February 18, 2016, Meeting: The Ready, Willing & Able Employment Initiative

The Ready, Willing & Able Employment Initiative (RWA), in BC, is being hosted by the Pacific Autism Family Centre and Inclusion BC.  Jenna Christianson-Barker, is the Director of Adult Programs at Pacific Autism Family Centre; her role within RWA is to oversee the positions of Anjela Godber, the Autism Outreach Manager, and Stacey Freeman, the Regional Autism Manager.  Stacey will be procuring employers and educating them about working with people on the Spectrum, and Anjela will be interviewing individuals seeking employment and connecting them with the employers through Employment Placement Agencies. The RWA program is being offered in 20 communities across Canada.  In the Metro Vancouver region, these communities are Vancouver, the North Shore, Richmond, Delta, Surrey, Maple Ridge & Langley.

This RWA  initiative is a federally funded, 3 year pilot program formed specifically to address the under-representation in the workplace of people with developmental disabilities.  To participate in this program:

  • an individual need not be formally diagnosed, or be a CLBC recipient, but must self-identify as having permanent impairments that restrict his or her ability to perform daily activities. This could mean a self-diagnosis of ASD, and/or having recurrent challenges with anxiety or depression.
  • RWA participants must be 18 or older, and be legally entitled to work in Canada.
  • individuals who are working part-time, but who wish to be working full time, or who would like to obtain a second part-time job, are eligible.

For those just entering the workforce, Worktopia’s Employment Works program, a 12 week employment preparation program will be offered through RWA, beginning in April.

From our perspective at Square Peg Society:

  • We hope that this program can help our capable, young adults to find & keep employment.
  • We want our youth to be well-matched with their prospective employers, and to be assisted with integration in their jobs.
  • We fully understand that an employee doesn’t start his or her career at management level. However, we hope that RWA will lead to jobs that our youth can grow in that will provide them a viable living.
  • We want skills/training/education deficits to be identified and the path to obtaining these skills outlined.
  • We want to be part of the dialogue and want to help to make this important employment opportunity succeed for our youth, for the employers, and for the program.

Jenna commented that, as RWA is a federal program, it has a broader reach than existing employment programs, and therefore can approach larger employers with branches/offices throughout the country. This National and Provincial address distinguishes this program from the approach used by many existing inclusive Employment Agencies. As much as possible RWA attempts to approach employers at the senior level, to make them aware of the advantages of hiring people on the Spectrum, and to encourage  them to participate in this employment initiative. The intention is to create awareness of an underutilized workforce, and hopefully, to generate a pool of jobs, rather than a single job at a time. Existing service agencies working on employment for people with disabilities tend to have difficulties finding a sufficient number and range of jobs to meet the demand.

Participants in the RWA program will be matched to jobs found through RWA, but will be placed in those jobs through existing employment placement agencies. This means that, while Anjela will be interviewing RWA prospective employees, and Stacey will be seeking out prospective employers, and matching the two, the job placement will occur through a placement agency, such as WorkBC, Jobs West or PosAbilities. Job coaching, if needed, will be provided, through the employment agency, with funding from RWA. We were told that the requirement for the job placement to be made through an employment agency is so that there is a record of an individual’s placements. I am unconvinced that this is  the primary motivation for this requirement, and worry that the rapport and the understanding of an individual’s abilities might be lost in the handing off of the individual to the Employment Placement Agency. Anjela assured us that this will not be the case; that it is her intention to continue to follow up with her interviewees to ensure that they are well-placed and succeeding in their jobs. Apparently, RWA participants can select the Placement Agency, if they have worked with a particular agency previously, or if they feel a given agency has more experience working with ASD individuals. It was also pointed out that the Employment Placement Agency is a vehicle for facilitating the job, and that an individual is not required to register for any other of the placement agency’s services.

Two common drawbacks of many of the jobs presented to ASD individuals through many existing Employment Placement agencies are:1) the prevalence of unskilled entry level jobs, and, of the jobs directed to ASD individuals 2)the predominance of technology sector jobs. One of our members encouraged that RWA look beyond these two sectors in seeking employers for the program.

It was noted during the meeting that, within RWA, disclosure of a disability was a non-issue, as all participating employers will be prepared to be working with people with a developmental disabilities. For some of our audience, this is clearly a benefit, as they feel that their ASD “label” has value, as it helps “others” to quickly gain a broad understanding of some the typical characteristics common to people on the Spectrum, making it unnecessary for the individual with ASD to explain how & why they are “different”. For others, their life experiences with disclosure have resulted in their “differences” being seen as “lesser”, a hurtful experience for anyone. It is the individual’s right to confine knowledge of his or her diagnosis to their direct employer only, and that the choice of disclosing to others should be entirely up to them. Stacey, and RWA are unapologetically approaching employers with the attitude that their prospective employees have strengths and abilities which make them desirable employees, capable of positively contributing in their jobs. Period.

Several points about succeeding in a workplace were made. For example, the importance of small adjustments to the workplace environment (noise, lights, distractions), might be able to be made for certain employees. A clear description of tasks, and/or the prioritization of tasks presented in written or graphic form, rather than orally, is often helpful to ASD individuals. Identifying the hierarchy of command, or better still, ensuring that the ASD individual is answerable only to one “boss” is also key. Assigning a mentor in the workplace, to make explicit, (rather than, implicit), expectations might also be helpful.

For many ASD individuals, their autistic characteristics are only part of their challenge. Many, through misunderstanding by others, struggles in comprehending what is expected of them, and social exclusion, suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression, and require mental health supports, for which there is no financial aid, past age 19. As well, there are gaps in their general life and social skills. In an ideal world, this supplemental care would flow from employment services, as employment is the key to a sustainable, adult existence. Some of our members feel that this vision should be the model to hold on to (see “How to find Work that Works for People with Asperger Syndrome”, by Gail Hawkins, director of a specialized Employment Agency in Ontario), while others feel that we, in BC, are so far from realizing this model, that, in order to support our individuals now we must provide these mental health and social supports outside of, and ancillary to, employment programs such as RWA.

The newly revised RWA has the important goals of connecting ASD individuals with the jobs they need to become independent adults, and of giving them the skills they need to succeed in their jobs and in developing in their careers. Jenna, Anjela, & Stacey are knowledgeable about this population, and are genuine in their commitment to realize these goals. With good communication between them and the Employment Placement agencies and their job coaches, we hope to make inroads toward achieving more and better employment for our young adults. As this pilot program is in its infancy, there will, no doubt be changes made along the way. We wish them every success!