Monday, December 5, 2011

Douglas College Print Futures: Professional Writing students shine a light on invisible disabilities

Toby Reeve (l) and Nicole Gottselig aim to raise awareness of invisible disabilities among B.C. employers.
By Tamara Letkeman, doug Editor

If you thought a school assignment couldn’t make a difference in the real world, two Print Futures: Professional Writing students are keen to set you straight – though the pair was as surprised as anyone to see their work go so far beyond the classroom.

As part of their Researched Reporting class, Toby Reeve and Nicole Gottselig were paired up with the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities (BCCPD) and given an issue to research, specifically: what resources were available in the workplace in B.C. for employees with invisible disabilities, and how effective were they?

Invisible disabilities are disabilities that are not obvious to the eye, such as anxiety disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, a learning disability or sensitivity to chemicals.

To get the data, Toby and Nicole surveyed a number of businesses and employment centres in the Lower Mainland and Victoria, asking questions such as, “Do you know if any of your employees have invisible disabilities?” and “During the job interview, do you ask potential employees if they will need accommodation in order to perform some or all of their duties?”

They were surprised with the results. “We found out that there isn’t really much out there in terms of resources that specifically address invisible disabilities,” says Toby. “Sometimes there's awareness of disabilities in general, but as far as specific disabilities, I don’t think we found any companies that had a policy in place that specifically addressed them.”

With the BCCPD’s help, the pair also surveyed people with invisible disabilities through Twitter and Facebook. The results were telling. “We found that most were scared to disclose their disability to their employer for fear of being fired, or that they wouldn’t be taken seriously,” says Nicole. “And they weren’t even asking for much – just little tweaks. Someone with an environmental sensitivity who had a hard time working in overhead lighting, for instance. All that person would need is dimmer lights.”

Once they compiled the data, Toby and Nicole made recommendations. After interviewing employment counsellors, they recommended that people with invisible disabilities be proactive in educating their employers about their disability as well as asking for the things they needed to improve conditions at work.

But the biggest recommendation the pair made was to promote more awareness of invisible disabilities among employers. “More than 50 percent of the employers we surveyed were unaware if any of their employees had invisible disabilities,” says Toby. “So somebody might have one, and they could be struggling, even though they may not have to.”

The BCCPD was so impressed with Toby and Nicole’s research that the organization published the report on its website. The report was also published in the Summer 2011 edition of Transition Magazine, the BCCPD’s print publication.

Toby and Nicole were thrilled. “It was a student project, but we were working with a real organization with a real need, so to see that our report could be something that’s actually useful to people was pretty exciting,” says Toby.

“It was really nice to actually try and help make a difference in someone else's life,” adds Nicole. “It was a great learning project.”