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Success in STEM

Educate Your Employer

by Caroline George, Jobpostings Magazine (Winter 2009, pg. 14)

Treat others as you want them to treat you. Sounds simple, right? Not so. In the workplace this message may be lost on an employer unaware of what it’s like for a new hire with a disability. Communication is key

“Attitude is the biggest challenge and it’s mainly because people are really not aware,” explains Norma Ricker, director of project development, employment services for the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work (CCRW) in New Brunswick.

Like in math, some problems have more than one solution, something Janice Shaw, support coordinator for the Epilepsy Association of Calgary, understands. In the position for 12 years now, Shaw has dealt with a number of employers and vividly recalls a client being fired after having a seizure: “He told them (his employer) about his epilepsy and that his medication was being changed and sometimes a breakthrough seizure may occur. He had a seizure and they actually let him go right away.” The employee spoke with Shaw, who suggested they talk to their boss about equality within the workplace.

After this proved unsuccessful, Shaw confronted the employer, who ignored her until a phone call with the Human Rights Commission changed their decision about her client.

He was eventually rehired and promoted.

Although this scenario ended on a happy note, Ricker advises employers to identify problems before they escalate. The solution is often as simple as communication. “Talk to the individual first. People are people whether they have a disability or not.”

Becoming aware of your comfort level is key to succeeding on the job. Approaching your employer and co-workers to make them aware of your challenges not only helps you, but also allows them to understand your feelings and address the issue, says Ricker.

Take down the obstacles

Don’t miss the opportunity to become proactive, says Ricker of both the employee and employer. She advises setting up training sessions (which can also include staff) like those offered by the CCRW. They are also a great way to understand, confront and solve issues in the workplace.

“We would do meetings with the staff and the employer to talk about what it is to have a person with a disability in their workplace and try to dissolve the myths and misconceptions of people with disabilities in the workplace,” says Ricker. “Awareness and sensitivity training is so valuable to the workplace. After we deliver this training most trainees say ’Wow I didn’t realize,’ or ‘I was afraid to ask the question.’

It’s not worth it to suffer in silence and become miserable. By speaking up and explaining your needs to your employer, in many cases they will understand and try to accommodate you.

Ask for help

Knowing where to seek help can seem overwhelming for anyone, but be aware that many organizations have job skills programs and coaches to help employees understand how to approach their employer about difficulties on the job. “The reality is that most of our clients will encounter a challenge at some point in their job, such as a change in management. This is where a job coach might step in and establish that new relationship between the individual and the new employer,” says Debbie Seery, director of the Hawkins Institute in Toronto, which runs social skills programs for adults with Asperger Syndrome and learning disabilities.

“A member of Hawkins will go to work with an individual on their first day. The purpose of that visit is to make sure the individual knows where the washrooms are, what the break times are, what the supervisor’s name is and establishing a comfort level. It also allows us to have knowledge of what the individual’s job is as well. Should the individual have a problem on the job the employer can call and we have an understanding as well, so that’s a support to the employer,” explains Seery.

“I think that employers should not try to figure out or understand things for themselves,” says Ricker of the problems that often result from employers who don’t seek outside help. “They can save themselves a lot of time, energy and even money if they talk to professionals in advance.”

“A lot of the time it’s just educating the employer as to what it’s like to work with someone with a disability and make it a positive experience, for both the employer and the individual,” agrees Seery.

For the employer and employee unable to communicate their feelings, finding a solution can seem like a maze with no end. But if you follow your instincts the resources are there. Learning how to access them is a step in the right direction towards gaining a great work experience, experts agree.


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