(above) The employment supports program is one of many initiatives at Lawson Ministries, which primarily serves persons with developmental disabilities. Here, Theresa Speers and Stephen share a moment next to a collection of artwork by participants in Lawson's innovative art program

In Canada, more than 6.2 million people aged 15 and older have one or more disabilities, representing 22 percent of the population.

Yet, when it comes to the workforce, Canadians with disabilities are widely underrepresented. Among people of working age, only 59 percent of persons with disabilities are employed, compared to 80 percent of those without.

The Salvation Army in Hamilton, Ont., is working to help close that gap through employment support services at Lawson Ministries. Funded through Ontario Disability Support Programs, the Army’s program takes a one-on-one approach, helping participants find a job through an individualized employment plan—a plan that focuses on ability, rather than disability.

“Sometimes we get caught up on the disability and we lose looking at the person,” says Theresa Speers, employment support case manager, Lawson Ministries. “When someone comes in to our employment program for the first time, I ask them, ‘What are your skills?’ I look at it like a puzzle—we find out what their skills are and see how they all fit.”

The Fantastic You
The Salvation Army’s employment program has three phases: the pre-employment job-seeking stage, which varies in length depending on the participant; the initial employment stage, which covers the first 13 weeks on the job while the participant is on probation; and the stable employment stage, which offers the participant ongoing support for a further 33 months.

On average, the Army has 10-15 clients in the job-seeking stage. As part of the intake process, Speers completes a detailed hands-on assessment with the job-seeker, to determine the person’s skills and abilities, and where additional support may be helpful. Often, these assessments are completed at a local Army thrift store.

“We look at how a person responds when they receive a task to do,” Speers explains. “Does it have to be broken down into steps? Do they remember what the job is and what the tasks are? How fast can they complete the tasks? As well, is this person coming in on time? Are they reliable? Because being dependable is one of the most important things for any job you do.”

She also works with participants on building their resumés. If a person hasn’t been employed, in school or doing volunteer work for six months, she connects them with volunteer opportunities, often partnering with the thrift stores and the local Booth Centre. Speers also assists participants with obtaining certificates as needed, such as food handling and Smart Serve.

Once the resumé is ready, Speers helps with the application process and teaches participants strategies for meeting managers for the first time. “I call it ‘the fantastic you’—tell the manager three things that will wow them about you and tasks that you can do,” says Speers.

For some clients, the first phase of the program can be a long process, but as Chaldhon can attest, it is worth it in the end when a job is obtained. He joined the Army’s program in May 2017, while he was also completing a course at Mohawk College that helps students with disabilities develop skills and gain work experience.

“It was stressful not having a job for a couple of years,” he says. “But it was really nice when I finally overcame the challenge.”

Chaldhon has been working at Tim Hortons since June. “Theresa put a lot of hard work into helping me get the job,” he says. “She stuck with me even when I struggled to get up and go to my appointments. She always encourages me to do well.”

“Chaldhon is thrilled that he’s working now—it’s given him a purpose,” Speers reflects. “He kept saying to me, ‘Theresa, thank you for getting me this job.’ But I told him, ‘Chaldhon, you got yourself this job!’ ”

Theresa Speers and Stephen stand by the entrance to the Paparella Innovative Arts Centre“Stephen is a wonderful, hard-working guy,” says Theresa Speers, who helped Stephen find a job he enjoys at a grocery store in Hamilton, Ont.
Building Confidence
Once a participant gains employment, Speers continues to offer support in the short and long term. Much of that support is practical and hands on.

“I have a client who recently started his first job,” Speers shares. “He has a learning disability so I accompanied him on his first day to do on-site job coaching with him. He has had jobs before but has lost them because employers didn’t understand what his disability is and what he needed.”

Along with practical assistance, Speers also provides emotional support to her clients.

“There was one time where I was upset because of something going on at home,” recalls Chaldhon, who has mental health and developmental disabilities. “But Theresa told me, ‘You can do it. You can go to work—they are counting on you.’ And I did it and everybody loves me now. Theresa’s a good job coach and I like working with her.”

Because the program takes a long-term approach to employment success, Speers keeps in touch with clients even after they’ve completed the program.

Stephen is one of Lawson’s successful graduates. He first came to the employment program in September 2015. Originally from Hamilton, he had been living in Caledonia, Ont., where he was employed. But when he moved back to the city, he wasn’t able to find a job again.

“This program made finding a job easier,” Stephen says. “We made resumés and then handed them out to a bunch of places, including Freshco. I did a hands-on job interview and, a week later, I got hired and I’ve been there for three years.”

Today, Stephen is happy and secure in his job at the store, and Speers still calls to check in with him occasionally and see how things are going. “The owner of the grocery store says Stephen is one of his best workers,” says Speers.

But she notes that when Stephen first came to the program, he was lacking in self-confidence. “He started off not sure whether or not he could actually get a job.”

Speers says this is common with the people she coaches. “Most people who have a disability have been bullied, so that lack of confidence is often there,” she says. “Part of my job is breaking through that and getting the person to see who I see—looking at their skills and abilities and getting the person to see them, too.”

“Our program is smaller than some of the other programs in Hamilton, but our retention rate is much better,” notes Shonna Sager, program co-ordinator, Lawson Ministries. “We invest a lot of time to make sure people get a job that they’re going to like, that they’re going to be good at, so that they can retain it for a long time.”

QUICK FACTS: Employment and Canadians With Disabilities

  • In 2017, one in five Canadians aged 15 years and older had one or more disabilities.
  • Women (24 percent) were more likely to have a disability than men (20 percent).
  • The most common disability types were related to pain, flexibility, mobility and mental health.
  • Among working-age people with disabilities who were not employed or in school, two in five had potential to work, representing almost 645,000 people with disabilities.
  • Mental health-related disabilities were the most common type of disability among people aged 15 to 24 years.
  • Working-age persons with disabilities (25 to 64 years) were less likely to be employed (59 percent) than those without disabilities (80 percent).
  • 76 percent of working-age people with mild disabilities were employed, while only 31 percent of those with very severe disabilities were employed.
  • Persons with more severe disabilities were more likely to be living in poverty than people without disabilities or with milder disabilities.

Source: Statistics Canada

An Accessible Army

For Graham Moore, assistant chief secretary for organizational development, giving people with disabilities equal opportunity to access employment in The Salvation Army comes back to our values.

“One of our core values is dignity, which means we recognize the worth of all people,” he says. “A disability should not stand in the way of someone participating in the mission of the Army.”

What does that look like in the context of the workplace? It starts with advertising employment opportunities in an accessible manner. Once someone is hired, it means there is an official process for ensuring every employee gets the accommodations they need to be successful. It also means retrofitting our facilities, adding lifts and automatic doors, for example.

Among current employees and volunteers, it means that the Army provides courses on disabilities, including mental health awareness, which are free to all ministry units. “To date, 9,000 individuals—officers, employees and volunteers—have taken e-courses related to accessibility,” shares Beverly Goulding, health and safety and workers’ compensation manager at territorial headquarters.

The goal, ultimately, is not only to improve accessibility, but also to break down any stigmas that exist around disability. “As The Salvation Army, it’s part of who we are and why we exist,” says Moore. “We can still do better.”

Photos: Kristin Ostensen

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