Vancouver Job Search Strategies Forum Report

February 2, 2008


The forum in Vancouver was the eleventh event in a four-year NEADS’ Job Search Strategies Forums Project, which addresses practical aspects of successful transition from post-secondary education to the job market. Delegates represented a number of colleges and universities in British Columbia. Student participants were attending the following post-secondary institutions: British Columbia Institute of Technology, Capilano College, College of New Caledonia, Douglas College, Kwantlen University-College, Langara College, Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, University College of the Fraser Valley, University of Victoria, and Vancouver Community College.

Altogether 91 people took part in the day-long employment session at the Metropolitan Hotel: students, graduates, employers, career counsellors/professionals and representatives from non-governmental organizations. Approximately 10 audience members participated in the workshop through the webcast.

The NEADS Vancouver Job Search Strategies Forum included two workshop panels, an exhibit area, and one-on-one resume consultations with career counsellors over the lunch period. The exhibit area included displays and representatives from: Assistive Technology - British Columbia, Ability Edge, a program of the Career Edge Organization; BMO Financial Group, CHIP Hospitality, Gateway Casinos, Greater Vancouver Business Leadership Network, Safeway, Service Canada, Triumph Vocational Services, WestJet and WorkAble Solutions.

Welcome and Overview

Jennifer Dillon - Job Search Strategies Consultant, NEADS

Jennifer Dillon welcomed participants, and said that NEADS developed the Job Search Strategies Forums project in response to the increasing demand for employment initiatives for students with disabilities. Started in 2005, with the support of BMO Capital Markets’ Equity Through Education program, the original two-year plan has since been extended by two years, with an additional eight workshops to be held across Canada in 2007/2008 and 2008/2009. NEADS is a charitable non-profit organization and receives operational funding from the federal government’s Social Development Partnerships Program.

The purpose of these workshops is to provide job search strategies and practical techniques for success in the employment market. “Making the transition from school to work is challenging,” Dillon said, “and we hope to provide lots of helpful hints.”

Dillon introduced a short video on BMO Capital Markets’ Equity Through Education program. The video was an overview of the Equity Through Education program and introduced NEADS and the six other charitable organizations supported through the initiative that provides educational opportunities to those who might not otherwise have such options. Dillon thanked BMO for its generous support and said that part of the funding for the project has made travel subsidies possible to enable students to attend the workshops from outside the host cities. Four students were subsidized to attend the Vancouver Forum.

“The success of this project,” Dillon said, “relies on networking and partnerships—and so too do our career paths.” She encouraged attendees to take full advantage of the day. She said that participants at the forum represent a diverse group of students, service providers, successfully employed people, and employers. And this is a great opportunity to network and listen to different perspectives.

For some, networking may require exploring different ways of facilitating communication with others. Dillon emphasized, “It’s a safe environment for learning and asking questions,” and said feedback should be taken as helpful advice, not criticism.

Transitioning from School to Work

Stephen McDonnell - Senior Advisor, External Communications, Talent Management and Diversity, BMO Financial Group

Jennifer Dillon introduced the first speaker Stephen McDonnell, whom she described as “dedicated to this forums initiative from the beginning,” and who has extensive experience with equity and diversity in the workplace.

McDonnell said that the Equity Through Education program, which raises $1.6 million per year, sends a message that BMO supports a representative workforce, and is actively recruiting people with disabilities. “How can we handle diverse clients if we don’t have diverse employees?” he asked.

McDonnell encouraged forum participants to consider that the “kind of company [they] want to work for” is “a company with values.” BMO’s corporate values include a statement about diversity. McDonnell advised participants to use the research skills gained at university or college to examine the values of potential employers. “Who wants to go into a company and be Exhibit A?” he asked. In the past, a socio-economic barrier prevented people with disabilities from obtaining higher education. “Things have changed for the better,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell said that differences in abilities are “a natural part of life.” BMO conducted a task force a few years ago that identified some misconceptions about employing people with disabilities. These include doubts that they can do the job, concerns that special treatment is too expensive, the belief that people with disabilities are suited only for certain kinds of positions, and the belief that they take a disproportionate amount of sick time. In fact, McDonnell said, most accommodations can be put in place at very little cost, and advances in technology have increased workplace access for many people with disabilities. The task force recommended reaching out into the disabled community and emphasized the importance of experiential learning through “shadowing and internships.”

McDonnell recommended that participants look for companies that partner with organizations within the disabled community, that they complete their education, and then gain relevant experience through employment or volunteer work. Keep track of volunteer time and quantify it in the résumé as “a number of hours in volunteer activities can make a big difference.”

McDonnell encouraged the development of “a success team” composed of four or five people, to support efforts to find employment. This team may include fellow graduates, instructors, entrepreneurs, and university job placement officers, who will discuss potential career paths, conduct mock interviews, and evaluate potential opportunities. Participants should request access to the success team members’ networks, he said.

Many organizations are federally mandated to employ disabled people but have trouble finding employees with disabilities. McDonnell suggested to forum participants that they read companies’ annual reports to determine whether they are actively recruiting people with disabilities, whether the members of the executive are involved with any organizations for people with disabilities, or whether the company supports any relevant charitable organizations. He recommended that job applicants take advantage of tours of companies to determine accessibility.

“Your résumé is the most essential part of the way you market yourself,” McDonnell said. It should create a positive impression and provide an accurate description of the applicant’s capabilities. Work experience should include volunteer time, summer jobs, and mentoring programs. McDonnell stressed that it is important to stay in touch with past professors and co-volunteers, noting that he has hired people without work experience based on a professor’s excellent reference.

In large companies, résumés are scanned into large databanks. Employers conduct searches based on elements such as academic accreditation, volunteer experience, and geographic location. Attention-getting materials are unnecessary. “We don’t need a picture of your cat, ‘Fluffy,’” he said. He recommended that résumés be simple, clear, easy to read, and no more than two pages long. They should include a summary statement that presents an applicant’s abilities. Applicants are not hired as a result of their disability. “You still have to compete,” McDonnell said. Résumés can be in reverse chronological or functional order, and should not mention age, marital status, or number of children. Experience with any assistive technology such as JAWS screen-reading software or TTY telephone devices should be mentioned.

“An interview is a conversation with another person about your skills and abilities and how they might match you with a job,” McDonnell said, and it should not be focused on disability. The interview is also not the appropriate time for advocacy. McDonnell advised applicants to make any necessary accommodations prior to the interview; although this may take courage, “employers are absolutely used to it,” he said.

To prepare for a job interview, McDonnell recommended that job seekers should ask their “success team” for feedback on their personal presentation, including the cleanliness of guide dogs and wheelchairs. He encouraged them to conduct practice interviews with their success team, and to be aware that a high percentage of communication is done through body language. During the interview, applicants should know what they have to offer, be able to articulate their abilities, and dress appropriately, even if it is “casual Friday” for the company employees.

McDonnell said it is important to become comfortable with boundaries regarding disclosure. Employers are accustomed to being asked for accommodations, but they cannot provide accommodations if they are unaware they are needed. People with certain disabilities, such as seizure disorders, should consider confiding in a co-worker so that their wishes can be respected in case of an event relating to their disability. For example, McDonnell said that BMO built a sleep room for an employee with narcolepsy, so the employee can nap for 20 minutes every three hours and remain seizure-free in the workplace.

Orientation, which is not a single event but a lifetime process, begins with a new job. McDonnell advised workshop participants to ensure they understand the job and the career path, and to make decisions about disclosure. You should be proactive and get involved in the workplace, but avoid taking on a role as a source of “inspiration.” “You don’t want to be the company pet,” he said. He stressed the importance of working with the success team to develop techniques for handling negative feedback.

McDonnell concluded by quoting Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who said “be ready when opportunity comes; luck is the time when preparation and opportunity meet.”

Disclosure and Job Accommodations

Barb Vincent - Triumph Vocational Services

Barb Vincent, a job developer, said disclosure depends on the job and the type of accommodations required, and that the decision to disclose a disability lies with the individual. In the case of employers who have implemented initiatives for hiring individuals with disabilities, it is preferable to disclose in a cover letter to a job application. In 1995, the federal government implemented the Employment Equity Act to improve employment opportunities for people who had been discriminated against in the past.

Whether or not to disclose will depend on the accommodations required to perform the job. In considering if the necessary accommodations justify disclosing a disability, Vincent said it is important to take into account the visibility of the disability, whether the job environment could lead to an increase in symptoms, how others will react to disclosure, and safety in the workplace. It is equally important to be comfortable and confident with regard to disclosure and to have the ability to educate the employer and reassure them that the disability will not affect job performance. Researching a company prior to the interview is critical to collect information about policies, others’ experiences, and available job accommodations.

There are advantages to disclosure, Vincent said. Experience dealing with a disability on a daily basis can be a valuable skill, especially if the job involves clients who have similar disabilities. Disclosure can also be an advantage when applying for a position with a government agency or a company that subscribes to employment equity. Vincent cautioned participants to ensure the employer understands the information related to the disability, but to “focus on the abilities that will get you hired.” During a job interview, if the employer asks whether the applicant has any health concerns, Vincent said it would be wise to disclose. When choosing not to disclose, it is important that references are aware of this decision.

Vincent recommended that applicants with disabilities have a positive attitude, avoid presenting the disability as a weakness, and focus on strengths and abilities. It is an advantage to be comfortable discussing the disability and to be able to discuss the employer’s concerns, answer questions, and know what workplace accommodations may be needed. The focus should be on skills that have been developed in learning to manage the disability. Disclosures can be made through a third party, in the résumé or cover letter, at the interview, or when contacted for an interview if accommodations are required for the interview.

Vincent informed workshop participants that through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an employer cannot deny an interview, refuse to hire, or fire an applicant based on their disability, unless it adversely affects their performance. Employers also have a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to provide workplace accommodations for qualified applicants. Vincent stressed that there is no legal obligation to disclose if there is no requirement for accommodations, or if the disability does not affect occupational health or safety. If employees with disabilities receive benefits such as health or life insurance, however, there is an obligation to disclose during the medical exam or on the insurance application.

Vincent provided a two-step action plan of preparation and planning. During preparation, the issue is defined, information is gathered, research is conducted, and necessary supports are identified and located. Planning involves reviewing the issue, identifying preferred solutions, choosing a route, developing a plan, and executing the plan.

Vincent outlined the “plethora of accommodations that can be made,” and told participants that Triumph Vocational Services provides accommodations with the support of Assistive Technology B.C. (ATBC), a government initiative with a mandate to provide assistive technologies in the workplace. She encouraged forum participants to visit the ATBC booth in the exhibits area.

Vincent also outlined three programs that can assist in providing accommodations: the Employment Program for Persons with Disabilities Technology Support Program (EPPD), of which Triumph is a part; the Canada Study Grant (CSG) which supports assistive technology; and the Program for Institutional Loans of Adaptive Technology (PILAT).

EPPD, funded by the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance and the Employment Strategy for Persons with Disabilities, lends equipment that must be returned after school or employment is completed. EPPD referrals can be obtained through a service provider like Triumph, through a service coordinator, or through a public post-secondary disability coordinator.

The CSG program, which is funded by the Special Programs Unit of the Ministry of Advanced Education, can provide a non-repayable grant of up to $8000 per year for students with permanent disabilities that create barriers to accessing education. Referral sources include public post-secondary disability coordinators or advisors, EPPD service providers, and EPPD service coordinators.

The PILAT program is funded by the Ministry of Advanced Education and offers interim and low utilization loans. It can be accessed through public post-secondary disability coordinators and advisors.

Several accommodations are available, including equipment for the job site and training, hardware like laptop computers, technology for the visually impaired, communications systems like TTY, and software like TextAloud. “There’s so much,” Vincent said, and she encouraged participants to visit the ATBC exhibit to obtain more information on the available accommodations.

Dillon emphasized the importance of identifying the best disclosure and accommodation options. She said that preparation, prior to the interview is essential because it is impossible to anticipate all potential situations.

Close Encounters

Jennifer Scott - Career Services, University of British Columbia (UBC)

Jennifer Scott said that “only 10% of people think they are good networkers.” However, networking is important and she suggested forum participants should do more of it. When people look for work, she said, they spend 80% of their time looking at official postings, and only about 20% of their time using their personal network. But the reverse is true when employers are looking for workers: they spend 80% of their time tapping into their personal and professional networks, and only 20% of their time on official postings. Placing job postings in a newspaper is expensive and reaches such a broad audience that it can elicit a significant number of unqualified responses. Job seekers must align themselves with the systems that employers use to look for employees.

Scott invited forum participants to pair up with someone they do not know and find three unusual things in common within two minutes, to see for themselves that networking is really about asking questions and being asked questions. “When you find common ground, the conversation starts to flow, you start to feel invested in the person, and you want to help them out.” The exercise also demonstrates how important it is to be memorable, Scott said.

When meeting a potential employer, “How do you give them that snapshot of you?” Scott provided a template for a 30-second introduction, beginning with “my name is…” followed by “I am a student in…” or “I graduated with….” The next element could be “I want to gain some work experience in…” “my passion is…” or “my long-term career goal is….”

When meeting a person for the first time it can be easy to forget their name. She recommended repeating the person’s name and using it twice in the following conversation, to make it easier to remember in the long term. It is also important to approach people with a solid rather than a limp handshake, and to offer the entire hand, not just the fingertips. If wearing a nametag, it is a good idea to place it on your right shoulder, as that is where most people look when shaking hands. Scott encouraged participants to carry business cards: “If you have them, it’s easy to ask for one,” she said. Make eye contact and appear confident. “It’s about expanding the [group of] people you know,” Scott said, “so you can help each other if the opportunity comes up.”

Scott invited workshop participants to try out the 30-second introduction on two people in the room. As a result of the exercise, some folks in the room identified strategies they might want to adopt. For example, those who were hard of hearing said they were best positioned in quieter areas of the room.

Scott encouraged participants to seek out the information available online at the UBC website,


A participant asked McDonnell whether federally regulated companies are hiring the required number of people with disabilities. McDonnell said they are experiencing a “crisis for talent,” and that companies are unable to find enough people within the disabled community to fill their needs.

A participant asked Scott whether she is aware of equity issues surrounding faculty hiring at UBC, noting that he had not seen many people with visible disabilities employed by the university. Scott said she is involved in hiring students primarily, but that UBC does make equitable hiring a priority. Scott recommended that the person speak to the Equity Office at UBC.

A participant said many companies “don’t walk the talk,” and suggested that they should lower their required credentials, allow more entry from high school, and provide more on-the-job training. Another participant said that although McDonnell’s talk was “inspiring,” employers are not as accommodating as he had presented them to be. She emphasized that she did not want the new graduates in the room to receive a false impression. “Thank you for your inspiration,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s giving a true picture of what it’s like out there.”

McDonnell said he presented what he provides, and that it could be important to ensure that the interviewer is qualified to interview someone with a disability. He also said that circumstances have improved in the last decade. Vincent suggested that asking an advocate to disclose on the applicant’s behalf can be helpful. She sympathized with the participant’s experiences, and said that larger companies can be easier to approach than small or medium-sized organizations.

A participant with Asperger Syndrome, who was applying to be re-admitted to Simon Fraser University’s teacher training program after he had been removed for inadvertently offending someone, asked how he could ensure that he received a fair interview and what steps he could take if he suspected discrimination. McDonnell suggested that if he felt he was discriminated against, the participant could go to the university ombudsman and the provincial human rights group.

Vincent was asked how to ensure that third-party employment agencies are accurately representing people with disabilities and the accommodations that can be made for them. As an example, the participant said that he cannot do a typing test, and because he does not have contact with the end client, he cannot explain himself.

Vincent responded that Triumph Vocational Services works with third-party agencies, and they will not provide the names of the end clients to anyone. She acknowledged that there is a barrier, but said that in her experience, people at the agencies are “more than willing to talk to [their] employers about my clients’ challenges or the accommodations required.” Although the applicant cannot follow up with the end client, the agency can, and should. Vincent recommended that the applicant request the third-party agency to provide feedback from the potential employers.

A participant asked whether it is possible to determine what jobs the government may prevent a person from seeking based on their disability; for instance, people with seizure disorders may not be allowed to work in certain scenarios. McDonnell said that no such list exists, but safety is an important consideration when evaluating potential positions. Vincent said that for ethical reasons, she would not recommend that a person with a seizure disorder seek employment in an unsafe environment, but it is not governmentally regulated. “That said,” Vincent noted, “you’ll choose your passion.”

A participant asked the panelists whether they work with employees of the provincial government. “Many treat those on income assistance like dirt,” he said. Dillon thanked the participant for sharing his experience, but said that the panelists were unable to respond because of their backgrounds.

Another workshop participant who had experienced long waiting periods in seeking support through B.C.’s Employment Program for Persons with Disabilities (EPPD) asked if there was anything he could do to speed up the process. Vincent said that the speed of the response depends on the client’s situation. When dealing with Triumph, Vincent said that if faster service is desired, the client could approach their coach and then the regional manager. McDonnell agreed that many situations can be frustrating, and he encouraged participants to direct that anger to their MPs and other appropriate outlets. He cautioned participants that negativity is easily apparent in a job interview, and “although the anger may be valid, it’s not going to help you get a job.” McDonnell recommended that participants ask their success team if they come across as a negative person. The participant agreed that there is an appropriate time and place to express negativity, but that he did not want this program “to promote an unreal, rosy image.”

A hearing-impaired participant, who said she is confident and comfortable with disclosure, had found that she was “over-accommodated” by her employers. She was isolated so that conversation would not be necessary in the job, though she enjoys conversing with others. Vincent said that the job placement should not have happened. She recommended that the participant approach her employer “and say what you just said.” McDonnell noted that it is always worthwhile to review a workplace accommodation after a period of time to ensure it is effective. Co-workers may need advice to dispel misconceptions they may have about working with a person with a disability.

A participant asked whether the résumé databanks used by large companies automatically identify those with large gaps in employment. McDonnell said that they do not; this would constitute illegal discrimination. He said that employers understand that gaps can reflect many circumstances, and that employers “think positive first.” McDonnell recommended that a functional order can be better than a chronological order for a résumé, and that volunteer experience be included.

A participant asked about the appropriate timing of disclosure during an interview. McDonnell said that while the employer cannot ask the applicant whether they have a disability, they can ask if any accommodations are required. Vincent said that after researching the job carefully, applicants should be aware whether necessary accommodations make disclosure necessary.

A participant asked about laws or repercussions for companies that provide pre-printed job applications that are worded “to ferret out” whether the applicant has a disability. Vincent said that these applications are illegal and can be reported. A participant said that discrimination complaints can be made to the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities. Another participant suggested that disability-specific organizations can provide good advice, as well as lists of employers that do not have to accept applications from people with disabilities.

Some participants expressed frustration with hiring processes, pointing out that very few teachers have visible disabilities. It can be hard to compete with applicants who do not have a disability, they said.

Retail: Job or Career?

Cliff Yeo and Pam Anderson - Canada Safeway Limited

“I’d like to start off by saying that, like some in this room, I work in Human Resources,” Cliff Yeo said. “And what is the key word there? Human.” It is important to find a passion when deciding what to do with one’s life, he said. While it can take a long time, it is worthwhile to discover a passion. “Figure out your passion and the rest will sort itself out.”

Diversity is important to employers; companies with people who are all alike will not develop many innovative ideas. Companies must recognize that people’s differences should be valued to make a company stronger. Furthermore, diversity creates an enriched environment, higher customer satisfaction, and strengthened teamwork.

Yeo told participants that most retail jobs are at the introductory level, but that there is significant room for growth in a retail career. He said that he began in a Safeway retail store 32 years ago and is now responsible for overseeing 16 stores in Vancouver, North Vancouver, and West Vancouver.

Retail companies offer many benefits to their employees, including competitive wages, flexible schedules, a dynamic environment with a diverse clientele, job stability, training, opportunities for career advancement, and career experience. Yeo recommended that job seekers consider what retail companies can offer them when they are exploring their passions. Retailers seek people who are friendly, enthusiastic, team players, diverse, adaptable, flexible, reliable, punctual, and motivated to perform.

Yeo noted that many Safeway applicants consider only clerk or cashier roles, but that every department has many different jobs. For example, Safeway hires meat cutters, meat wrappers, pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, bakers, and deli workers. Opportunities for advancement include positions in management, information technology, human resources, public affairs, and advertising. Yeo noted that no matter what job a person has within Safeway, every person is still a customer service representative.

Large companies may be more effective than small ones in helping employees overcome barriers, because managers can learn from each other how to overcome their own barriers. Yeo also recommended that people who are not happy with their Safeway experience, or any company experience, should let the company know. “Safeway is not perfect because there is no perfect place,” he said. “If you have an experience that’s not right, provide feedback. I work in human resources; we’re talking about humans. Anyone can make a mistake. Provide feedback and we can grow from it.”

Keys to Success in Obtaining Employment

Donovan Tildesley - UBC student, National paralympian swimmer

Donovan Tildesley emphasized the importance of honesty in a job interview, noting that not being honest about a disability can hurt the applicant’s credibility and prevent them from being successful. Job seekers must be honest about their disability, the extent of their disability, and what an organization can do to facilitate their success within the company.

Tildesley said he obtained a job through UBC, working in a call centre and contacting university alumni: the perfect job, he thought, until he discovered that his computer program was not compatible with that used by the call centre. Tildesley and his employer worked together to make the arrangement work, a process which took between four and six weeks.

“We put our heads together and came up with a way for the job to work,” Tildesley said. “The secretary for the centre put the names into a Word document. I would fill out the relevant forms in the document and save the file at the end of each shift. Then, the receptionist would put that information back into the database.” Ultimately, the situation worked out and Tildesley was able to work at the call centre.

“There are times when the accommodations we ask for do not come as quickly as we would like,” Tildesley said. “It is paramount to be both patient and persistent.” He said he also works for the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) as part of their Olympians program. RBC knew from the beginning that it would have to provide accommodations, but it took several months for these to be addressed. Tildesley said he is still waiting for his Braille display. While part of his time is spent in the bank doing substantive work projects, Tildesley is also involved in public speaking engagements on behalf of the bank. He is also setting up an after-school program.

“They [RBC] wanted me to be a part of the program,” Tildesley said. “So sometimes I had to be persistent—this is what I need and I can’t do the job to the best of my abilities without it. I don’t need many accommodations for speaking appearances. But this has taught me that what we ask for may not come all that quickly. You have to go through various corporate channels to get what you need.”

What works for him may not necessarily work for other people, Tildesley said; individuals should develop their own systems and learn to advocate for themselves. There will not always be a Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) representative or disability advocate to help.

“A positive attitude is the key to success,” Tildesley said. “Approach everything you do with a certain congeniality and positivity. There is nothing worse than negativity within the workplace and negativity dealing with others.” If applicants come across as negative or having an axe to grind, employers will be less willing to consider people with disabilities in the future.

Pursuing Career Goals: First-Hand Experience

Alexis Chicoine - Manager, CTV Store

Alexis Chicoine told participants that after a serious accident that left her a quadriplegic at the age of 30, she recognized that her job as a manager of a coffeehouse in Northern B.C. was no longer a good fit for her. She contacted a vocational rehabilitation person for assistance; that contact led her to the Centre for Ability.

Through the Greater Vancouver Business Leadership Network (GVBLN), Chicoine learned about a receptionist job with CTV. Chicoine upgraded her skills, realizing that her management experience was not equivalent to office experience.

Accommodations at CTV did not happen quickly once she was hired. “For a year and a half I worked with the desk at my forehead,” Chicoine said. “I tried to be patient; I didn’t want to rock the boat. It was my first experience back at work.”

Chicoine worked in reception for five years, and said the experience was sometimes frustrating. She applied for other positions in the company but was repeatedly passed over, though the human resources person was open to her and she felt she had the job skills. At one point, two managers interviewed outsiders for posted jobs; however, when Chicoine went for her interview, only one manager interviewed her. She felt that she was not being taken seriously.

Eventually, an opportunity arose to manage a CTV retail store. Chicoine said the company was hesitant to hire her and asked questions such as how she would hang merchandise that was out of her reach, and how she would open and close the store, which was actually a kiosk. Chicoine said she took the view that while some aspects of the job might not be possible for her, other staff could be scheduled for all shifts.

“I didn’t want to come across as being helpless, but there’s no question that I need help.” There are some problems with managing the store, Chicoine said, especially when another staff member is sick. However, her coworkers have been able to help her. Additional hurdles included a massive glass door to the area where her desk is located. It took nearly three months for CTV to fix the door.

Some of her job interviews were disheartening, she said, including one for a disability advocacy group with no disabled parking outside. At the end of the interview, her interviewers asked for her typing speed. When she reminded them that she is a quadriplegic, they said, “Take a guess.” But she kept her chin up, she said.

Chicoine noted that she asked her human resources manager what she should say at this event about her experiences. Her human resources manager said, “You proved me wrong. I wasn’t sure about giving you this new position, but you proved me wrong.”

“I learned along the way to ask for what I needed,” Chicoine said. “Advocate for yourself in the best way you can. Be persistent. They do make the changes, it does happen. I recommend you give it a shot.”

Preparing for Interviews

Dayna Spiess - West Jet

The interview process has three stages, Dayna Spiess said: interview preparation, the actual interview, and the days following the interview.

She recommended that job seekers research a company’s mission, vision, and values before an interview, not only to prepare, but to learn how the company functions and whether they will be a good fit. Articles about organizations and company employees are good sources of information.

Spiess said it is helpful to print a copy of the job description when applying and keep it nearby so that when invited to an interview, it is easy to ask questions about the process, including the format of the interview and what they should bring. She suggested that participants always bring a résumé to an interview, even if told not to do so.

Bringing notes to an interview shows that the applicant has done some homework and is prepared. Notes can also serve as a reminder about points the applicant wants to raise during the interview. Practicing before an interview can help people feel more confident and relaxed.

Interviewees should dress for success. “It is better to err on the side of caution,” Spiess said. “People won’t fault someone for coming to an interview in a suit. But in jeans, you may not be taking the interview as seriously as you could.” Spiess also noted the importance of body language, smiling, and listening intently.

During the interview, interviewees should actively follow conversations. Spiess noted that some people lose their point because they get nervous and talk too much. It is important to be clear and concise in an interview. Applicants should paraphrase a question rather than give the wrong information. If it appears that the interviewers do not understand a point, Spiess said they should ask, “Have I given you the information that you need?” Applicants should take a second to ensure that they understand the question clearly and are able to think about their answer.

Spiess said that it is perfectly acceptable to ask questions during the interview process. Asking the interviewer “Why did you join West Jet?” will give applicants a better idea about the organization and their potential supervisors. Questions about a company’s diversity program and whether they have persons with disabilities on staff will give a clearer picture about a company.

Interview subjects can also ask about the next steps in the process, such as when they might hear back from the company. It is important to thank interviewers for their time.

Following the interview, Spiess recommended sending a thank-you note. Fewer than 25% of job seekers do this. While a thank-you note does not guarantee a job, it makes a great impression and can give an applicant an edge over another candidate.

Applicants should respect timelines: if told that the company will call in a couple of weeks, they should not call the next day for an update. Instead, send a thank-you note and wait two weeks to call. If told a call will be made on Monday and it is not, however, it is acceptable for an applicant to phone.

Candidates can request feedback about their interviews. While not everyone has the time to give it, it does not hurt to ask. Feedback can help interviewees be more prepared for future interviews.

The Journey: First-Hand Employment Experience

Tami Grenon - Service Canada

Tami Grenon began her presentation by noting that networking is one of the major keys to developing a person’s career or professional life. She defined employment networking as talking to people one already knows in order to assist in a job search. Networks can be formal, including coworkers, past supervisors, and professors, or informal, including friends, family, and fellow students. She also stated that it is important for people to identify who their networks are.

Grenon used herself as an example of the importance of networking. She said that when she was 14 years old, she was looking for a place to train and wound up at the local YWCA. Two weeks later, she was asked if she would be interested in volunteering to teach young children to swim. Although she was hesitant, she agreed to do so and, as she got to know people at the YWCA, she received further training and became a paid leadership instructor. Grenon said she still keeps in touch with people at the YWCA. She also noted that her work through BC Blind Sports was likely related to her involvement with the organization as an athlete and a volunteer.

Grenon said networking allows job seekers to access the hidden market: 80%–90% of available jobs are not formally advertised. Job seekers should communicate that they are looking for work or other opportunities, and describe the kind of work they have in mind, because the people in a network may know of someone who is hiring.

Grenon noted that saying “I am unemployed right now,” can be viewed negatively, so job seekers should say, “I am looking for work right now.” Those who are not sure what field interests them should say, “I am considering this right now, but am not sure.” One way to learn more about a particular field is through informational interviewing—talking to someone referred by a member of one’s network. Interviews can be set up by phoning the contact and saying, for example, “My mother’s friend suggested I talk to you. Can I come in and talk with you for 30 minutes? I am interested in your field.”

Volunteering is a great way to increase confidence. “There was a time when I was volunteering but wished I was working,” Grenon said. “Being able to do volunteer work at a young age helped me to become more confident and sure of myself in terms of what I was able to do in the future.”

Maintaining the network is important. Grenon recommended sending thank-you notes to people after informational interviews; it is generous of them to share information on their job simply to help someone else, and it is good etiquette to thank them for their time. She also recommended that job seekers keep professors updated about what they have been doing with respect to their job search.

A positive attitude is vital when networking. “We are ambassadors of ourselves,” Grenon said. “Have a positive outlook and attitude. Be honest, persistent and patient. Decide that you are a winner and you have what it takes to do it. If that is in your mind it will come out when you’re networking.”


A participant asked whether thank-you notes or follow-up phone calls are appropriate for employers whose job postings have specifically stated, “Do not call us, we will call you.” Spiess said that the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” notation is for people who want to call to see if they have been short-listed. If a person has had an interview, he or she has already been short-listed, and it is acceptable to follow up on an interview if the employer has not made contact by the specified date.

Another participant asked whether it is important to include hobbies and interests on a résumé. Spiess said that hobbies and interests are valuable because they show employers that the job seeker has a life and has interests; also, they can act as an icebreaker during an interview. Anderson said that hobbies and interests can show a person’s strengths. For example, some positions require teamwork, and having team-based hobbies is an asset on a résumé. Tildesley noted that some hobbies and interests demand skills transferable to the workplace.

Another participant asked how many entry-level positions companies offer in an office setting rather than behind a counter. Spiess said that entry-level positions in West Jet include positions in the call centre, as a customer service agent, as a member of turnaround crew, and as an airport ambassador.

Several participants asked whether there is a step following a thank-you note, and whether thank-you notes should be sent after each stage of an interview process if there is more than one interview. Spiess said that after a thank-you note has been sent, a follow-up phone call to reiterate interest in a position is the only other appropriate action.

Dillon said that if a person is still interested in a position after an interview, a thank-you note should definitely be sent. However, if this is not the case, a thank-you note might not be necessary and may give the wrong. She emphasized the importance of keeping in touch with professors and noted that when she finds new information that relates to her professors’ interests, she forwards it to them as a way to maintain contact.

Grenon said it is not necessary for job seekers to keep in touch with every professor. “Keeping the network alive means keeping in touch with people you are comfortable with and those who are comfortable keeping in touch with you.”

Another participant said it was nice to hear from Tildesley and Grenon regarding their experiences, noting that because there is little contact within the visually impaired community, it is easy to forget that some people have managed to find companies willing to make accommodations. It was nice to be with peers and refreshing to have a forum to learn about other people’s experiences, he said.

Chicoine said that government funding is available for employers to make accommodations. Once a person has a job, he or she can bring information about funding sources to the employer and spare them the responsibility for thousands of dollars of costs. It is important to be proactive, Tildesley said. The CNIB can only do so much, especially given the job turnover rate. “They can give us the tools, but it is up to us out there in the field, out there searching to find our own networks,” he said. “The jobs I have found have been through my own networks.”

NEADS Web-Based Employment Resources

Paulo Monteagudo - NEADS

Paulo Monteagudo said NEADS was founded in 1986 by students with disabilities at Carleton University, and is a consumer-based, cross-disability organization. There are 12 board members and a national coordinator, Frank Smith. NEADS’ objective and mandate are to provide full access to post-secondary education, and employment opportunities to people with disabilities.

Some of NEADS’ activities include research, providing information on financial aid and funding, and the NEADS-L listserv, an electronic discussion forum that allows members to communicate with fellow students regarding issues on their campuses. NEADS also has a biannual conference. The next conference will be in Ottawa in November.

Monteagudo said that the NEADS website includes some early employment initiatives and the NEADS Online Work System (NOWS). The NEADS Online Work System ( was launched in 2003 and is free for users. Job seekers can disclose their disability, post their résumés, and include cover letters regarding jobs for which they would like to apply. Currently, the system has registered over 1,700 post-secondary students and graduates with disabilities. Over 100 employers in 25 different industries have also registered. Posted jobs include government administration, office work, non-profit work, education, advertising, public relations, and training.

Participants seeking more information can go to,, or e-mail or They can also phone the national office: (613) 526-8008.

NEADS Student Award Programs and Mentorship Program

Julia Munk - NEADS

Julia Munk told participants about NEADS’ Equity Through Education Student Awards program, initiated last year. Funded by BMO Capital Market’s, its purpose is to provide full access to post-secondary education for people with disabilities, who often have greater financial barriers to accessing post-secondary education. Applicants must be Canadian citizens with a permanent disability and registered in a full-time program, which NEADS defines as at least 40% of a full course load. The applicant must be attending an accredited college or university.

Munk said that the selection committee for the Student Awards program takes a holistic approach to determining award recipients, considering a commitment to academic discipline, a record of volunteerism or employment while attending post-secondary school, and outstanding participantion in the community. Up to four awards are given every year, with a maximum of $3,000 per award. Six Equity Through Education Student Awards were given out in 2007 as we did not receive an application for the Campus Group Award program

The Equity Through Education Campus Group Award is a project-based award for an access committee or student group of students with disabilities on a campus that is doing a project with clear educational outcomes. One award is given every year with a maximum amount of $5,000.

To apply for the awards, students can go to the NEADS website,

Currently NEADS is in the development stages of a Mentorship Program. The program will have a multifaceted approach, including a search engine that provides students with the opportunity to search for certain degree programs or jobs and find the issues that are most important to them.

Both projects exist thanks to generous donations from BMO Capital Markets.

Closing Remarks

At the close of the Vancouver Job Search Strategies Forum, Jennifer Dillon thanked the guest speakers, career educators, exhibit organizers, interpreters, technology experts, and captionists for their time. “I would like to leave you on this last note,” she said. “Career development is an ongoing journey. If you are committed to continuous learning and to self-growth, then you are equipped to pursue the journey.”