For people with disabilities, getting into the workforce can be an uphill struggle. But an advocacy organization in Montreal is helping the disabled find work, and acting as intermediaries with employers
Monday, January 26, 2004
Vito Falcicchio has the kind of work skills that would be welcomed by a lot of employers. On the technical side, he's mastered the use of such software as Excel, Word, and Simply Accounting. What's more, the former office clerk speaks three languages and is known for being motivated and punctual.
What may be stalling Falcicchio's re-entry into the workforce after a recent hiatus is the fact that he has cerebral palsy, a condition that slightly impairs his speech and mobility but in no way affects his productivity.
"I love working with computers," Falcicchio said. "When disabled people get jobs, they tend to work hard to hang on to them."
But finding those jobs can be an uphill struggle, said May Polsky, director of IAM CARES, a St. Laurent-based organization that offers employment counselling and job-search help to disabled workers.
IAM CARES (the acronym stands for International Association of Machinists Centre for Administering Rehabilitation and Employment Services - AIM CROIT in French) celebrates the 15th anniversary of the opening of its Montreal office this month. Since its inception, the service has placed 3,000 disabled workers in various jobs.
"This is highly specialized employment counselling," Polsky said. "We see a huge span of disabilities, even some that are not thought of as disabilities. When people think of the disabled, they usually visualize someone in a wheelchair. In fact, only a small percentage of our clients are wheelchair users."
While IAM CARES used to offer services to the mentally disabled and the mentally ill in addition to physically disabled people, the clientele is now limited to those with physical and sensory disabilities, she said.
The program was launched in 1980 by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers for injured Boeing employees in Seattle, but quickly spread to other cities across the U.S. Offices were set up in Montreal and Vancouver in 1989.
"The purpose is to develop employability, to help people find work," Polsky said, adding that her clients are in all age groups. "Often, there's a lot of work that needs to be done before we can identify a career choice. We help the person establish a plan of action."
The key obstacle disabled workers face, say those who counsel them in their job searches, is ignorance and fear among employers.
"Businesses are always looking for the most qualified and competitive resources," Polsky said. "So disabled workers are up against some stiff competition. There's no doubt that there's prejudice (against the disabled) in the workplace. Often, when businesses hear the job applicant is disabled, they come to the conclusion they don't want to hire them."
Many of the job seekers who use IAM CARES have what Polsky calls "invisible disabilities."
These include epilepsy, brain traumas, multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia. Some are blind or have low vision, are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Some are amputees. Some have congenital malformations or partial paralysis. "Because so many disabilities are invisible, there are more disabled people in the workplace than we realize," Polsky said.
Counsellors find them work in a broad spectrum of jobs. In November and December, she said, the service found work for a disabled financial consultant, a pharmaceutical assistant, salespeople, youth workers, customer service representatives, packaging clerks, warehouse workers, kitchen aids, nurses and a mutual fund representative.
On a recent snowy afternoon at the IAM CARES offices, a bell sounded twice over the intercom system.
"We ring a bell every time someone finds a job," Polsky said.
IAM CARES counsellors often accompany their clients to interviews. "They're there to demystify the disability for the employer," career counsellor Philippe Lanoie said.
"Sometimes employers call us after the interview because they were unable to discern the disability. I might say, 'he's hard-of-hearing in the left ear' and the employer will say, 'is that all?' Often, employers just aren't comfortable asking people about their disabilities."
Jean-Léo Côté is familiar with the dismissive attitude many people have toward disabled workers. As director of District 11 for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Côté is the union representative who oversees IAM CARES. He also wears a hearing aid.
"When you wear a hearing aid, people assume you're stupid," he said. "They don't want to repeat themselves if you can't hear and they see it as too much trouble to accommodate people with disabilities."
When he assumed responsibility for overseeing IAM CARES in 1998, Côté asked the service to "give me five handicapped people. I would try to find them jobs. I wanted to see how difficult it was. These people had been looking for work for years. I discovered that I couldn't help them. It was really difficult."
Ultimately, he did find work for one man, a deaf artist who also paints airplanes, but it was tough.
"Employers told me they were afraid they wouldn't be able to communicate with him," Côté said.
Jo-Ann Gendron, a guidance counsellor at IAM CARES, says she works with job seekers who have been disabled all their lives and with those who are disabled because of trauma. She says the effort of finding work is accentuated for the disabled.
"Just moving around can be difficult for them," she said. "We act as intermediaries to show employers we believe in our clients."
She said IAM CARES's mandate is to take on 400 clients per year and place about half in jobs. "We usually surpass that number," she said.
Vito Falcicchio has a 20-year history in the workforce, but had to leave a job to care for a family member. His last gig was as an office clerk in a packaging company.
"The contract ended in 2002 so I'm looking for work," he said.
"I'd like to see the government and corporations hire more of us."
For more information about IAM CARES, call (514) 744-2944 or go to www.aimcroitqc.org
Next week: A successful Montreal company in which one-sixth of the workforce is disabled.
"When disabled people get jobs, they tend to work hard to hang on to them."- Vito Falcicchio
"When you wear a hearing aid, people assume you're stupid,"
- Jean-Léo Côté
"Businesses are always looking for the most qualified and competitive resources. So disabled workers are up against some stiff competition."
- May Polsky
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