Stepping Stones

I am incredibly fortunate to work with amazing people at LDAWE.  We are lucky to be able to hire amazingly compassionate, talented, and knowledgeable people.

Many people have asked me what we look for when we hire someone.   Mainly, we look for people that appear to be genuinely interested in working with people with disabilities.  Experience is helpful, but we are also willing to train someone if they appear to be a good fit for our organization.  We are also an equal opportunity employer, which means that we provide employment opportunities to people who have disabilities as well.

It’s important to know that we only hire people on a part-time basis.  There are only 2 positions at LDAWE that are full-time (my position as Resource Manager and my boss’ position as the Executive Director).

The main positions for which we hire are:Reading the Paper

  • Adaptive Technology Trainers
  • Administrative Assistants
  • Job Developers / Coaches
  • Lead Facilitators
  • Program Facilitators
  • Tutors

The level of experience necessary, the number of hours, and rate of pay vary depending on the position.  When hiring, we typically hire students or recent graduates in the following fields:

  • Psychology
  • Education
  • Social Work
  • Child and Youth Workers (CYW)
  • Developmental Support Workers (DSW)
  • Educational Assistants (EA)

Many of the people we hire are using these positions as a stepping stone on the way to their ultimate career goal.  While this may upset some companies, it is actually part of our plan.  We want to be able to expose as many people in the above mentioned fields to learning disabilities (LD) and ADHD.  We give our staff members first hand experience and provide them with insight, tips, and strategies for how to best help people with LD and ADHD reach their full potential.  We hope that as they continue on their career path they use the skills they learned from LDAWE.

As a result, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have had the opportunity to work with many compassionate, talented, and knowledgeable people over the past decade.  I am often very sad when some of them move on to work for other companies.  However, knowing the difference they are going to make in the lives of people with LD and ADHD throughout their careers makes it all worthwhile.

The Big Ask…

MoneyI have mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, “My Biggest Secret,” that one of my least favourite parts of my job as Resource Manager of LDAWE is the fundraising portion of the job.  Don’t get me wrong… I love it when people give us money, donate in-kind items, or attend fundraising events.  What I don’t like is having to ask people to do it.  I would rather write a grant proposal or negotiate a service contract instead of asking people or companies for donations.  Despite my hesitations, I of course do ask people for donations (I do want to keep my job, after all).

However, despite our best efforts, funds raised through donations and fundraising comprise a very small portion of our overall annual revenue (4.4%).  I often ask myself why this is the case when learning disabilities and ADHD affect 10% of the population.  I have come up with the following thoughts:

  • The majority of the clients we serve are low-income.  Many are in receipt of Ontario Works, Ontario Disability Support Program, the National Child Benefit, etc…  While they may greatly appreciate the service we provide, they are not in a position to make a donation to the Association.
  • Learning disabilities and ADHD are not sexy or cute.  We don’t get to put pictures of cute little puppies, kittens, or babies on our marketing material.
  • Learning disabilities and ADHD are invisible.  Some people still try to argue that they don’t exist, and that the person is just lazy or had bad teachers/parents.  To them, I say they should sit in on one of our programs… they’d realize within the first 5 minutes that learning disabilities and ADHD do exist.
  • Sadly, there is still a stigma around having a disability.  This means that we often can’t get permission to use pictures/videos of our actual program participants or clients to show what happens in our programs or to share our success stories/testimonials.  This also means that we haven’t been able to find any of the highly successful Windsorites (we know many of you are out there!) that are willing to disclose their learning disability or ADHD and potentially become a champion for our cause.

Giving Tuesday CAMany of you probably heard that Tuesday, December 3, 2013, was the first annual Giving Tuesday in Canada.  Where Black Friday and Cyber Monday are about getting deals, Giving Tuesday is about giving back to your community.  This movement celebrates giving and encourages more, better, and smarter giving and volunteering during the giving season.  We would love it if you would consider making a donation to help people with learning disabilities and ADHD in Windsor – Essex reach their full potential.  Donations can be made safely and securely online, through CanadaHelps.

Finally, I would like to thank our core staff members and volunteers who attend our fundraising events and make donations whenever you can.  I know it’s not easy going back to your same family members and friends ask them to pledge you for the annual walk-a-thon or to buy tickets for a fundraising event.  Please know that your efforts are greatly appreciated by not only myself, but all of our clients and program participants.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

The Sibling Perspective

I was 5 years old when my parents had my brother, Mike.  I was excited to have a brother.  I was probably about 8 or 9 when my brother was diagnosed with autism.  The diagnosis didn’t really mean anything to me.  My brother was my brother.  Adding a label didn’t change him or me.  Over the years, the diagnosis was adjusted to the more specific PDD-NOS (sounds mysterious, doesn’t it?).  PDD-NOS stands for Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Other Specified.  To state it simply, my brother has a high functioning form of autism.  In fact, he has slightly above average IQ.  He has a phenomenal memory (he can regurgitate entire TV shows or movies for you), a huge vocabulary, and an interest in other cultures and languages.  He has difficulty with social skills, making emotional connections, and understanding non-verbal communication.

I have always loved my brother.  I’ve always acted more like a second mom to him (sadly for him).  I have so many great memories with him.  Chances are we never would have had these moments together if he had a “neurotypical” brain.

Child tying their shoesI remember the summer when he had outgrown velcro shoes.  I think he was somewhere between 10-12 years old.  It was my mission that summer to teach him how to tie shoe laces.  Boy oh boy… was that a long summer!  But the good news, by the end of that summer, he could tie his own shoes.

During the summer before he started high school, I was sarcastic with him everyday to teach him how to recognize sarcasm.  I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to survive high school without that particular skill.  This is a skill he has still not 100% perfected, but he knows to always be on the lookout for sarcasm and will now often asked people if they’re being sarcastic if he’s not sure.

Mike has certain topics of interest.  One day, he was following me around the house providing me with a lecture on one of those topics when I crashed into a glass door (in my defence the door is typically never closed), bounced off of it, and fell onto the floor.  I’m laying on the floor, in pain in a couple different spots, and realize that my brother did not even pause in his lecture.  I yelled at him for quite a while about that one!  Here’s the interesting part.  Typically, people with autism cannot apply their knowledge to new situations.  However, a couple of months later I was reheating a bowl of rice in the microwave.  Mike was again lecturing me on a topic of his choice while he was eating his lunch.  As I was taking the bowl out of the microwave, I accidentally dropped it and the rice ended up all over the kitchen floor.  Mike immediately stopped talking, jumped up, and asked how he could help.  Later that day, I told him that I was surprised how he jumped up to help without being asked to.  He replied that there was no way that he wanted to get yelled at again!

My experience as a sibling of someone with an invisible disability is, of course, unique to me.  However, I can tell you the following:

  • I was never ever jealous of the extra time my parents spent with my brother.  I knew that whenever I needed their time, they’d be there for me.
  • Learn to laugh.  Funny things will happen.  Probably everyday.  Not every single moment is a “teaching moment.”  Sometimes, you just need to laugh when the funny stuff happens.
  • Mike and DanielleHaving an invisible disability has its pros and cons.  Often people think my brother is just really weird, instead of having a disability.  That was really hard for me growing up.
  • Sometimes my brother embarrasses me.  It’s typically when he belches in public (but I’m guessing this is more of a “guy” thing than an “autism” thing!).
  • I was always very mature for my age.  Once Mike started school, I realized how different he was compared to his peers.  I was always worried that he would be bullied, I would always watch out for him, and I realized at a young age how difficult life can be for some people.  It definitely had a huge impact on my personality (and on my career).
  • Important milestones become even more meaningful.  His graduation ceremonies from both high school and university were both very inspiring and emotional.
  • I am incredibly proud of my brother and everything that he has managed to accomplish.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) has a short video on their website about 4 brothers (2 have learning disabilities and 2 do not) who briefly share their thoughts about their siblings.  NCLD also offers the following advice to parents of siblings:

  • “Acknowledge that feelings are real and create opportunities for open and respectful sharing among family members
  • Avoiding comparisons that point to weaknesses
  • Make sure to notice (and even celebrate) special abilities or successes
  • Do not assign family members to particular roles based on their skills and abilities
  • Especially during stressful times, try to find opportunities to laugh!”

Do you have a sibling with an invisible disability?  What were your experiences growing up?  Do you have any thoughts, ideas, or comments to add to the discussion?  Let me know what you think.


Goose Bumps

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is teaching people with learning disabilities how to use assistive technology (also known as adaptive technology or even A/T).  Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, assistive technology is any item, device, or product that can help someone with a disability do something that they otherwise would not be able to do.  Assistive technology can be something as simple and common place as a cane and eye glasses to something more complex such as assistive software and speech generating devices such as that used by Stephen Hawking.

TechnologyThere are many different types of assistive technology software available that can benefit people with various types of learning disabiliities.  These can include:

The most important thing to know is that it is critical to find the right software program for each specific person.  Since every person with a learning disability has different strengths and weaknesses, there is no one-size-fits-all assistive technology software solution for people with learning disabilities.  I have been very fortunate to help many people with learning disabilities in finding their “right fit.”

I have trained children, youth, and adults with learning disabilities how to use assistive technology.   What I most often see is parents dragging their kids into the LDAWE office to see me regarding assistive technology.  Typically, the child is in the 10-14 year old age bracket.  They often come in with a huge chip on their shoulder, slouch down in their chair, and give me an evil glare.  To be honest, I don’t blame them.  By the time they’re seeing me, their parents have probably brought them to several programs, got them a  tutor for extra help, brought them to counselling, or maybe even tried some experimental solutions to “cure” the problem.  I can tell that they think this is going to just be another place where their parents bring them to try to “fix” them.

The first thing I ask the person is, “What do you struggle the most with?  Reading?  Writing?  Spelling?…”  Based on their answer, I decide which assistive technology software program to show them first.  If at all possible, I want them to see that this program can make a huge difference in their life right away.  I can always tell when I’ve found the right fit.  Especially for the kids that walk in with the huge chip on their shoulder.  The first thing that happens, is they sit up straight in their chair.  Then they actually start leaning towards the computer, clicking buttons, and asking me what else it can do.  Finally, they will look at their parents, smile, point at the computer, and say “did you see that?”  It’s a great feeling to be able to watch that moment happen.

Kids using TechnologyI had the opportunity to work with Alison, who was in grade 4 at the time.  Her Mom actually brought her to me a couple times at the beginning of the school day, because she felt this was more important than anything her daughter was trying (unsuccessfully) to learn at school.  Alison told me that she had problems with reading and writing, but that by far her biggest concern was reading.  I showed her how to use Kurzweil 3000.  I explained that she’d be able to scan her books, worksheets, quizzes, and tests into Kurzweil and it would read all of the text aloud for her.  I then began showing her how to use all of Kurzweil’s features.  After a while, Alison looked at me and said, “I can do this!”  I replied that yes, I know she can… she told me, “No, you don’t understand… I can go to highschool now.”  That’s when it hit me.  At the young age of 9 or 10 years old Alison had figured out that she was so far behind and with no viable way of catching up, that she would never be able to complete high school.  I took a deep breathe (trust me, I needed one) and told Alison that she was right, with the help of the technology, she’d be able to successfully go to high school and even beyound that if she wanted to.

But Alison wasn’t done with her insights yet.  She began to ask me questions, “Can I scan in chapter books?”  I told her yes.  “Even long books?”  I told her that they might take her a while to scan, but yes… she could scan any book that she wanted.  She started bouncing up and down in her chair and looked at her Mom and said, “Now I can read Twilight on my own without you having to read it to me.  I can be just like my friends!”

And there they were… goose bumps running up and down my arms.  What a great reminder from such a young student regarding what assistive technology is really all about…  It helps put people with disabilities on an even playing field with everyone else.

Torn Post-it Notes

Like Cam mentioned in his post, Workplace Accommodations, one of the services LDAWE provides is Employment Supports.  This program is funded by ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program); therefore, participants must meet their eligibility criteria.  This includes having a documented disability, meeting certain financial criteria, and being ready, willing, and able to work.  As part of our Employment Supports program, we help people with learning disabilities and ADHD find work and we also help them keep that job once they have it (this is often the hard part).

Many employers are still leary about hiring people with disabilities.  Why is that?  Is it a fear of the unknown?  Is it because people with disabilities are different?  Are they afraid of saying the wrong thing and being sued?  Do they believe some of the myths… like their WSIB costs will rise, they will never be able to fire an employee with a disability, the employee will be off sick all of the time, or any of the other countless myths out there?

I can’t answer this question for every employer.  What I can tell you, is some of our best employees at LDAWE have disabilities.  In fact, a lot of our staff members and volunteers at LDAWE have disabilities.  A couple of months ago, I did the math and discovered that 36% of our staff members and 41% of our volunteers have disabilities.  Obviously this number fluctuates a bit as people come and go, but I believe these numbers have stayed relatively consistant throughout the past couple of years.  Types of disabilities range from learning disabilities and ADHD, to cerebral palsy, high functioning autism, anxiety, depression, low vision, and hearing impairments.

So, how do we do it?  How do we run a successful, growing, non-profit organization when so many of our people have “disabilities?”

  1. Like Rick recommended in his post, Tree-Climbing Fish, we focus on people’s strengths, not their weaknesses.
  2. We provide an understanding environment where people can learn from their mistakes.
  3. We use torn post-it notes.

Focus on Strengths

In our office we actually have 5 administrative assistants.  They are all part-time.  Three of them are staff members and the other two are volunteers.  More importantly, 4 of our 5 administrative assistants have significant disabilities.  Each one of them have a different set of tasks assigned to them based on their strengths.

One of our administrative assistants was the second person ever hired by LDAWE.  She has been our Administrative Assistant for almost 12 years and one of our Literacy Tutors for approximately 10 years.  She has cerebral palsy and a learning disability in the area of visual-spatial reasoning.  She loves talking, so her main responsibilities are answering the phone and door, as well as the filing.

Another one of our other Administrative Assistant has been with us for over 4 years.  He is our computer “guru,” and helps setup all of our new computers, install software, complete backups, etc…  He does the majority of typing, faxing, and copying for the office.  He is an incredibly efficient worker who rarely makes mistakes in his work.  He has a high functioning form of autism and an anxiety disorder.  He would be the first to tell you that it would be a disaster if he ever answered the phone at the office… so he doesn’t!

Our two volunteer administrative assistants fill in the gaps, they both do a little bit of filing, typing, faxing, photocopying, and other odd jobs that need to be around the office.  Recently, they both have been completing an inventory of all of the books in the office.  It is a painstaking task that no one likes to do and not many can do it well.  They have not only been enjoying the task, they have produced the most accurate inventory that we have ever had.  One of them has Asperger’s Syndrome and the other has learning disabilities.

Learning from Mistakes

Probably one of the biggest problem areas for many of our staff members with disabilities is lunch time.  People with disabilities often excel when working with a lot of structure and routine.  Lunch time does not provide either of those environments.  We encourage all of our staff members to eat together.  This allows our staff members with disabilities to learn what kinds of topics of conversation are appropriate for lunch time conversation and what isn’t.  If needed, we provide direct instruction and give feedback to staff members about their behaviour during lunch to help them in the future.

Torn Post-It Notes

Torn Post-It NotesSome employers mistakenly believe that accommodations for employees with disabilities cost a lot of money.  We can verify that this is simply not true.  What is our number one accommodation for almost every employee that we have with a disability?  You guessed it, torn post-it notes.  I’m sure most of you have heard that using post-it notes are a great strategy to use if you have memory problems or need reminders.  Well, we take this to a whole new level.  We put a post-it note on everything.  This lets the staff member or volunteer know what needs to be done.  In fact, we use so many post-it notes in the office that we typically tear them in half (or even in thirds).  This accommodation has worked wonders for us.  It allows the person to work independantly and get their job done correctly.

Here at LDAWE, we try to help everyone reach their full potential, whether they are a program participant, client, volunteer, or staff member.

Please pass me the post-it notes!

Please let me know if you have any questions or comments about hiring a person with a learning disability or ADHD… or would like to share some of your low cost strategies and accommodations!

My Biggest Secret

SecretI love my job.  Whew… there, I said it.

I’m not making that up either.  Well, OK… I’ll admit that I’ve been in a situation or two where I’ve thought, “Wow, I really don’t get paid enough for this.”  But overall, I love my job.

I had been volunteering for LDAWE for many years while I was in school.  Once I finished my business degree, LDAWE’s Executive Director, Bev Clarke, asked me to work for LDAWE as the Resource Manager.  I was terrified at the thought.  I was horrible at asking people for things (I still am), so having part of my job responsibilities include being the fundraiser for the organization was scary.  So, I told her no.  Actually, if I remember correctly, I said no about 8 times during our 5 minute conversation.  However, at the end of that 5 minute phone call, I ended up saying yes (those of you who know Bev, will not be surprised by that… she’s quite convincing).

At first, I never answered a phone call.  My duties included all financial aspects of the organization (i.e. bookkeeping, payroll, etc…), fundraising, and volunteer management.  Even without having any contact with our clients, I loved my job.  Just knowing that the job I was doing was indirectly helping people with learning disabilities was enough to keep me satisfied.

A year later, Bev convinced me that I would make a good Job Developer/Coach.  This allowed me to work directly with our clients and help them find and (hopefully) keep a job.  A year or two after that, I told Bev that I wanted to be the lead on our assistive technology project.  Now, I answer the phones all the time, answer a wide variety of questions, and have even developed a couple of our programs.

About 4 years ago, I went back to school part-time to get my MBA.  Everyone assumed that I would leave LDAWE right after getting my MBA… but I haven’t.  Co-workers, family members, and friends often send me job postings… and usually I don’t even bother to open them.  So, why do I stay with LDAWE even though I could go find a job somewhere else?

Is it because of the money?  ha…ha… No.

It is because:

  • I have a boss that allows me the freedom to try new things (even when she doesn’t agree with me)
  • I get to be involved with all aspects of running the Association
  • I have the opportunity to work with amazing people (our clients, volunteers, and staff)

Most importantly, it is because every day that I come to work, I have the opportunity to have a direct and positive impact on someone’s life… and to me, that’s priceless.

Do you love your job?  Is it worth the extra money to have a job that you hate going to every day?  Let me know what you think.