Local workers find connection through supported employment

This Kamloops-based agency ensures residents with developmental disabilities and their employers benefit from an inclusive workplace.

William Sheldrick takes three buses and walks almost three blocks to get to his job. “It’s tricky,” he says, but he’s used to it. Sheldrick is a young man with a killer sense of humor, a positive attitude and autism. When I meet him at his workplace, the local Costco, I find him waving jovially at customers—his happy tone of voice hard to miss. 

As part of what he laughingly refers to as the “Sample Squad” at a Club Demonstration Services (CDS) booth in Costco, Sheldrick prides himself in following safety protocols and putting the customer first. 

He likes a lot of things about contributing and being employed, like making an income and “seeing all the smiling faces and getting told … how good of a job you’re doing.”

“You’re always doing something different,” he adds. Before being interviewed for his Costco role, Sheldrick had a job at Timber Mart in his hometown of Barriere, B.C. He says it was difficult finding a job in Kamloops at first. “It was a little tricky. Because I felt like people weren’t hiring,” he says. “But when I got the interview for CDS and once they said they’d give me a shot, I was like, ‘Yes!’”

William Sheldrick waves and smiles while standing outside of Costco where he works as a "sample squad" manager. Sheldrick is a young man with a positive attitude, killer sense of humor, and autism. Sheldrick got his job through SMART options, a Kamloops-based agency that connects people with developmental disabilities—like autism, Down syndrome and Tourettes—with support and employers so they can find meaningful work.
William Sheldrick waves outside of Costco in Kamloops where he works. Photo by Corrina Booth/The Wren

SMART Options bridges the gap for disabled job-seekers

One in five Canadians has a disability, and these citizens have a harder time finding employment than non-disabled Canadians. For many reasons—including age, access to training and education—people with disabilities who want to find work can’t. Though it’s illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of perceived disability when hiring or working with staff, stigma associated with disabilities can be a barrier, especially for women and people of colour.

Sheldrick is currently employed after using the services of SMART Options, a Kamloops-based agency that connects people with developmental disabilities—like autism, Down syndrome and Tourettes—with support and employers so they can find meaningful work. 

​​Finding a job is difficult enough, but when you have a disability obstacles can become more daunting. SMART Options participants and staff work together to introduce and cultivate partnerships between employers and employees. The agency has been offering services for 24 years with funding from Community Living BC and the Ministry of Children and Families. 

Various Kamloops organizations offer programs to help residents with disabilities find employment, but SMART Options specializes in this service. The organization pairs people with developmental disabilities with support workers to accommodate their strengths along with their challenges in the job search. Staff assist the candidate with resume and cover letter writing, interview preparation and even documentation. They then introduce the candidate to appropriate job sites according to their strengths, interests and abilities to ensure partnerships are mutually beneficial.

The person receiving the support benefits by gaining confidence and financial independence and businesses in turn gain valuable employees.

Sheldrick’s co-worker Megan Gourley manages a sample booth of her own. She has a quiet, impressive staying power. She has worked the same job for 14 years—and she knows her stuff. 

Gourley diligently sets up and refills her samples and her pleasant, dignified demeanor draws people in. She says she appreciates having a meaningful job where she can be “independent and get paid.” Most importantly, Gourley wants people in the community to know that despite having a disability, she is “a normal person, just like everyone else.”

Megan Gourley wears a black shirt and orange bow as she smiles in a headshot. Gourley manages a sample booth at Costco. She got her job after using services provided by SMART Options, a Kamloops-based agency that connects people with developmental disabilities—like autism, Down syndrome and Tourettes—with support and employers so they can find meaningful work.
Megan Gourley brings a lot of expertise to CDS as a longtime employee. Photo courtesy of Megan Gourley

Supported employment helps employers reflect the markets they serve

SMART Options owner and program manager Bria Gatien says providing people with opportunities to access supported employment can not only benefit the employees themselves but the entire workplace. 

Improving workplace access could help more than 550,000 Canadians with disabilities find employment, according to Statistics Canada. Hiring people with disabilities helps fulfill an employer’s responsibility to reflect the markets they serve and simply “makes good business sense,” says Gatien. 

According to a survey shared by SMART Options, 87 per cent of people would prefer to do business with companies that hire people with disabilities. People with disabilities also stay in their jobs longer and have higher than average attendance rates, according to the Canadian Association for Supported Employment, (CASE).

Gatien says SMART Options’ aim is to make hiring people with developmental disabilities seamless. Staff work with employers to develop unique positions or adapt existing ones to suit each employee. The entire process, from early engagement with an employee to hiring, usually takes about two and a half months. 

Most of the time, other than the use of a job coach to assist new employees in training, no further adaptations are needed, says Gatien. The service is also free for employers and applicants.

Building an inclusive workplace goes beyond the law

CDS has hired many other residents with disabilities at the Kamloops Costco location. CDS event manager Erin McPhee said the partnership between SMART Options and CDS began 14 years ago and that the people hired are “treated the same as anyone else,” which is the cornerstone of an inclusive workplace. “They are paid the same and have the same benefits.” 

As supported employment advocacy groups like CASE point out, building an inclusive workplace is more than just hiring diverse employees. All employers in Canada have a legal obligation through the Canadian Human Rights Act to create a workplace free from discrimination and harassment. The Employment Equity Act also says employers must identify workplace barriers that exclude groups such as people with disabilities and implement policies or programs to address this under-representation.

However, this does not mean every employer is meeting its legal obligations toward inclusivity. A recent Salesforce survey found that one in four workers in Canada feel their employer is not doing enough to build a more equitable workplace.

CASE advises employers to create inclusive workplace policies, train staff on implementing them and develop strategies to identify and remove barriers. 

SMART Options has connected 87 adults and five youth with jobs at different businesses in Kamloops and it works with many more. Supported employees can earn a certain amount of income before it affects disability assistance funds, says Gatien. On occasion she explains that employers can access a short-term wage subsidy called the Opportunities Fund, which is a federal fund that can offer a partial wage reimbursement.

Sheldrick’s advice for job seekers? “Be open to whatever job option is out there for you, even if it’s not a glamorous job,” he says. “Don’t give up.”

Editor’s note, Aug. 18, 2022: This article has been updated to clarify that the number of people the supported employment agency works with generally is larger than the number of people it has employed. A previous version of this article also misstated that the agency commissioned a consumer survey. In fact it shared the survey, which we have linked to.

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