless of how much you choose to disclose information about your disability, Racine emphasized the importance of focusing not on the disability itself but on the qualifications and skills (both general and technical) that will enable you to carry out the duties on the job description.
If the decision is made not to disclose the disability, Racine advised finding sources of support outside the workplace, e.g., family, friends, counsellors, and/or support groups.
In conclusion, Racine noted that over 400 Canadian corporations are seeking to hire a diverse work force. He encouraged participants to find them, again saying that “at the end of the day, the decision to disclose has to be your decision!”
Stephen Noel: Student Services—Getting Experience
Stephen Noel, Employment Counsellor, St. Mary’s University, agreed with earlier speakers about the importance of work experience.
“There is good news on the job front,” Noel told forum participants. The September career fair at the university attracted 95 major employers, a really good indicator of the “hot” local job market. He acknowledged that “getting a good education can be really tough” but stressed that getting an education is a wonderful indication of a person’s ability to work. It is wise to get work experience as a student and it’s becoming easier because of progressive programs that are being put into place. He highlighted some of these initiatives:
Noel also pointed out that most jobs are never advertised. As the best jobs are often found through networking, it is important to network while still a student. He also described other programs and internships available to all participants:
Twelve large departments in the federal government are currently hiring a significant number of new employees. Most have October deadlines. He encouraged all new and recent graduate students to apply and noted that students looking to graduate next May are also eligible to apply now.
Noel then shared some examples from his personal experience as a job counsellor.
One client with disabilities had good French language skills and a keen interest in banking. He was offered an internship through Ability Edge that required relocating to a small community to work in the bank there. By agreeing to be flexible in this way, he ended up acquiring lots of hands-on experience he might not have received so early in his career had he gone to work in a larger facility. This experience gave him the comfort level he needed to move up through various promotions.
Noel also referred to other students he counselled who were very skilled in their particular fields but who had disabilities of a social nature. They consistently got interviews but did not want to reveal their disabilities to the employers interviewing them. Employers, however, could sense that there was something amiss even if they couldn’t quite put a finger on it and consequently no job offers would be made. Noel’s belief is that these job seekers would have landed those jobs had they disclosed their disabilities to the potential employers. He noted that quite often employers have no experience with disabilities and that it can be difficult for them to grasp them. He said that it is incumbent on job seekers to educate employers in this respect.
The last thing that Noel addressed was the importance of being a really good job searcher and of developing the skills that foster this. He noted that some people are naturally good at establishing rapport with others—they can walk into any party and come out with a job. Other people may have phenomenal technical skills but poor people skills, which make them “lousy” job searchers. “There is a set of skills you need to know,” stated Noel, “but if you don’t have them now, you can develop them.”
Jennison Asuncion: NEADS Web-based Employment Resources
Jennison Asuncion noted that his involvement with NEADS dates back to 1994. He served on the NEADS board as Vice-President Internal 1996–2000 after which he returned as an advisor to the board. Founded in 1986 at Carleton University, NEADS is a national consumer-based cross-disability organization representing students with all disabilities, both visible and invisible. Students with learning disabilities (both students and recent graduates) make up the largest group. NEADS’ newest employment initiative is called NOWS, or the NEADS Online Work System: www.nows.ca
The membership of NEADS comprises college and university students with disabilities, recent graduates, educators, professionals who provide services to student with disabilities, and employers. NEADS advocates for better access to post-secondary education for persons with disabilities as well as for the removal of barriers to employment opportunities. A 12- member elected board (one member from each province and one from the territories, plus one member-at-large) and one ex-officio board member guide the organization. Board members must be either current students or students who have graduated within the past two years. Asuncion acknowledged Jennifer Finley, one of the conference participants, as the current Nova Scotia representative.
Asuncion praised NEADS and encouraged participants to get involved in the organization. He commented that if not for his own involvement with NEADS, he would not have found his current employment.
NEADS provides information on programs and services for students with disabilities (including sources of financial aid and specialized funding), publishes a newsletter, and conducts research into issues of concern to its members (for example, access to academic materials and access to extracurricular activities). It also hosts a listserv for disability issues called NEADS-L, notable in that only a few of these exist worldwide.
NEADS holds a general conference every two years. This year NEADS is celebrating its 20th anniversary and Asuncion took the opportunity to invite all participants to the conference in Ottawa on November 10–12. Entitled Creating Our Future on Campus and Beyond, the conference will tackle four issues: innovation in post-secondary education, disability studies, creating student leaders on college and university campuses, and job search strategies for disabled students and graduates – the subject of this forum. Subsidies are available for students who wish to attend.
NEADS has been active in the promotion of employment initiatives for our members since 1994 when it created an Employer Advisory Council. This paved the way for the Investing in the Future Membership Project in 1996 and the Student Leadership and Employment Forums project in 2001 and the current cross-country Job Search Strategies Forums in 2005/2006. In 2003, NEADS published a booklet, Access to Success, which profiles professionals with disabilities and provides tips and techniques for disabled persons in the professional work world. It has also developed a guide called Employment Connections for disabled students seeking employment and for their employers.
In 2003 NEADS launched its own national online job search service for disabled students at www.nows.ca. This job site is absolutely free to students and recent graduates with disabilities, and to employers. Students can search and apply for employment opportunities online as well as upload their resumes and cover letters to employers. Employers can post jobs online and search for employees to fill positions by job, skill set, province or city. Asuncion cautioned that job seekers accessing the site are in effect disclosing they have a disability so that they should be prepared for disclosure on the job.
In response to a question of the makeup of current NOW users, Asuncion provided the following figures:
Participants desiring further information were directed to the following:
NEADS URL: www.neads.ca
Participants were then invited to try NOWS in the adjacent Exhibit Room.
Questions and Discussion
Commenting that she heard a presenter say that it’s best not to bring in your own adaptive equipment while another suggested that you could provide the accommodation yourself, a participant asked for clarification.
Jennifer Dillon responded that whether or not job seekers should consider providing their own accommodations depends on the organization and work. If the organization is small and has no accommodation funding and you really want the job or need it to get the experience for a better job, you may choose to provide your own accommodations. She also pointed out that in some provinces there is funding where small companies can access support for accommodations.
Racine suggested that there may be cases in which a person with disabilities is already using an accommodation at home and may be amenable to bringing it to their place of work, particularly if they are concerned about being disqualified for a job they really need or want. Nonetheless, he stressed that funding is available for accommodation needs—often it’s just a matter of doing the research ahead of time. One source of funding for accommodations is the federal Opportunities Fund that can be accessed through Teamwork Cooperative.
Another participant questioned whether one has an obligation to disclose a disability when the disability has the potential to be contagious, such as being infected with HIV. What should job seekers do if they were feel they were disqualified or let go from a job because an employer found out they were HIV positive?
Stephen McDonnell replied that there is no legal requirement to disclose HIV infection to the employer. This right is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedom. However, a worker who is HIV positive worker is legally obliged to inform Occupational Health and Safety about his or her infection.
As NEADS is committed to ongoing improvement, participants will receive an email evaluation to complete. Both the NEADS Job Search Strategies Forum organizing committee and NEADS staff would appreciate comments on what worked well and what didn’t, along with any suggestions for improvements.
Jennifer Dillon thanked participants for their contributions to the NEADS Job Search Strategies Forum. She also extended appreciation to all the speakers, exhibitors, employers, NEADS forum committee, staff, volunteers who assisted with the conference. She reiterated the importance of forum feedback in helping to plan upcoming events. Participants showed their appreciation with a round of applause.
Dillon told participants that she is in the process of changing fields and is now a student again herself. This time round she is putting into action some of the job strategies presented at the forums. For example, she has built a relationship with a professor on whom she can rely for support and good advice. Finding that it can be very difficult to keep up with academic demands and get job experience at the same time, she has decided to make job experience a priority even if she has to sacrifice her grades a bit in order to do so. She is following up on her job searches, something she didn’t do before but is finding very informative. For instance, she learned that when applying to ten positions, her resume may be looked at for only three of those openings because of internal hiring.
As a wrap-up, Dillon summarized the key messages of the day:
Dillon encouraged participants to do as much as possible to find out about their fields while in school and to start networking and meeting people who can help in their career development.
In concluding, she wished participants the best of luck in their own job searches and invited them to take in the innovative exhibits before leaving.
Jennifer Finley, the Nova Scotia NEADS board member for the past six years, informed participants that she would not be running for election at this year’s national conference. She encouraged participants to consider running for the position, which she has thoroughly enjoyed. It is not necessary to attend the conference to run for the position. Applications are available online at the NEADS website. There is also an opening for a New Brunswick NEADS board member.
Donna Gray, from Halifax Casino, presented Roots watches to two lucky conference participants who were the winners in the draw.
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