Carole is Co-Chair of the National Council of Federal Employees with Disabilities, a group recognized by the Government of Canada as representing the interests of federal public servants with disabilities across Canada. A lawyer and hard of hearing, Carole is a well-known disability advocate who joined the Public Service in 1992 after ten years in private practice. After spending the first 14 years of her public service career in various positions within the Department of Justice Canada, she is currently Chief, Constitutional and Legal Affairs (Intergovernmental Affairs, Privy Council Office). Carole is also the President of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association and Vice-President of Reach Canada, the latter group offering a referral service to persons with disabilities in need of legal advice relating to disability issues.
The Government of Canada as an Employer of Choice
Carole Willans-Théberge, Lawyer, Privy Council Office
Carole Willans-Théberge, who has a hearing disability, spoke about opportunities for students with disabilities within the government of Canada.
Willans-Théberge began by speaking about the National Council of Federal Employees with Disabilities (NCFED), which she co-chairs. NCFED has humble, grassroots origins, she said. It began with just two federal public service employees with disabilities who wanted to work with other disabled people in collaboration with the government to make the workplace more welcoming and accessible across Canada.
NCFED’s constituency is federal public servants with disabilities. The six positions on its board of directors are filled by people from different regions across the country. Its achievements include holding two congresses (2002 and 2005) and starting up the NCFED Info Centre. The meetings were consultations that listened to the views of constituents and people with expertise and interest in the area. The Info Centre is a centre of expertise being developed by the government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
NCFED is currently working for access to accommodation for federal employees with hearing loss. In collaboration with Public Works and Government Services Canada, it is starting to provide American Sign Language, Quebec Sign Language, and print interpretations in the workplace.
Willans-Théberge next turned to her personal experience. She was called to the bar in Quebec in 1981 and had a rough start in the private sector. Lawyers are expected to be communicators, and especially because Willans-Théberge wanted to be a litigator, she was forced to hide her hearing loss to find an articling position. During her ten years in a private firm, she found it particularly difficult to do court work while constantly hiding her disability. Eventually her disability was discovered, and the firm said that it could not accommodate her.
But Willans-Théberge’s job loss turned out to be a wonderful opportunity. By coincidence, she met the president of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association and learned that she did not have to be ashamed of her hearing loss. She was hired as a director in 1991 and learned about accommodations such as captioning.
“One good turn deserves another,” she said. In 1992, Willans-Théberge was hired by the Department of Justice as part of the National Strategy for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities. In 2005, the Privy Council Office hired her as part of its Career on the Move program aimed at helping visible minorities, Aboriginal people, and persons with disabilities move into management positions. Willans-Théberge noted that there is no shame in taking advantage of opportunities that level the playing field for people with disabilities.
The Public Service Commission of Canada has five federal student recruitment programs, continued Willans-Théberge. The Federal Student Work Experience Program is a primary vehicle for students who want to find temporary jobs within the federal government. She also mentioned Justice Canada’s Legal Excellence Program and recommended that students search the Internet for other placement and recruitment programs, in particular those available at www.jobs.gc.ca.
In terms of practical tips, Willans-Théberge encouraged students to self-identify, because identification now provides an advantage. There is no obligation to disclose, and by law an employer cannot ask a candidate to disclose a disability, but candidates should tell a potential employer what their accommodation needs are. “Ask for the right accommodation at the right time and in the right way,” Willans-Théberge said. Be courteous and constructive, and help find a solution if a problem exists.
Willans-Théberge also advised participants to network, to take responsibility, and to cover all the bases. “It’s no time to be modest!” she said.
In particular, if leadership is needed for a job, remember that volunteer experience counts. And, “when you go to an interview, look at people, shake their hands, be confident, and do the work you need to do to have self-esteem and to look like a person who knows what you’re doing.”
Willans-Théberge summed up by stating five “Golden Rules” to work and live by: