Success in STEM

My Long Journey From School To Wor

by Simon Payn, Jobpostings Magazine (Winter 2008, page 8)

Avril Rinn has some tough talk for students with disabilities who are entering the job market. Like most sound advice, it may be uncomfortable to hear – but often the harshest advice is most valuable.

Avril, who is visually impaired, has certainly earned the right to advise students. She admits she made mistakes at school, and she’s learned from those mistakes. Now she wants others to learn from them too.

How Avril went from student to employee

“I went into university from high school without a clear goal. I think I was similar to a lot of kids with disabilities and I decided I wanted to be a social worker,” says Avril. “I had no idea what a social worker did, but I just wanted to be one and help people with disabilities.

“I stayed in university for three years but I never finished a degree. My marks were not very good, more because I was quite directionless rather than because I wasn’t academically able.” Avril did summer work at university. She found it was useful to get experience and find out what the real world was really like.

After leaving university, she spent a year doing pretty much nothing.

“One issue I had was around isolation,” she says. “The more I stayed at home, the more I wanted to stay at home.”

But then she received a mailing for a computer training program for people with a visual impairment, offered by an agency called ATN Access, in London, Ontario.

“I remember seeing that little envelope and thinking, ‘I have to take this opportunity.’”

That course started a career-long interest in the pursuit of self-education, something she advises every disabled student do.

After Avril completed the program, ATN Access hired her — first part time and eventually to a fulltime position. As the agency expanded, so did Avril’s job. She started giving computer instruction and then added life skills coaching to her role. She’s now the organization’s computer support person and gives computer and life skills training and advice.

Have a dream and a goal

Avril says the lack of direction she experienced isn’t that unusual for students with disabilities.

“It’s really easy for people with disabilities who are getting a government pension not to do anything, because they are not hungry,” she says. “Often their parents will be still involved in their lives. It’s not that big of a deal if you don’t work. Often nobody has encouraged you or helped you believe there’s anything you’re capable of doing.

“I think people are capable of more than they sometimes think they are and get credit for being. I know I was.”

Avril firmly believes everyone should have a dream and a goal. Those goals may change, but you have to be going somewhere.

She also believes in getting as many life experiences as you can — however difficult that may seem.

“People should be prepared to take something that isn’t necessarily a dream job, because it’s a job for now and it will get them some experience.”

Think of what skills you have (and don’t have)

Avril says it’s important to think about what you have to offer an employer. But also, think about things that might be missing.

“People are sometimes missing social skills,” she says. “Sometimes they have gotten away with being who they are because they have a disability.

“I often find that people’s issues around working are really nothing to do with the disability. It has a lot sometimes to do with attitude — whether they can be on time for things, whether they have coffee break skills. All those little, soft skills you learn by being parts of groups or by people giving you honest feedback.”

Know Your assistive technology

Be aware of assistive technology, Avril advises. “If you need an assistive device or an accommodation, be really proactive about knowing where to buy it, the price of it and if there is a government program to pay for it,” she says.

“The last thing your employer wants is someone who doesn’t know the answers to all these questions — you won’t look like a motivated person who wants a job.”

Avril uses a large-print software program and has a stand that brings her computer monitor closer. She says she’s arranged her environment to make it friendly for her.

Also consider if a full-time job is really what you want, or whether it’s something you feel pressured into. After all, an employer will notice pretty quickly if you don’t really want to be working.

“People with disabilities are sometimes living on a subsidized income — there’s nothing wrong with that — and they don’t need a full-time job. Maybe a full-time job isn’t what you are aiming for,” she says.

Consider part-time or telecommuting opportunities as an alternative to full-time work.

Final Words for Success

“You really are your own ambassador, and if you can project in the interview a confident way of dealing with your disability and not come across as bitter or unhappy, they are going to want to hire you,” she says.

“How your future turns out is really up to you. If you make intelligent, realistic choices about your life, no education is ever wasted.

“People are not likely to go wrong if they do that.”