For a quarter of a century, Rob McInnes has been focused on getting work; not for himself, but for the thousands of people with disabilities who are perfectly employable but still have difficulty finding a job.
McInnes has worked on employment issues for people with disabilities in many different ways for the past 25 years including writing and editing books, setting up seminars and workshops, and creating and organizing Ability Axis, a special initiative aimed at increasing the workforce participation rate of Manitobans with disabilities.
Even though his journey started in the 1980s, it was a relationship (first professional and then personal) with Denise Bissonnette twelve years ago that propelled McInnes to a whole new level.
The combination of Bissonnette, an expert in workplace diversity including all minority groups, with McInnes, a specialist in employment for people with disabilities, enabled the couple to create Diversity World, a training, publishing and consulting company committed to reducing any barriers that prevent people from flourishing in their livelihoods.
“We are both passionate about work and we wanted to be free in a way to pursue it. We want to get involved in things to make change,” said McInnes.
Bissonnette, along with Richard Pimentel, developed “Developing the New Employee: Retaining and Enhancing a Diverse Workforce” – a diversity training program for mangers. She also designed the diversity training program for Oracle Corporation, headquartered in Redwood City, California. For several years, McInnes worked with IBM and several other large tech companies to enhance their success in hiring and retaining employees with disabilities.
The need for employers, large and small, to connect with diverse, skilled people with disabilities is evident not only in the U.S. but in Canada as well. That’s why Bissonnette and McInnes moved back to Winnipeg in 2006 to start Ability Axis.
Ability Axis Employment Expo
Ability Axis held their most recent Employment Expo on October 23, 2013, at the Victoria Inn.
In the morning, there was a networking breakfast for employers with Deborah Dagit, who opened the door to this unique workforce of people with disabilities.Bissonnette gave a great workshop for workers with disabilities on when and how to disclose your disability. There was also a workshop for employers on best practices in hiring and diversity.
Throughout the event, employers and agencies were stationed at booths where people could further network and discuss opportunities. Employers and employees, with and without disabilities, were at these booths. “Employees with disabilities can talk first-hand as someone with a disability,” McInnes said.
This is more than just a once a year deal. There is much follow-up with agencies, employers, and job seekers. Some ways of connecting include the Ability Axis website with regular updates, an e-newsletter, workshops, and a calendar of events happening to increase awareness for employers and employees on specific topics. It’s clear to see that this goes well beyond just hiring someone with a disability; it’s helping employers find skilled employees with disabilities.
How does McInnes get employers to attend the Expo?
“It’s a major challenge. Certainly our major focus in the coming ten months is to get more employers out to the Expo in whatever capacity to promote employers,” McInnes said.
“They do not have to have an exhibit but they can come and meet agencies for people with disabilities and go to the workshops. Every year, workshops give employers more info.”
McInnes found that some larger employers typically have internal job fairs rather than attending outside job fairs. Smaller employers have difficulties attending as they need the staff to cover their production and are too understaffed to send someone out. “It is tough to get them out,” said McInnes.
Employers may experience some anxiety for the first time, but McInnes gives them tip sheets and helps them prepare for the day. These are on how to relate to people with various disabilities. The networking breakfast is a warm up for employers to meet diverse workers and to open up and get familiar with new people. Old attitudes and myths are broken once job seekers and employers meet.
Follow-up surveys for new exhibitors showed that 80% found Ability Axis to exceed their expectations. Job seekers who attend are extremely interested in applying and employers are very interested in hiring them.
The most rewarding aspect for McInnes is the positive animated energy in the whole Expo from the breakfast to the workshops to the booths.
Many positive things happen including, job seekers going to school, working with agencies to get job skills, and employers hiring them. It isn’t always right away – job seekers with disabilities work together with agencies for up to six months to a year in order to find the right match down the road.
One such success story occurred at the first Expo. A young man who was a wheelchair user showed up at the exhibit booth for Manitoba Public Insurance. He was a university graduate in Public Administration. For three years after his graduation, he was looking for work but to no avail. MPI was quite impressed with him at the Expo, interviewed him, offered him a 12-month paid professional internship, and at the conclusion of the internship offered him a permanent full-time job. He is still working for them and they are totally thrilled with having him as an employee.
Why did McInnes start this?
After graduating from university, McInnes decided to use a creative method when developing his career path. He approached ten people who knew him from different parts of his life – some knew him quite well and others just professionally. Within a week, three out of the ten said he should work with people with disabilities. One of his references referred him to another and then to another. Within three weeks, he received a job offer in the field.
What is now ImagineAbility was then a leading sheltered workshop in Winnipeg for people with intellectual disabilities. After working for them for ten years, he was offered a position as the Executive Director on the Canadian Council of Rehabilitation Workshops and charged with the task of shifting its focus from sheltered to competitive employment for the National Association of Sheltered Workshops in Canada.
After much struggle and opposition, he and his colleagues were successful at turning the organization around and renamed it as the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work. Shortly after that change, Employment Equity legislation was passed in Canada.
Soon, he was asked to take the lead in the area of employment equity legislation at a national level. He created alliances and partnerships with larger employers in Canada and helped them develop their employment projects and strategies. His involvement grew to an international level as he developed leading edge employment strategies and hiring practices for workers with disabilities. He credits his success in this field to having allies in both the U.S. and Canada from different organizations who he regularly contacted and and who consulted with him.
What is the difference between Canada and the US?
In 1995, McInnes first moved to the USA where he started work with some top companies. He noted that hiring practices are different in California than they are in Manitoba. In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act looks at making companies’ workplaces accessible for all workers including those with disabilities, while in Canada, the Employment Equity Act encourages employers to actively seek and hire diverse employees including skilled workers with disabilities.
Since the ADA became legislation, American companies have reacted by trying to get people with disabilities hired. It was intended to eliminate barriers to workers with disabilities and to make their locations accessible. It is up to job seekers with disabilities to approach these companies.
Employment legislation in Canada reflected companies’ good efforts in trying to have the same number of diverse employees that reflected the general workforce. Companies can do what they need to do but the government wants to see more employees with disabilities in the civil service and in companies large and small that reflect the diverse workforce available to them.
One such way that employers actively seek skilled workers is attending symposiums. Not only do employers attend, but organizations do as well, helping job seekers with disabilities get skills and find work. Ability Axis is a unique way for people with disabilities looking for work and employers looking for great employees to connect and celebrate together in an open and positive community.
Links to further reference
Photos by Deanna Ng and Noah Erenberg