Report on the Vancouver NEADS Student Leadership & Employment Forum
Delta Vancouver Suites Hotel, Vancouver, British Columbia
Since 1998, NEADS has organized eleven Disabled Student Leadership Forums across Canada. These events have been held in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, St. John's, Antigonish, Yellowknife, Winnipeg, Toronto, Victoria and most recently, Vancouver. Two meetings have taken place in Calgary and Montreal and project workshops were held in Ottawa in conjunction with the November, 2002 national conference.
Detailed reports on each of these meetings are available on the NEADS Web site at www.neads.ca. The ideas and issues discussed with participants during this initiative, in the first three years, fell into the following distinct areas: support to campus organizations, support to individual students, expanded internet services, high school outreach and differences between small and large post-secondary institutions.
The NEADS board of directors decided to build on the success of earlier forums by expanding the topic areas discussed to include employment starting in 2001/2002. This decision was made based upon an awareness of the importance of labor market issues and access to the job market for graduating students, and the importance of summer or part-time work for those still in school. With the board's direction, NEADS has moved to develop an exciting partnership with Human Resources Development Canada's (HRDC) Youth Initiatives Directorate, through the federal Youth Employment Strategy, in order to deliver a new project with additional, employment related components. Successful forums with this new focus were held in Toronto, Victoria and Montreal in 2001/2002. A second phase project ensures that NEADS can hold additional forums in 2002/2003 in: Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax and Ottawa. The forums are sponsored through a contribution agreement with HRDC's Youth Initiatives Directorate (Information and Awareness Program) and are being hosted by members of the NEADS board of directors 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 both student and disability organizations.
This report is based on the proceedings of the second NEADS Student Leadership and Employment Forum of 2003, which took place on Friday, March 14. About thirty-five participants joined us for the day at the Delta Vancouver Suites Hotel; a good cross-section of students, representatives from community organizations, service providers, employers and federal bureaucrats attended the meeting. These folks were from many local schools, including the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, Langara College, Kwantlen University College, Douglas College, and the University College of the Fraser Valley. One Dalhousie University student made the trip all the way from Halifax, Nova Scotia. NEADS' British Columbia Representative Rachael Ross acted as Chair for the day-long discussion session, while NEADS' Project Consultant Steve Estey provided welcoming remarks.
Officials of the Science & Technology Ability Recruitment/Retention Initiative (STARR) were also at the Vancouver forum, setting up a display table outside the meeting room and participating in discussions through the day. The purpose of STARR is to increase the representation of persons with disabilities in science and technology jobs across the federal Public Service and in science based departments and agencies. Other displays were set-up by RBC - Royal Bank and BMO - Bank of Montreal.
Welcoming Remarks - Steve Estey, Project Consultant
Steve welcomed those in attendance, and offered some background information on the current NEADS project. He explained that the initiative began as a way for the Association to better connect with students and student groups across the country, and to understand the key issues they focused on. Over time, he said, NEADS found that an overwhelming number of those students were having concerns with the transition from post-secondary education to the workforce.
It is from these common concerns that the NEADS board of directors has created the format being used for the 2002 - 2003 Student Leadership and Employment Forums. Namely, the forums incorporate discussion about how to ensure effective student leadership on post-secondary campuses, with input from employers about the skills students with disabilities need to hone to move into the work world after graduation. He said that the forums would show that many of the skills and characteristics that make an effective student leader are also the things that employers seek in their employees. Steve thanked everyone for attending, and turned the floor over to the panel.
Focus Area A: Student Leadership
The session began with a panel discussion on the issue of student leadership; panel members included:
Rachael Ross is NEADS' British Columbia Representative, and served as chair for the Vancouver forum. Last year, she received the Council of Canadians with Disabilities Award for her outstanding contribution to the disability movement in Canada.
After explaining to participants how the day was expected to work, she offered some of her experiences with student leadership, and how those experiences have helped her increase her employability.
As a student at the University of Victoria in the Sociology program, Rachael has been active in student government. Before getting involved in campus politics, she participated in different volunteer opportunities in the community. When she eventually decided to start a disability issues consulting company with another friend who has a disability, Rachael found that the contacts she has made through her community work proved invaluable to expanding her business. The company was called upon to offer advice to the B.C. government and boards of various organizations.
Rachael said that her student leadership and community work, and her experiences in the workforce, taught her that the ability to communicate effectively and make an impression on people so that they remember you is an important skill to hone for success in employment. She said her experiences have also allowed her a forum to pursue disability advocacy work, and to further her educational goals.
Rachael then invited anyone who was interested in speaking with her more in depth to approach her during the course of the day, and introduced the panel members before turning things over to the first speaker.
Chris is the Website Architect for NEADS and a project consultant. He spoke about his work with the organization's CampusNet initiative. Chris is a student at Montreal's Dawson College, and has been with NEADS since late 1999.
CampusNet is an online community of Canadian student leaders. The project began a year ago with the goal of providing an online forum for disabled student groups at Canadian post-secondary schools to discuss issues on their campuses, and to share ideas and strategies on how best to tackle those issues. The CampusNet project staff includes Chris, technical assistant Michael Sanford, and NEADS' National Coordinator Frank Smith. CampusNet is also guided by an advisory board, consisting of current and former NEADS board members Catherine MacKinnon, Sanjeet Singh, and Karl Tower, as well as representatives from partner organizations Adaptech and the Quebec Association for Disabled Post-Secondary Students (AQEIPS).
Chris explained that CampusNet is currently in the pilot project stage, thanks to funding from the Office of Learning Technologies, Human Resources Development Canada. During this phase, the project team wants to maintain the community it has developed, gain feedback from its participating student leaders on how to improve the community, and to expand on the features it already offers in an effort to attract new users. Chris outlined the features of CampusNet, which offers a bulletin board for discussion among members, a section with tips on student leadership and organizing and a directory of member student groups. The directory provides contact information for these organizations, and acts as a venue for student leaders to post information and progress reports on their activities.
CampusNet aims to promote and develop student leadership across Canada, to improve the guidance and help students with disabilities already enjoy on some campuses, while ensuring that those campuses that don't offer a voice to students with disabilities can begin the process through the formation of new groups and access committees.
In the coming months, the CampusNet team will be developing a section designed to offer a tutorial for student leaders interested in developing their own Web presence. CampusNet will also host student groups' Web sites, at no charge to members.
Importantly, the project aims to incorporate employment features into its Web community, including résumé and interview tips for students, and a job posting service where employers can announce opportunities for students with disabilities and students can post their résumés.
A demonstration of the CampusNet Web site was offered during the presentation. CampusNet can be accessed through the NEADS Web site at www.neads.ca and the CampusNet team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling a toll free number 1-877-670-1256.
Jaime Matten, who is B.C. chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, spoke about the organization and her experiences in student politics.
The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is a national organization, comprised of representatives from over 70 post-secondary institutions from across Canada, representing over 500,000 students. The organization advocates for student issues, such as reduced tuition fees and high-quality education.
Jaime spoke about some of the changes that have occurred in British Columbia post-secondary education over the past two years. In particular she discussed the impact of funding cuts by the provincial government, which have forced institutions to eliminate certain programs and services of importance to all students.
Students, according to Jaime, are facing increasing debt loads, with B.C. first-year grants for post-secondary students being eliminated, and tuition deregulation leading to tuition increases of between 20 and 50 percent. "These changes affect us all, whether in first or fourth year, in English or Business, on student loans or not," Jaime told participants. She also noted that these changes, specifically with regard to program cancellations, have had an impact on students with disabilities who rely on the assistance these programs offered. Additionally, students with disabilities on fixed incomes are particularly affected by the higher costs associated with education.
Clearly, changes to post-secondary education in B.C. make it a particularly good time for students to get involved in their student governments. Not only does this provide a voice for students to let the B.C. government know how the cuts are affecting them, but it can also help students develop the skills they will need to gain employment and pay off rising student debt loads after graduation, she said.
Jaime advised students at schools without disabled students' groups to start such organizations. She noted that these groups are provided a voice within the broader movement of student politics, by having a seat on the student government of their individual institution.
Bruce Mesman, Disability Services Advisor at the B.C. Open University, discussed his work as a service provider for students with disabilities, as well as his experiences while a disabled student in university. Bruce said he was able to complete a Master's degree, but didn't achieve his goals without assistance from others in the post-secondary community.
Bruce said his journey began after waking up in 1983 after a seven-week coma following a car accident, which resulted in significant neurological difficulties. His family was told that if he were to wake up, he wouldn't likely be able to do much. As a result, he sought to prove the doctors wrong. He said that philosophy - that it is up to individuals to change things and attitudes that are wrong - is important for students with disabilities to believe in.
After struggling through a year of school at the University College of the Fraser Valley in 1984, Bruce said he moved on to Douglas College. While at Douglas College, Bruce met service provider Gladys Loewen, who he now calls his mentor. He said he worked with Gladys to develop an education plan that has helped him achieve his long-term goals.
In addition to his experiences at Douglas College, in 1986 Bruce learned about a conference happening in Ottawa, which he decided to attend thinking it would be a good opportunity to socialize and network with other students with disabilities. NEADS emerged through the discussions at that conference in 1986, and Bruce became a member of the Association's board of directors. Bruce credits the conference and NEADS with helping him get involved in student advocacy.
Bruce reflected that the initial meetings of NEADS covered many of the same issues that are discussed and researched by the organization and others in the disabled students' movement today. He said he is encouraged to hear that the movement and student involvement in these issues is as strong today as it was then.
He said that NEADS provided him a venue through which he could feel safe and explore new things, and to learn important lessons about courage and taking risks. He said it is important to learn skills such as being able to advocate for yourself and communicate effectively, and that it helps if you can build those skills in a safe environment. He advised students with disabilities to turn to organizations designed to help them, and to develop such groups on their campuses if none exist. These groups can provide trusting environments, in which you can advocate for your needs, and at the same time develop a network of other people who can also help you reach your goals.
Vince Tomassetti told the group that, as a management student at Simon Fraser University, as well as an employee of the province's Adult Services Program, he can speak a bit about both student needs and the requirements of employers.
Vince began working with the Adult Services Program in 1996, as a summer student. In 1999, his summers spent with the program led to a full-time position. Currently, he is employed as a case manager, reviewing applications, as well as working with students and service providers to identify and address barriers faced by students with disabilities. He said his employment experiences have allowed him to put into practice some of the theoretical material he is learning in his studies.
He said that, as people with disabilities, we face issues relating to employment, which are over and above those faced by people without disabilities. Vince said he would focus on three of those issues - identifying what type of work you can and want to do, whether and when to disclose, and negotiating accommodations. He noted that students face these types of issues while in school, so by the time they enter the work world, students should have a good grasp of how best to address such issues.
Vince said that figuring out what type of work best suits you involves, first, recognizing your skills, and second any limitations posed by your disability. He noted that he has a progressive vision condition, and that by the time he entered post-secondary school in 1994, he was using an I.D. cane to get around. So, Vince recognized that mobility was an issue he had to consider in his employment goals. While first his cane, and now a guide dog, allow him to get around easier than if those aids weren't available to them, he came to the realization that "I probably wouldn't get a job as a commercial airline pilot or in the construction industry."
Vince said that recognizing those barriers and dealing with them requires some extra effort for students with disabilities, who also have to deal with the course work that all students have. He noted that, the more you understand your limitations, the easier it will be to identify what you need to effectively do a job, and the better you will be able to communicate with employers to help them understand your needs. At the same time, while it is important to understand your limitations, he said, it is important not to dwell on them. Realize the list of things you cannot do is going to be a lot shorter than the list of things you can do, and go from there.
From this discussion on barriers, Vince then moved to address the issue of disclosure. He noted that, in his case, his disability is clearly evident when he enters a room with his guide dog. But for people whose disability is not as evident, or is invisible, the issue of when and if to disclose is not as cut and dry. He noted that post-secondary students face issues of disclosure, and these same issues exist in the work world. He suggested that, as some employment experts point out, people with disabilities who don't disclose on their applications are often doing themselves a disservice. Because employers often have equity guidelines, qualified candidates with disabilities can be placed at the front of the line. Vince suggested researching both the company you are applying to, as well as their diversity policy.
He said students also have to deal with negotiating accommodations, as do people with disabilities entering the workforce. He said it is important to demonstrate to your employers how valuable you can be to their organization, while indicating that there are a certain number of accommodations you need to effectively reach your potential. Human rights legislation dictates that employers must be open to accommodation, so those seeking employment shouldn't be afraid to be up front about their needs.
He advised students to get a quality education, use the resources available to them, and not be afraid to ask for help when needed.
Following the panel presentations, participants broke into small groups to discuss a series of questions with reference to the presentations they had just heard. Below each question is a brief, bullet form, summary of the key points made during these discussions:
1. What characteristics make a successful student leader?
2. Why do you think many students with disabilities choose not to actively participate in either advocacy or leadership-related activities on campus? What can NEADS and leaders like you do to motivate them to get involved?
3. How do you feel that the experience of being a student leader helps when it is time to transition to the world of work?
4. Are there things that student-run campus organizations (e.g., student unions) can do to better promote, support and represent the needs and concerns of students with disabilities?
5. Are there things that NEADS can do to ensure that students will actively participate in our online community, CampusNet?
Focus Area B: Employment
Luke Melchior, of the Disability Resource Centre, spoke to the group about the Navigating the Waters program and entrepreneurship as an employment option for people with disabilities. He said the Navigating the Waters program is offered in 23 Independent Living Centres (ILCs) across Canada, and indicated that entrepreneurship is growing in popularity as an employment option.
Luke explained that Navigating the Waters offers a loan funding source that people with disabilities can tap into. This is important, because these individuals may not have the assets needed to secure a business loan from another source. Luke's role with the organization is to work with applicants to examine their business ideas and develop a business plan they can work with and secure loan funds with. Additionally, the program has set up a Web site where entrepreneurs can go and showcase their products and services. This also provides a venue for entrepreneurs in the program to correspond with one another, to share ideas and concerns.
Luke said that, in addition to the entrepreneurial assistance that Navigating the Waters provides, some ILCs offer traditional employment assistance, such as résumé writing, job searching, and practice interviews.
Luke mentioned that one of the challenges he's had to deal with is that some people who access the program are on disability benefits, and are therefore afraid to start up a business, because of the risk of losing those benefits. He said the program has been working with the government to solve this problem, and they have made some positive inroads. But, he noted, despite the fear of losing benefits if someone starts up a business, the point of the Navigating the Waters program is to give people with disabilities the chance to have a viable employment option, and to permanently move away from living off disability benefits.
Finally Luke noted that he has been able to get off of benefits himself, and that he likes to serve as an example, to show that it is possible to gain financial independence. For further information on Navigating the Waters contact the Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres: www.cailc.ca
Rajpal spoke about her role with the Equal Opportunity Program with the City of Vancouver. She noted that she has worked for 12 years with the City of Vancouver, and that the City strives to be a caring employer. It also offers challenging employment, and strives to work closely with the community as a whole. She said the City recently won an award for excellence in public service from the United Nations, and is the only North American city to receive the award.
Attendees were told about the various departments that comprise the City, and some of the job opportunities that exist for the 8,000 employees of the City of Vancouver - in areas as diverse as library services, recreation, politics, law, etc. Rajpal explained that most of these jobs are unionized, and that, when positions become available, they must be offered internally to City employees first. But, she said, the entry-level positions are advertised to the community at large. In addition, Vancouver employs many students and young people during the summer. To access these jobs, she said, it is not always necessary to apply with the human resources department. Many job vacancies can be discovered and applied for by approaching the individual departments you are interested in a career with.
She noted that, like most organizations, the City has identified that many positions will become vacant within the next five to 10 years, as the workforce ages and people retire. As a result, the City of Vancouver should be a good place for young people to seek employment over the coming decade.
Rajpal explained that the City has had an equal opportunity office for 27 years, and seeks to ensure that people with disabilities, and other minority groups, are represented within the public service. She said the office works with managers in City departments to ensure workplace modifications are met when needed, and to determine how best to facilitate entry into the workforce equally for all individuals.
Dan Watt spoke about his role as employment accommodation consultant with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). He said the CNIB's employment programming came about because people with visual impairments often don't follow the same path to employment as others in society, and also because services for those who are blind or visually impaired are inconsistent throughout the country. Additionally, he said, attitudes from employers are still not where they should be when it comes to hiring people with visual impairments.
Dan noted that he works on accommodation issues with a number of employers, and often they don't know how to go about working with someone with visual impairments. Also, while employers are interested in hiring these people, they do not always know how to go about marketing available positions to qualified people with visual impairments. Consequently, the CNIB program attempts to bridge the gap between people with visual impairments and employers willing to hire them.
The CNIB offers its clients job seeking tips on how to land the job they want, and how to ensure they are successful in the workplace once they are hired.
For employers, the CNIB offers a database of job-ready clients from which they can select to fill job vacancies. The database is available at: cnib.workopolis.com. The CNIB conducts in-depth interviews with job candidates, and determines their employability before adding their résumés to the database. Also, the organization works with employers who hire participants from the program, to ensure that accommodation needs are met effectively. The CNIB offers advice and guidance to employers in this regard.
Dan explained that a job-ready client constitutes someone with the training and education needed to qualify for a position in their chosen field. In addition, the client has polished a résumé and interviewing skills, has the independent travel and mobility skills sought by many employers, and has the training and experience needed to step in and work with the adaptive technology they would require to do the job effectively.
Dan noted that there are some 350 job-ready candidates in the database, with 125 job placements made in the two years of the program. The CNIB has made contact with more than 1000 employers to make them aware of their service.
Sandy Rodgers offered a presentation on the opportunities available for students through the B.C. Ministry of Human Resources. She explained that the ministry recognizes that people with disabilities vary in the degree of work they can do, and often need access to resources that can aid them in finding their way into the workforce. With this in mind, the department adopted an employment strategy for people with disabilities in 2002. The strategy aims to create programs and services designed to lead more British Columbian's with disabilities toward employment than ever before. Under the strategy, "work" is defined as part-time, full-time or volunteer employment.
The ministry has determined that the employment strategy should create programs that reflect the principles of self-sufficiency and economic independence for people with disabilities. The programs are guided by the principles of assistance, independence and opportunity. The strategy is four-fold; the first part is to create new employment opportunities for people with disabilities; the second aspect is to bring employers into a working relationship with the ministry, in the hope of creating solutions to the under-representation of people with disabilities in the workforce. The third aspect is to work closely with Human Resources Development Canada to develop programs and solutions; and the final component is to strengthen inter-ministry coordination for services for people with disabilities.
Sandy explained that the new strategy incorporates pre-employment services, employment planning services including workplace assessment, employment services such as training and job placement, and disability supports.
Of this new programming, pre-employment services are already being offered, as of December 2002. Sandy said that all the services under the new employment strategy would be offered through community service providers in British Columbia.
More information on the new initiatives can be found at www.mhr.gov.bc.ca.
Stephen McDonnell is diversity manager and recruiter for people with disabilities, with BMO - Bank of Montreal. He discussed the history and corporate makeup of the Bank of Montreal, as well as outlining some of the skills sought in new employees.
Stephen told participants that BMO draws its strength from a diverse employee base, insists on respect in the workplace, and ensures that all employees have a voice within the organization. On the issue of diversity, Stephen noted that the organization has held four internal task forces, on the advancement of women, aboriginal people, people with disabilities, and visible minorities. The task forces revealed many aspects, positive and negative, that the bank has focused on in its aim to create a truly diverse workforce. He said that it was discovered that over 80 percent of accommodations could be achieved at a very reasonable cost. In addition, he said, the task force recommendations with regard to people with disabilities included offering job shadowing, and working with Ability Edge, which offers internships for people with disabilities. BMO has begun offering internships through AbilityEdge, and has received positive feedback from participants.
Stephen said that BMO has developed three affinity groups, one for deaf and hard of hearing employees, one for those with visual impairments and blindness, and one for employees with physical impairments. He said management meets regularly with these groups, allowing employees with disabilities the chance to provide feedback on their experiences, as well as to network with others in the organization.
He noted that, when hiring, he looks at education attained, and other activities including volunteer experience. Stephen noted that volunteer experience is key, because it can offer people with disabilities the opportunity to gain skills they can use in the workplace. He also advised those in attendance to keep an up-to-date résumé with a list of contact information. Also, it is important to research the companies you are interested in working for, so that you know what they do and their corporate culture and policies. He suggested reading any company literature that exists. Taking a tour of the company's facilities, if it is available, can also be of benefit.
If you are hired by an organization, Stephen said, recognize that while the company may have a weeklong orientation for new employees, getting properly oriented to a company will probably take much longer. He told participants to ask for a buddy, who they can turn to in their first few months with the organization for help and feedback. Also, don't be afraid to ask for accommodations. Articulate your needs, and ask for the best equipment available.
Mario D'Arcy, National Recruitment Director, Health Canada spoke about his work with the department and the opportunities available for people with disabilities within the federal public service. Mario said that the federal public service offers employment opportunities "in any discipline you can imagine." The federal government has more than 240,000 employees, Mario said, with approximately 10,000 at Health Canada alone.
He told the group about the STARR (Science and Technology Ability Recruitment Retention) initiative, which attempts to hire students into the science and technology fields of the government. He said the initiative arose from the 1994 Auditor General's report, which found that the science and tech. fields were in danger of being under-staffed over the next decade, due to retiring employees. He said this is a particular problem because, in some cases, it takes up to 10 years from graduation, through training, to becoming a full research scientist.
The Auditor General's report suggested the government switch from the passive recruitment process it had employed, which involved waiting for graduates to apply for positions, to a strategy of active recruitment. He said the report also found that the federal public service was not representative enough of the Canadian population, particularly with respect to people with disabilities. The STARR initiative aims to recruit a capable and representative workforce for the coming years.
Mario said that there are 15,000 federal public service jobs in a variety of fields, with 5,000 co-op positions every year. In addition to co-op, the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP) hires 10,000 students each year, on a full and part-time basis during the summer, and part-time during the school year. He said that the program is open to students with disabilities who are studying part time, whereas other students must be in full-time studies to apply for these positions.
Mario encouraged students with disabilities applying to the federal public service to self-identify during the application process, because the government needs to hire a certain percentage of people with disabilities, and can only identify these people through their indication on the application form. He noted that, in his experience, some 15 to 20 percent of managers have asked for candidates with disabilities, but only a small fraction of that need can be met because of the small number of applicants who self-identify.
Mario also noted that students who are employed as part of a co-op term or with FSWEP can be hired upon graduation by their managers. As a result, those students have a good chance to land a full-time job, without having to go through the same application process as students who have not had experience with the federal government. He explained that the government's post-secondary recruitment program allows recent graduates the opportunity to be hired, without consideration for any lack of experience in the field. What the post-secondary recruitment program does look at is an applicant's potential, as shown through education and other employment and volunteer experiences.
He said that students interested in the federal public service could apply online at www.jobs.gc.ca.
Following the afternoon panel presentations, participants again broke into small groups to discuss a series of questions with reference to the presentations they had just heard. Below each question is a brief summary of the key points made during these discussions:
1. Why do you think that there is a high unemployment rate among graduates with disabilities? What solutions do you have to address this issue?
2. What methods do you use to learn about employment opportunities?
3. What can employers do to ensure that qualified students and graduates with disabilities learn about available job and internship opportunities?
4. Would you disclose your disability before and/or during a job interview? If so, why? If not, why not?
5. What skills do you think are the most sought after by industry today?
The Vancouver Student Leadership and Employment Forum was a first-rate event. The presentations and discussions offered some different perspectives from previous forums. Recommendations from meeting participants will be of great benefit to the Association as we proceed with the project. Special thanks for assistance in planning the event go to Rachael Ross, Jennison Asuncion, Steve Estey and Neil Faba. Chris Gaulin, NEADS' Website Architect, supported technical equipment requirements during the meeting and alternative format needs of participants. We'd also like to thank Gladys Loewen, Manager of the Adult Services Program (ASP) - B.C. and staff at ASP, for terrific support and assistance.
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