Self-advocacy forum keys on abilities, not disabilities

They want to be like everyone else. They want to work and make money and be included in the community they live in.

They want to be like everyone else. They want to work and make money and be included in the community they live in. They want to be accepted.

They are Prince Rupert people.  They just have more challenges.

The Prince Rupert Self Advocacy Group’s goal is to spread that message to employers and community members during October, which was Community Living Month in British Columbia.

The Self Advocacy Group put on a conference and held a community barbecue to encourage employers in the community to hire people for their abilities despite their challenges and to give individuals the tools they need to be successful in their employment.

“As a community we’re all a little bit different. We need to respect those differences and embrace them,” Dave Fischl, one of the speakers at this year’s conference, said.

The Self Advocacy Group has been holding forums of this nature for the past 14 years, with approximately 75 to 80 people from Prince Rupert, Quesnel, Terrace and Prince George attending the “Futures on the Horizon” gathering this year.

“The conference is held to bring awareness to employers in this town that individuals with intellectual disabilities can still do a job like anyone else. They just want real work, for real pay,” Val Wholmes from the Self Advocacy Group, said.

The conference included a number of speakers including award-winning Fischl, Workplace Diversity Coordinator for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure, who is a spokesman for inclusion in the workplace.

“It’s so simple to have those invisible barriers come up when [employers are] looking at hiring people. People tend to hire people like themselves,” he said.

Fischl shared stories from his 37 years of experience with the ministry at the conference, including an instance when he almost was the barrier between someone different than himself getting a job.

A member of the Public Service Commission came to Fischl while he was employed at Fleet Services, asking if they would hire a blind man to work in one of the shops.

“I said ‘how could someone with no vision be a mechanic?’… There’s no way we could put a blind person in one of our shops and have him do productive work and do it safely,” Fischl recalled, adding he wasn’t sure what the individual could do.

“[The public service worker] said ‘I don’t know, but he’s in the pre-employment program and he’s in the top 20 per cent of his class. The only thing he can’t do is weld or test drive. He seems to do a great job at fixing wiring problems’.”

At this point, Fischl realized the only thing holding back the man from employment was himself, and the blind man was given a chance to work in one of the shops for his practicum.

The first task the blind man did was change the drive shaft on a truck, which he did faster than anyone else in the shop.

“To take the short drive shaft off, you really couldn’t see what you were doing. You have to kind of feel your way, and for him that was very easy because that’s how he works,” Fischl said.

After his practicum was over, he was hired at the shop.

Fischl said he changed the moral of the shop, and made it substantially safer.

“They knew they couldn’t leave things laying around on the floor… because there was a person with a visual disability. That’s the way a shop should always be…”

The blind man went on to get his Interprovincial Heavy Duty Journeypersons certificate, proving disabilities doesn’t mean a person can’t be successful.

And there are many examples locally where people with cognitive disabilities have been successful in finding long-term employment.

“It might be a job that you and I don’t want but it’s something they want… Once they get that job they’re reliable and dependable. You can count on them,” Wholmes said.

Deborah Leonard currently works at the SPCA where she assists with a number of tasks. She has held down this job for the past eight years.

“I like washing the dishes and looking at the animals,” she said.

Leonard said she enjoys working so she can make money and enjoy her life to the fullest potential. She hopes to one day buy her own home and be able to travel independently.

Jamie Alexander currently holds down two jobs in the community. Alexander has worked at Subway Restaurant for the past 11 years where he washes windows, does dishes and other tasks, as well as the Prince Rupert Northern View, where he has worked as a collator for the past two years.

“I like working so I can make money and have enough to live on,” Alexander said, adding having money means he can go for a snack or to a party with friends when he wants to.

Michael Sambo is another Prince Rupert resident who appreciates all the Self Advocacy Group has done for him.

“They have got me out in the community more and we learn to work together,” he said.

Sambo has had many jobs in the Rupert including a paper route and a long-term job at Philpott Evitt before it closed. He has worked at Prince Rupert Home Hardware since the store opened three-and-a-half years ago.

Sambo said his favourite part about working at Home Hardware is dusting, and being part of the community.

And the store is equally as thrilled to have him there.

“We love him. He’s happy to be here. He’s part of our team,” Maria Melo, Home Hardware manager said.

“I wish more employers took a chance, and hired people like Michael. He brings a lot to the table.”

Melo said she would encourage other employers in the community to hire an individual with a developmental disability in a heart beat.

To help ensure more individuals could be successful in employment, the Advocacy Group opened up lunch restaurant Soup Daddy’s earlier this year, to help people with developmental and dual-diagnosed disabilities learn necessary skills for working.

“When we set up, we knew it wasn’t going to be a money-maker. But it wasn’t about making money, it was about getting our individuals in the community doing something and being seen doing it,” Dave Watson, one of the job coaches at the restaurant, said.

Watson, who has worked with mentally challenged people for the last 16 years, also gave a presentation at the conference on why pennies, like individuals with disabilities, are unique.

“Some are tarnished, some are dull, but with a little bit of shining we can make them better. A lot like the individuals that we support. They just need a bit of support in their lives and some of them will go on to be treasures in the community,” he said.

Other speakers at the conference included motivational speaker Michael Bortolotto, who was born with Cerebral Palsy and has moved on to earn a Diploma in Recreation and Sciences and owns his company as a recreation consultant, as well as Shelly Nessman, who has worked for more than three decades in the community living movement, and Toastmasters Penny Soderena and Ruth Stanton who gave attendees tips on public speaking.

Additionally, local advocates Deborah Leonard and Sharon Wrathall spoke about their employment history.

Wholmes said she hopes the individuals who attended the conference learned and thought about what presenters shared with them.

Fischl said he was honoured to be part of the conference, that gave people a chance to show off their achievements.

“Conferences like this allow individuals to show their ability and to show what they’re able to do,” he said.

A few days after the conference wrapped up, advocates, community members and local politicians gathered for the second annual community barbecue put on by the Advocacy Group at the end of Community Living Month.

The barbecue included food made by the Prince Rupert Lions Club, entertainment by local musicians Ray Leonard and Cynthia Pyde, speeches, cake, popcorn and face painting and more.

The event was the Advocacy Group’s way of saying thanks to the community that has supported them throughout the years.