‘A lot to offer’

EARN helps employers look deeper than the disability

Susan Forster knows how important it is to make strong eye contact in an interview situation. The problem is, she can’t.

She is partially sighted, and only in one eye. Due to a complication related to premature birth, that eye also moves contrary to where she appears to be, or actually is, looking. In face-to-face situations, this can be distracting to other people. But it’s only a superficial thing. It says nothing about her as a person, or her capabilities as an employee.

“It’s just one part of me,” she said. “It’s part of my life.

I accept it.”Her disability has put her in a unique position as the Manager of Stakeholder Relations for Ottawa’s Employment Accessibility Resource Network (EARN).

EARN is a United Way led community initiative that brings together employers and service providers with a goal of increasing the opportunities for people with disabilities to find meaningful employment.

“EARN has been successful in engaging employers and bringing attention to this United Way priority by providing education events and client networking opportunities in the community,” said Kelly Mertl, Director, Community Initiatives (with responsibility for EARN) at United Way Ottawa.

In her role, Susan sits down with employers to educate them on the advantages of hiring out of a largely untapped labour pool as it becomes increasingly difficult to attract and retain top talent from the able-bodied workforce.

Many employers are not aware of the resources available to help them hire, accommodate and retain employees with disabilities. Individuals who are capable and eager to work are often left to subsist at or below the poverty line, thanks to the myths and misconceptions about the costs and liabilities of integrating them into the workforce.

A career dedicated to helping others

Susan is an example of this slippery slope. She has Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), a vision disorder affecting premature babies who have received intensive neonatal care. The condition was more common among boomer preemies due in part to the high use of oxygen in their incubator units. At six months old, she entirely lost the use of her left eye as a result of a surgery for a misdiagnosed brain tumor.

Despite her disability, Susan wasn’t sheltered by her family and learned to be resourceful and independent as she grew up. She attended regular public school with almost no accommodation.

It wasn’t until university that she learned about ROP.

“I went from being someone with an unusual disability to discovering that a lot of preemies experienced vision loss just like me,” she said. “In fact, Stevie Wonder also has ROP.”

She never thought her disability would be an impediment to employment. Her intention was to pursue a career as a psychologist and specialize in child assessments. But in her 30s, already burdened with student debt, her vision worsened due to a cataract, which meant she couldn’t make the visual observations that were required. At the point of despair, she discovered the world of non-profits working to promote disability rights.

For years she worked contract-to-contract with organizations that were typically underfunded, but the experience served to bolster her confidence and demonstrate how the able-bodied and the disabled could work together.

Susan did eventually have that cataract surgically removed, restoring her to almost the same level of partial sight as before. She has worked in employment equity-related positions with the Province of Ontario and most recently, with Independent Living Canada. But this non-profit fell on hard times and Susan was laid off after 11 years of service.

“I thought I had a career there for life, but a lot of people have lost their jobs in the non-profit sector lately,” she said.

The help and support she needed

Perhaps it was her disability, her age, her specialized resume, or some combination thereof, but Susan’s job search proved difficult.

With her severance package exhausted and unemployment insurance running out, she faced the prospect of seeking disability benefits from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). She took advantage of ODSP’s employment support component and this led her to Linda Simpson and her team at Performance Plus Rehabilitative Care (PPRC).

PPRC, a service provider partner and founding member of EARN, works under contract with ODSP to help people with physical or developmental disabilities, as well as those who are coming off of any kind of disability leave, find gainful employment.

“The PPRC staff were very supportive,” Susan said. “It isn’t easy applying for jobs and learning to network after 11 years. Some people are better at selling themselves than others.”

Eighteen months after losing her job, PPRC and EARN helped her land her current job at none other than EARN itself.

“As an older worker, you just have to find the right employer who will see your skills and experience as valuable – you’re thoughtful, mature,” Susan said. “I think those of us who are older do have a lot to offer.”