Thursday, June 2, 2011

What were the hightlights from the Six Steps to Success Conference?

Last week I spoke at the Six Steps to Success conference in Whitehorse, Yukon. My contribution to the program was to bring the 300 member audience (from Canada, the U.S. and as far away as New Zealand), up to date with the demographic changes now underway that will change and shape the labour force for the next few decades. I highlighted why skill shortages are a growing concern, and the business case for making workplaces more accommodating to age-related conditions, acquired impairments, and an increasingly diverse workforce.

The lineup of other speakers was like a who’s who of the disability management and return to work experts, advocates, and role models from across North America. There is no way I can cover all the speakers and their messages but here are a few of the highlights.

Most readers will be familiar with Richard Pimentel either from his many speaking engagements or the movie about his life, Music Within. This retelling of his life story and his life’s work was entertaining, humorous, and poignant. His personal experience of being told that his brain injury and hearing impairment would make it impossible for him to go to college and his adventures with his friend, Art Honneyman, took the audience through a range of emotions and to resolve to see the person, not the disability.

John Kemp’s talk was just as engaging. I had read about him but this was the first time I had the opportunity to hear him. He was immensely entertaining and engaging. He co-founded American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and continues to be actively involved in that organization.

I’ve heard Gary Karp before but this session allowed the audience to view disability through his real life experience. His four books will be of interest to those with and without disabilities. He literally shows the audience what it means to “juggle” personal and societal issues of access, accommodation, and acceptance of people with disabilities as just people.

Each of the above speaks with authority from either a congenital or acquired disability. Others, such as Denise Bissonnette, spoke directly to those of us who work with and for people with disabilities. Poet, author, and an expert practitioner of true “job development,” her keynote address and workshop gave a practical yet novel point of view on identifying the unique genius and gifts of every client, and turning that into an advantage for employers. For those of us with a vocational rehabilitation background, her talk really resonated.

Speakers that will be familiar to those working in the workers’ compensation community in B.C. included Wolfgang Zimmerman, Blake Williams, and Winston Leckie. The Workers’ Compensation Board of the Yukon’s CEO, Valerie Royle, was not only a sponsor and a speaker, she and her band opened for Susan Aglukark. Susan made reference to the healing that is continuing in the aboriginal community through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The health outcomes of those who suffered in the residential school programs will continue to reverberate as disabilities for years to come.

A real surprise for me was the talk by Deb Russell. She is a Corporate Manager for Walgreen Co., the big U.S. drugstore chain. She told the story of a Walgreen’s vice-president who, because of his familiarity with the challenges of employment for his own child with autism spectrum disorder, spurred an outreach program to actively recruit, train, and retain people with disabilities. The idea was not to save money, get a competitive advantage, or gain good press. Instead, this was a fundamental commitment by the organization’s leadership to be proactive. Deb was hired to lead the initiative. She provided a DVD full of video and document clips that spoke to the success of the program.

Most interesting to me were Deb’s first-hand experiences of addressing the apprehensions of managers, staff and even the advocate community when dealing with the challenges of persons with epilepsy, autism, hearing loss, mobility, cognition, etc. She related these experiences in the real and practical terms of the workplace. She noted that none of the fears anticipated by the managers have happened in over five years of the program. Her willingness to share these practical experiences disarmed every objection I have ever heard on why firms can’t accommodate workers with particular disabilities. All of this has been accomplished without violating privacy concerns, lowering job standards or incurring large costs. Even the safety record shows workers with identified disabilities have no more time-loss injuries than their able-bodied counterparts; in fact, average time loss injuries are of shorter duration. This is a great example of corporate citizenship both in the practice and the sharing.

This was a great conference and the promised availability of presentations will be a great resource for participants, and ultimately for our communities.

No comments: