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Risk takers, career makers

BY INGRID PHANEUF

http://jpcdn.disabilities.dgtlpub.com/2009/2009-09-30/home.php Photo of Carrie Moffatt

For a person with a disability, wanting more than just a job that provides accommodation can be discouraging – after all, shouldn’t you just be grateful to have a job? The answer is no, according to the Jennifer Dillon, Jennifer Richardson and Carrie Moffatt, three Canadian careerists who plan a lot more in their futures than just punching a time clock…

Born with macular dystrophy, Jennifer Dillon, 33, didn’t want to just passively accept whatever job a person with a visual impairment was expected to have, but it wasn’t as if she had much exposure to anything else…until she realized that her love of the environment could outstrip the limitations that her environment might impose on her.

Now Jennifer is a project analyst with the Operation and Integration branch of the Ontario Ministry of Environment.

Of course she did everything you’d expect a visually impaired person to do as well – she worked in a call centre, she studied, interned and volunteered as a social worker, she worked for CNIB (and RNIB in Scotland) and she ran an internship program for Ability Edge.

“But I always felt like I was doing exactly what people expected me to do,” says Dillon. “And that was frustrating. I wanted to do something I had a passionate interest in.”

Dillon is one of the growing number of people with disabilities who aren’t satisfied with just making a living. In September 2004, Dillon went back to school into environmental studies at York University in Toronto.

“There was a huge reading list, ”Dillon says. “I had to scan so much material to be able to read it.”

Library research involved scanning tables of content to figure out whether a book had what she needed, then going back to scan more if it did. She did all this while she was still working part time for the Ability Edge internship program in Toronto. For Jennifer, all the extra effort was her road to freedom. Little did she know that her work was just beginning. In summer 2006, her applications for jobs in the environmental field were going nowhere, until one employer contacted her, impressed by how she’d applied her school experience to potential on-the-job scenarios.

“He thought I demonstrated that I had some knowledge of the subject they were dealing with and invited me in for an interview,” says Jennifer. “I showed up and disclosed that way. But he didn’t care. He just needed someone to start right away.”

It was baptism by fire for Jennifer, who brought her own software to the office and worked without the supervision of her hiring manager for the first two weeks of her employment.

After that summer job, Dillon went on to earn a project management certificate at Ryerson University, also in Toronto, which led to her current paid internship with the ministry.

“Taking risks has really paid off for me,” says Dillon, who speculates her environmental love affair was born in Penatang, Ont., where she grew up in close proximity to a provincial park.

In addition to her current position at the Ministry of Environment, Jennifer organizes conferences for NEADS and is a strong believer in the importance of following your bliss, and dealing with hurdles as they come.

“I’m really excited by my job,” says Dillon. “I am involved in developing new approaches and opportunities when it comes to dealing with climate change, invasive species and managing resources. While I enjoyed working with people in social services, I always felt there were larger issues to be addressed. And I love problem solving.”

“Life is short,” says Dillon. “That’s why you can’t live according to other people’s expectations of you. So any changes you make will have to come from the inside.”

Dillon admits there are plenty of people out there who will tell a person with a disability that they should be happy with what they get, as far as a career goes, “I’ve been asked ’What more could you possibly want?’”

Risk wanting more

How about wanting to jump off a 22-storey sky scraper? That’s what Jennifer Richardson, pursuing a career in health care in Regina, Sask. did this past spring, for the second time, to raise awareness for the Saskatchewan Abilities Council.

Diagnosed with a learning disability in her early 20s, Jennifer doubted she’d ever go to university, much less earn two undergraduate degrees simultaneously (a bachelors of social work and a bachelors of health studies) and end up leaping off tall buildings.

But the recent graduate, now in her late 20s, has done just that and is currently seeking full-time employment in the health care field.

“My ideal job would be in an oncology unit in a hospital,” says Richardson, who was recently accepted into a masters of social work program. “I plan to work and go to school part-time at the same time.”

For someone with a disability linked to learning, Richardson hasn’t done too badly. But she says she might have not done as well, if it weren’t for one of her guidance counsellors in high school (his name is Trevor Bearance and they’re still friends) who believed she had what it took.

“He even signed me up for two university courses and paid for them out of his own pocket,” says Richardson. “I felt too guilty not to attend.” Once Richardson realized she could find away to learn that would work for her, she blossomed.

“The problem I had with the education system was that people weren’t really trained to recognize my learning disability,” says Richardson. “So no one ever thought I would be able to make it into university.” Another problem was that the government would not pay for testing for learning disabilities until Richardson reached adulthood. In foster homes from an early age, Richardson’s resources were few and far between.

That’s changed now. As an adult, Richardson is now eligible for First Nations post-secondary funding.

Richardson only discovered her learning disability while taking courses in university. She was assessed thanks to the encouragement of one of her profs.

“I was assessed in 2005, while I was taking a class on disability issues at the University of Regina,” says Richardson. “My prof, who was from Quebec, remarked that I read English worse then he did. He encouraged me to go for testing.”

First, Richardson was obliged to prove that her disability was neurological rather than psychological. When her neurological impairment was established, she was sent for further testing at a provincial government agency.

The agency, which provides employability assistance for people with disabilities, gave her a laptop, some software (Richardson uses Wynn) and provided funding for tutors, which Richardson selects herself.

“I usually hire a classmate to tutor me, as they know the subject matter best,” she says.

Richardson is amazed that she managed to finish high school given her severe impairment when it came to reading or comprehending text.

“In elementary school I did not know what I was reading,” says Richardson, I couldn’t tell you what a story was about. And I have no clue how I got through high school. All I know is that every single one of my report cards said I needed help with my reading.”

Now Richardson is finally getting the help she needs to realize her dream of becoming a social worker for oncology patients, even though the reading requirements are heavy.

“University is hard because my way of learning takes longer,” says Richardson. “But now that I know what the problem is I can work with it.”

“I’m letting my curiousity overtake my fear,” she says.

Taking the plunge

Taking the plunge to self-employment is Carrie Moffatt’s most recent risk, one she took when she realized that she couldn’t stand one more minute of being paid a lot of money for doing something she loathed. Namely working in a government communications department, which she was hired into straight out of the communications program at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C..

“I think people at work were concerned about my financial stability,” says the Victoria native, who has had hearing loss since birth, combined with a degenerative eye condition she was diagnosed with five years ago, at 24. “But because I’m losing my vision I think that quickly aligned my values. It sort of put things into perspective. It’s not a death sentence, but I may be legally blind by my 40s, so it doesn’t make much sense to be miserable and toiling away in a cubicle in the meantime.”

Moffatt started her business in January 2008 with a writing and editing contract. But then she started making glass jewelry and selling it on the web.

“I never made jewelry before, but I’ve always been creative – I was in a special arts program in high school, ”says Moffatt, who is also athletic and training for a half marathon. “The whole jewelry making thing just kind of came up after my partner bought a kiln and I realized it was something I could do.”

Moffatt uses the kiln to melt layers of glass together, creating pendants. Her shapes are rectangular, aptly shaped for her company which she has named Squareware (visit www.sqareware.etsy.com).She spends her days making jewelry, working on her website and training.

“It’s a lot better than writing one press release and then spending the rest of the day trying to look busy,” says Moffat. “Now I can take advantage of the daylight. I have night blindness so far, so I can still go for a run or do some chores during the day.”

As for future plans, Moffatt thinks that going to law school maybe her next step. But first she’s taking another plunge – into married life.


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