By Art HarrisonSpecial to the Times
BC’s Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation has declared September as Disability Employment Month in British Columbia in order to celebrate people with disabilities in the workforce and the employers and communities throughout the province who pave the way to support them.
Many may not have a clear understanding of how people with disabilities fit into our communities and workplaces, or of the efforts on the part of individuals, employers, and the community-based organizations who provide the supports for those seeking employment.
But for some, dealing with disabilities and finding their way in the community is a part of their everyday life.
At age 60, Trail’s Gord Fletcher has worked at Teck Metals Trail Operation for 24 years and, like many in that age range, he is looking forward more to his approaching retirement than anything else.
“It’s a good company and you make pretty good money there,” Fletcher said. “There just comes a time when you don’t really want to do it anymore. And there’s lots of young people who need work. I’ll be happy when I can relax and someone else can take over. I just have to put in a little more time so my pension will be enough that I can live on.”
Although having been labelled as having a disability when he was young, in speaking with Fletcher it’s not readily apparent what his actual disability might be.
He has a form of epilepsy, although the seizures have been controlled with medication since he was in his teens, wears a knee brace now as a result of an old injury, and has relatively poor eyesight. He reads widely, has a greater than average understanding of computers and new technology, and has travelled widely, both for his own enjoyment and as an active leader in the self-advocacy movement for people with disabilities.
“I have a lazy eye,” he said. “I had crossed eyes when I was young but they corrected it with surgery back then. Now they give you exercises to do. I think I would have preferred that.”
Fletcher is reluctant to go into detail about his school experience but graduated from JL Crowe with a Dogwood certificate.
“They sort of pushed me through school,” Fletcher said. “I don’t think they really knew what to do with me.”
After graduating, Fletcher was encouraged to go into the sheltered workshop for people with disabilities in the old Maple School in Glenmerry but found the limited activities there, some basic woodworking, sorting mail, and similar tasks, to be unfulfilling, at best.
After a period of trying different types of work, some in the private sector, some in positions working for the BC Association for Community Living, Fletcher was hired at Cominco (Teck Metals) on the janitorial crew, where he has continued with the exception of a few lay-offs over the years.
Through his own employment experience and his work in the self-advocacy movement, Fletcher has seen the positive effect working at a real job can have for an individual with disabilities, as well as some of the challenges they face.
“In an ideal world everyone who wanted to work would get a chance to work but it’s not an ideal world,” Fletcher said.
“If you can get yourself out there and be a go-getter it can work but a lot of people with disabilities don’t have the confidence. And there are attitudinal barriers, a lot of people don’t think people with disabilities can do all that many things but there are jobs that people can do.”
Fletcher said that he has seen employers that are willing to offer work to people with disabilities, a variety of retailers, food service outlets, and larger companies, and has seen the positive results in people’s lives that come of it.
“There are employers who take a chance on people, there has to be somebody in management who believes in people,” he said. “They have to have someone in the company who believes that people deserve a chance to try their wings out. They may not be able to work an eight hour day but they may be able to work into it. They may not be all that fast at first but they can improve.”
Fletcher said that, in the world of working for a living, people are individuals, regardless of whatever label or preconceived ideas others may have.
“Really, people with or without disabilities are much the same. There are hardworking people with disabilities and people who are lazy, the same as everybody else,” he said. “But if you want a job you have to prove yourself. And you have to have someone who believes in you.”