Let’s start with a simple question: Do you have, or know anyone who has, a disability or barrier to employment?
If I was asking a live audience, I would venture to guess that nearly 50% would raise their hand. And if we delved into greater detail on what constitutes a barrier to employment, I’d bet that number would jump to about 80%.
The truth is that diverse abilities are more common than many people realize. Take schools, for example. Schools are a good reflection of the diversity spectrum, since children typically demonstrate a wide range of different abilities. And all of these children will eventually enter their communities.
So what happens when children with a disability or barrier to employment grow up? How do they find employment so that they can make a meaningful contribution to their community? How are they supported? How should they be supported?
My personal story has helped me to consider these questions deeply, and has largely influenced my desire to partner with WorkWithUs.
It starts fairly typically. I was cruising through life with a husband, two toddlers, and a farm. When our daughter was born, she was our first girl, and we were thrilled. There was nothing out of the ordinary during her birth, other than a mild labour challenge that I was told is very common.
The first signs that something was not quite right came when we noticed that one of her eyes appeared to be crossed, and when we gave her a supplemental bottle, much of it leaked out of the side of her mouth. However, there were no issues with nursing. When my daughter was six months old, my mother in law insisted that there was something not right. Call it stubborn denial, but I resisted admitting that there could be any issues until my daughter was nearly a year old. By then, it had become clear, since every developmental milestone so far had been late. Some, like the pincer grasp, hadn’t even developed.
Initially, my daughter was diagnosed with a double squint, and underwent her first surgery before her first birthday. A second surgery was performed 3 months later, and her eyes uncrossed.
However, her development did not suddenly improve after the surgery, and it became apparent that there may be something seriously wrong with our little girl.
After a seemingly endless series of consultations, specialists, and doctors over the next year, we finally received a diagnosis: microcephaly. Essentially, microcephaly means a smaller skull (and possibly brain) than normal, which can result in a host of developmental issues.
The head of neurology at the hospital stated that although my daughter’s height and weight were normal, she was moderately mentally disabled.
We drove home feeling more than a little lost. As devastating as it was to hear the news that meant our lives would change forever, it was also a relief to finally have an answer to the mystery of why our daughter was not on track.
To top it off, when we got the diagnosis, I was eight and a half months pregnant with our fourth child. Two weeks later, I gave birth to a son, and life took on a frantic new pace, with home specialists, public health nurses, various therapies multiple times a week, and a newborn. Eventually, in the midst of this chaos, our daughter was old enough to enter school.
She was among the first group of children in British Columbia who were to be part of the inaugural wave of full integration. We were told that enrolling our daughter in regular classes would result in better social interactions. She would be part of the group, and invited to birthday parties. Things that are part of a typical childhood. It was painful to see that in her 13 years of school, she was only invited to one birthday party.
As many families in our situation tend to do, we brushed the stress aside. Although we always did our best to support all of our children, our daughter took up most of our energy and time. She also had severe apraxia (the mouth and lips are extremely tight), which made it difficult to speak. Although she has spent 15 years in speech and occupational therapy, our daughter has never been able to speak articulately. Rather, she makes sounds, gestures, and signs in order to communicate.
Despite these challenges, I’m proud to say that our daughter has excellent self-esteem and is very good at standing up for herself. She also has a lovely disposition, and did not develop behavioural issues. Along with her siblings, our daughter attended a small private high school during her teenage years, which gave her access to a greater range of social and educational opportunities.
Our family’s saddest time occurred right around our daughter’s graduation from high school, and the two years afterward. Unfortunately, the years of stress and strain had taken their toll, and our family unit did not survive. I’ve learned that many don’t.
I blamed and shamed myself. After all, in my view, moms weren’t supposed to break down. They were supposed to forge ahead, no matter what the challenges were. However, it became clear that I had been blatantly ignoring my own mental health, as had my ex-husband. We both did a lot of work in order to get ourselves healthy, and made an effort to reconcile, but were ultimately unsuccessful in finding a way to make it work.
Another challenge around this time came after our daughter graduated and turned 18. All of the services and support she’d had throughout high school ceased. There seemed to be an assumption that because our daughter had turned 18, she no longer needed support, and we found this extremely frustrating and hurtful. We quickly learned to advocate, but it was still an enormous challenge to find the support our daughter needed.
Learning this skill would come in handy, though. When our daughter turned 21, she announced, in her unique communication style, that she wanted to live independently of both mom and dad. We initially responded to this announcement with fear. After all, she can’t even speak, so how was she supposed to survive in this harsh world by herself?
I’m happy to say that none of our fears were realized.Through active advocacy and engaging the appropriate resources, our daughter has become an independent young woman who makes choices for herself, with support. She was taught how to ride the bus, budget her money, participate in a day program, and later, a work program. She currently lives in her own suite in a family home. She gets herself to and from her job as a landscaper, makes friends, goes to movies, explores relationships, and sometimes makes mistakes, as we all do.
Recently, our daughter expressed a desire to get a “regular” job so she can have a steadier income. And, as her story continues, it underscores, for me, the importance of organizations that foster workplace diversity and inclusion, such as WorkWithUs.
I believe that, through her experiences, my daughter is teaching us what diversity is, and showing us the way towards workplaces that are truly reflective of the range of abilities our community holds. With support such as assistance on how to apply for jobs, careful training on the work and company, and role models to provide support and encouragement, my daughter is capable of making significant contributions to an organization.
Each of us has a different path and experience. My daughter has inspired my belief that if our workplaces truly reflect our diverse families and communities, our collective experiences will be richer, deeper, and more meaningful. When we let go of our fears and embrace differences, we learn so much, and become better people.
Ultimately, what my daughter has taught me is that diversity means acceptance. And that’s an inspiring lesson I’d like to share.