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Reports

Report on the Winnipeg NEADS Student Leadership & Employment Forum

Winnipeg, Manitoba
Saturday, October 27, 2001

Prepared by Steven Estey, Project Consultant

Introduction

Since 1998, NEADS has sponsored six Disabled Student Leadership Forums across Canada. These events have been held in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, St. John's, Antigonish and Yellowknife. Detailed reports on each of these meetings are available on the NEADS web site at http://www.neads.ca. The ideas and issues discussed with students across Canada fell into five distinct areas: support to campus organisations, support to individual students, expanded internet services, high school outreach and differences between small and large post-secondary institutions.

Building on these successes, and aware of the importance of labour market issues and access for graduating students, the NEADS Board has mandated that a more prominent role for employment related discussions be incorporated as a key part of the forums in the current fiscal year. It should be pointed out that these issues were discussed in detail by the membership of the Association during its 2000 national conference in Ottawa: "Networking, Educating, Advocating: Delivering Success in the New Millennium." With the Board's decision, NEADS has moved to develop an exciting partnership with Human Resources Development Canada's (HRDC) Youth Initiatives Directorate in order to deliver this additional component of the program in four locations over the coming year: Winnipeg, Toronto, Victoria and Montreal. The forums in 2001/2002 are sponsored through a contribution agreement with the Youth Initiatives Directorate (Information and Awareness Program) and are being hosted by members of the NEADS board in collaboration with the Association's national office and a project consultant. Students with disabilities are invited to participate in the forums, to lend their insights to the issues at hand. A number of groups and organizations are asked to speak to the students: regional HRDC representatives, employers and employment agencies, and leaders of student and community organisations.

What follows is a report based on the proceedings of the first Student Leadership and Employment forum. The forum took place on Saturday October 27, 2001 at the University of Winnipeg, in Winnipeg, Manitoba and was scheduled from 10:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Approximately 25 people attended the meeting over the course of the day. Students represented the University of Manitoba, the University of Winnipeg and Red River Community College. The event was divided into three distinct focus areas: student leadership, employment (transition from school to work) and student group organizing. Discussion in each area was similarly structured, with a panel presentation to introduce each subject and put it into context and then small group discussions took place around a prepared set of questions. At the end of each discussion, groups reported their findings back to the larger forum. This report follows that same structure, and includes a summary and concluding remarks section at the end.

Student Leadership

This focus area continues to build upon the discussions that NEADS has supported on campuses across the country for the past three years. The session is intended to promote discussion about leadership in the disability community and on college and university campuses. Participants have the opportunity to listen to disability and student leaders and to discuss issues of organizing and how to become more involved in disability and access issues both at school and in the community.

2.1 Panel Discussion

Catherine McGowan, NEADS Board member - Manitoba Representative
Catherine, the host of the Winnipeg forum, began the panel presentation by discussing the work and objectives of NEADS. She made it clear that NEADS is a disability consumer organisation, and that it is controlled by a board of directors, all of whom have some form of disability. She went on to state that the overall mandate of the Association is to empower students with disabilities (SWD) in post-secondary education, and improve access. NEADS does this through a number of projects and information sharing activities.

Catherine spoke about current NEADS projects like the CampusNet initiative, which seeks to create an online community of SWDs and their organizations across the country. Another project she mentioned was the High School Outreach Project. This project reaches out to high school students and will develop resources that can help youth with disabilities make a successful transition from high school to post-secondary education. Along with these initiatives, Catherine talked about the NEADS Web site and the newsletter, as the main ways in which the Association shares information with SWDs and others interested in access to post secondary education in Canada.

Steven Fletcher, Past President, University of Manitoba Students' Union (UMSU)
Steven is the immediate Past President of the Students' Union, and as a person with a disability he has a unique perspective on the issues of student leadership - in both the disability movement and mainstream campus life. He spoke about stereotyping and the difficulties it can raise, saying: "People don't get it! For example, in a restaurant the waitress often asks the person I am with what I want … there is a stigma. Stereotyping is wrong and society needs to be educated." He went on to say that the best way to deal with this societal problem was to focus on one's abilities. Noting that when he ran for UMSU president he did not make any issue of his disability, but instead focussed on his abilities - and his success in school and student government indicates that this approach can and does work.

Dr. Henry Enns, Chair of the first University of Manitoba Disabled Students Group, and current Executive Director of the Canadian Centre of Disability Studies
Henry spoke about his own efforts to start a disabled students' group in the 1970s at the University of Manitoba. He and a few others formed an organisation for physically handicapped students with a disability rights mandate. They wanted the university to change and look at how barriers could be removed. They also wanted to empower SWDs and ensure that necessary services were available. The group was active and it hired a couple of students to develop an action plan on how the U of M could be made more accessible. That organization continued its work for almost ten years, as a group that actively promoted the issues of disabled students on campus. In closing, Henry noted that one problem faced by this group, and all student groups, is that students are only in school for a limited time. When leaders graduate, the organisation can have problems replacing them, and this is a key challenge for all student organisations.

Claire Simpson, Chair, Manitoba League of People with Disabilities (MLPD)
Claire spoke about the MLPD, saying that it was formed by a small group of consumers who were frustrated with services for people with disabilities. She said that at the time there was no voice of people with disabilities. In 1974, the MLPD was formed as the first organisation "of" people with disabilities - in response to the large number of existing organisations "for" people with disabilities. It was the first step away from the charity model, which had been pervasive for so long. The MLPD viewed disability issues from a rights perspective - and believed that charity had no place in the discussion about disability - hence the phrase, "disability rights organization." Today, MLPD has offices in Winnipeg, and branches in Brandon, Souris, The Pas and Thompson. Claire read the MLPD mission statement, which says, in part "MLPD is a united voice for people with disabilities. It promotes equal rights, full participation in society, and advocates for positive change in society." Claire concluded her remarks by stating that the MLPD does not have many young people involved in its work today, and she issued the challenge for participants and other SWDs to get involved with the activities of MLPD.

2.2 Group Discussion

The discussion in the groups fell into two broad areas. A summary of the key points is provided below.

Issues facing post-secondary students with disabilities:

  • What is considered a legitimate accommodation?
  • "Professors often seem to take offence to having to make "special" arrangements for dealing with students with disabilities, particularly when it comes to exam procedures. The policy that the professor must take/pick up the exam at the disability services office seems too rigid, as some professors take a long time to do it and as a result, I get my marks very late. When I offer to pick it up, I am told its against policy," said one student participant.
  • Professors generally lack knowledge of and understanding of needs.
  • There is a lack of funding for students with disabilities as well as for the disability services office.

Disabled student groups:

  • There is a deaf students' group on the University of Manitoba (U. of M.) campus, and students are trying to start a more general disability group. The University of Manitoba Deaf Students' Association offers American Sign Language classes on campus as a service to those who are interested.
  • University of Winnipeg has a position identified on their Students' Association to represent students with disabilities, but there is no group per se.
  • The U of M disability services office has just started a mentorship program.
  • Maybe campus groups should include alumni with disabilities who could be mentors.
  • Something that students groups could focus on is developing workshops for faculties of education. New teachers would benefit from meeting successful SWDs because they often have very low expectations of SWDs once they begin teaching. This could be a project for NEADS - a resource kit for campus groups to do these sorts of workshops. These materials could also be used for educating faculty members and could be done in partnership with service providers.

Employment

The focus area addressing issues of employment is a new addition to the NEADS Leadership Forums. The intention is to present participants with information from Human Resources Development Canada and other employment related programs to assist youth as they begin to consider the transition from school to the world of work. HRDC produces a number of information products on federal programs and services that are designed to aid in the transition from school to work. Two packages were made available to participants for their information, and feedback: the publication Youth Link, which is produced by the Communication Branch of Human Resources Development Canada as part of the Government of Canada's Youth Employment Strategy, and a folder on programs and services of HRDC's Youth Initiatives Directorate.

3.1 Panel Discussion

Christine Dobbs, Human Resources Development Canada, Manitoba Regional Office - Youth Employment Programs
Christine gave an extensive overview of the information products and programs that have been developed by HRDC through a PowerPoint and oral presentation. She said that the programs are intended to help young people find work by providing skills training, work experience, and access to labour market information. There are several different programs, which Canadian youth can access. Details on these programs can be found in the Youth Link publication, which is available on the Web site at http://www.youth.gc.ca/youthlink/ythlink_e.shtml). Programs provide work experience and career planning for young people in business, voluntary organizations, public health, and other sectors of the Canadian economy. Christine pointed out that HRDC itself does not deliver many of these programs; rather they offer funding to employers to provide the work experience. Eligible sponsors include businesses, organizations, individuals, public health and education institutions, band tribal councils and municipal governments.

Key federal government programs that Christine Dobbs identified to forum participants include: Youth Internship Canada, Youth Service Canada, Youth International, Student Summer Job Action and Youth Information and Awareness. Dobbs indicated how important it is for Human Resources Development Canada to increase representation of people with disabilities in all of these programs. She welcomed feedback from participants during the day and following the forum.

Janalee Morris, researcher on disability and employment issues, Coordinator of Disability Services, University of Manitoba
In a recent research project Janalee worked with nine disabled people, in there twenties, who were going through an employment-training program. The focus of the program was training and the working experience. The participants in the program had varying educational experience; all had graduated from high school, and some had finished college and/or university. What was experienced in common is that they had faced a lot of barriers because of disability. Some barriers we already know about, for example physical access, lack of interpreters, materials in Braille and that type of thing. Other, more surprising barriers for these disabled persons, related to self-esteem and attitudinal issues. Many talked about negative stereotypes and discrimination in the workplace. Another barrier Janalee identified through the research was financial in nature. People with disabilities are often on social assistance and that is a barrier, because they worry about loosing their benefits should they accept paid employment. And what happens if they can not keep the job? There is a particular concerned about loosing medical benefits. These systemic barriers, Janalee concluded, often keep people with disabilities from getting work, and in some cases can even prevent them from even looking for work in the first place.

Valerie Whettell, Coordinator, Reaching Equality Employment Services (REES), Winnipeg
Valerie talked about her program, which trains people with disabilities for work in call centres in Manitoba. The program offers training to people between 18 and 30 years old. The training takes 10 weeks and looks at life and job skills. REES also provides employment supports such as job coaching for those who need it, and offers information on various job accommodations to employers, when there are requests for this kind of support. The experience of the Reaching Equality Employment Services program is that many employers are very supportive and accommodating, but many others are unaware of accommodations that are required by peopled with disabilities in the work place. So, Valerie described a step-by-step process, dependant on the individual employer. Valerie also noted that a lot of people feel that call centre jobs are "selling." But in fact only 17% of the positions are in sales, and much of the rest are in research, and customer service areas such as banking. She also noted that this type of work has a lot of opportunity for advancement. The phone position is entry level, but there are also jobs in administration and management that are available with some employers.

3.2 Group Discussion

A lively group discussion followed the panel presentations. Participants agreed that the information presented was very helpful, and most people agreed that they had learned a great deal from the panellists. The discussion revolved around two key areas: barriers, and resources. Below is a list of the key ideas, issues and concerns that were discussed by the small group participants.

Barriers:

  • Employees with disabilities have to compensate for their disabilities by being better than the other staff; this can be very stressful.
  • Employers need to be better educated. It is unfair to expect employees / candidates with disabilities to do all the educating. There is an important role for community agencies like REES here.
  • Programs like the "STEP" program in Manitoba can serve ghettoize SWD, because they are separated from other students. Disabled persons were even paid less for awhile in this program!
  • "With all the emphasis on web based services, information and applications these days I am having trouble. With my (learning) disability, filling out online forms is very difficult. Someone else has to type my responses. It is not a format good for me," said one participant.
  • "Disclosure of hidden disabilities is a very difficult issue, and it is very hard to know how to handle it. I could use some guidance on this," said another participant.
  • Some employers are willing to accommodate your disability but it depends on the situation. Policies and procedures are not well-developed in this area. It is very inconsistent, and therefore hard to know how to deal with issues of disclosure.

Available resources & awareness:

  • Available programs and services often don't match student needs. For example, with the REES youth employment project, the program doesn't fit the aspirations and goals of many students and graduates with disabilities as they aren't interested in telemarketing.
  • Universities and colleges should develop more work experience programs with students with disabilities as a way of educating both students and employers about accommodation possibilities. These programs could include more co-op work experience and internships that support post-secondary students with disabilities.
  • There is not enough emphasis from Human Resources Development Canada on the creation of programs that will accommodate / encourage students with disabilities. Its hard to know if you should identify your disability, even when applying for an HRDC sponsored program. It's not clear from the program publications and materials that HRDC is keen to have applicants with disabilities. This should be made more evident.

Campus Organizing

This focus area provided student participants with an opportunity to speak with local campus leaders and find out more about student organisations in Winnipeg. It was included in the agenda at the request of local SWDs who are very interested in starting a SWD organisation on campus at the University to Manitoba. This session was an excellent way to end the proceedings and draw the day to an appropriate close.

4.1 Panel Discussion

Kevin Toyne, President, University of Manitoba Students' Union
Kevin noted that the union provides over $100,000 in annual funding to student groups at the university. So, there is a lot of money available for student groups, and students with disabilities could qualify for this funding as well to set-up an organisation. Kevin pointed out that a real plus in involvement with the Union is a chance to interact with other students. Also a student group can help the Union to lobby for specific issues faced by students with disabilities on campus. It can help effect positive change. And, as a recognized group, an organisation of disabled students could have representation on students' council. He concluded by saying that, "If you are a member of an equity seeking group then setting up a student group is very effective to make sure your voice is heard!"

Mike Nickerson, University of Winnipeg Students Association
Mike is the recently elected students' service director of the University of Winnipeg Students' Association. He spoke about his work in represent students' concerns on campus. He is a liaison between the students' association and the university administration. Mike works with students to find out what their needs are, and then lobbies to see that those needs are represented and acted upon at the university. He pointed out that there is no budget for his office; it is purely a communication function, and this can be difficult when students have real needs, and he is unable to meet them. Still, Mike noted that the function of communicating between students and university administration is often helpful in effecting change and he encouraged students to make use of his office.

Jocelyn Johnson, President, University of Manitoba Deaf Students' Association
Jocelyn began her remarks by pointing out that her group is the only consumer controlled disability - related committee on the campus. It was formed last year and the process started by finding out how many students wanted to be involved in the association. One problem that organizers of the group faced was making contact with students in the beginning, because lists of disabled students are confidential. That is a barrier. Her group overcame this by advertising as much as possible. The group also began running ASL classes for interested students on the campus. They charged a minimal fee and this became a fundraising opportunity. 30 people contacted the group in the first two weeks to express interest. She said that these people may or may not know anyone who is deaf, but they were interested in taking the class.

Jocelyn also said that the key to their success has been persistence. From the launching of the first ASL classes, it has taken over a year to set up the deaf students' association. And once it was established it took another five months to get a regular room for meetings and ongoing activities. In closing, she noted that the group welcomes deaf students as well as those who aren't deaf to participate in its activities.

Carmen Day, University of Manitoba Student
Carmen has been trying to establish a disabled students' group on campus since February of last year. Initially, she was very busy with school and work and had problems following up with her first efforts to establish the organisation. She said that she was happy when NEADS decided to have a student leadership meeting in Winnipeg, and hoped that it would be a good way to start the process again. She said that there is a need to get students together, and that she felt that if an organisation was started then other students with disabilities would want to join. She is very interested in forming a peer support program, and feels that this is appropriate because so many students feel so alone.

Karl Tower, NEADS Board member, Saskatchewan
Karl has been involved with a group of learning disabled students in Saskatchewan. He noted that the students were only interested in coming to meetings once they were told how they would benefit. These benefits, he suggested were mainly in the area of not feeling alone, and peer support. The group stayed together through the school year and met to talk and go for coffee. Some members felt frustrated and alone, even saying they wanted to quit school. But when they got involved with the group their feelings began change. They gained self-confidence because of their involvement in a group. Karl said that for him, it was a great experience, especially the feeling of being in a safe and understanding environment. He closed his remarks by saying that just sitting in a group meeting and being like the other people was a great support for everyone and that it really helps build confidence.

4.2 Group Discussion

The whole group remained together for an interesting closing discussion. What follows is a list of the main ideas that group members brought forward.

  • Peer support is very important, in addition to personal advocacy.
  • Identifying a disabled students' representative in post-secondary students' associations seems like a great idea.
  • Community groups may also be a source of funding to help organize. For example, you can bring them in as luncheon speakers - for a "brown - bag" lunch speaker series.
  • There is often funding available for social events through the students' association. This can help bring people together who are interested in establishing a campus organisation.
  • NEADS can help by offering more forums like this. The CampusNet initiative was seen as a great opportunity to help groups communicate with one another through an online network and be more vocal about issues that need to be addressed.
  • NEADS should consider a rotating moderator for its listserv. It could, for example, be a monthly obligation for each board member.

Summary & Concluding Remarks

According to participants, the Winnipeg NEADS Student Leadership and Employment Forum was a lively and useful day. Many ideas were shared with students by a wide range of guest speakers. In terms of student leadership and organizing it was clear that those present were interested in building on the momentum created by the gathering. Students were challenged to organize on their campuses, and to become more involved in community disability organizations like the Manitoba League of Persons With Disabilities.

Many good ideas for support and assistance were proposed by the panel speakers and also by participants. For example, it was suggested that if students wanted to start a campus group they could do so by setting up a lunch-time speaker series and inviting leaders from the local disability community to come and discuss issues and concerns with students. It was also suggested that the students' union could provide financial support if a group was formed, and that this could be accomplished if a small group of students was committed and persistent in their efforts.

On employment and transition from school to work issues, participants agreed that there were a lot of resources available to them, and that it was very helpful to have the presentations by program staff and researchers. It was clear that issues of disclosure are a big concern for many students, and that this could prevent them from acknowledging their disability when applying for work or for various youth-related government programs. Those present recommended that programs make it very clear that disability will be accommodated - and that disabled applicants are encouraged to apply.

This first forum under the partnership between NEADS and HRDC's Youth Initiatives Directorate was a great success, and it certainly bodes well for the upcoming forums in Toronto, Victoria and Montreal! Building on the success of the Winnipeg forum, the Association has determined that it will expand the employment panel for the upcoming meeting in Toronto to include a larger number of employers and organizations/programs that help youth with disabilities find work after graduation. The next forum will be held in Toronto, on Friday, January 25th 2002 at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel. Forums in Victoria and Montreal are also now in the planning stages and are scheduled for March and April respectively.


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