On being … unlimited

By Ingrid Sapona 

The other day a show on the Ontario public broadcaster (TVO) caught my eye. It’s called Employable Me. One of the series co-producers describes it as “a documentary series featuring job seekers who are determined to prove that having a physical disability or neurological condition shouldn’t make them unemployable.” https://www.ami.ca/category/2411/season 

Turns out, the series is incredibly inspiring and an excellent contribution to the Hope Project I mentioned starting in a January On being…. It also helped me see what a narrow lens I’ve seen the work world through. More on that in a minute…

Each episode features two job seekers. We first meet each job seeker as they walk into an office and sit down across the desk from an off-camera interviewer. With most of them, from the moment you first see them, you can tell there’s something different about them. For some, their physical problem is obvious (for example, they’re wheelchair bound), but with others it isn’t until they begin to talk about their condition that you realize how they’re different.

The next scene shows them in their home environment and we meet their families. The families are remarkably open about the challenges their son, daughter, brother, or sister faces as they venture out into the work world. They’re supportive and guardedly hopeful.

We then tag along as the job seekers meet with a range of professionals who assess their physical and thinking skills, capabilities, and interests. The assessments are fascinating – not the standard personality tests (like Myers-Briggs) that many of us have taken in a workplace setting. Because these individuals have lived with their physical or neurological problems their whole life, they know full well what their limitations are. These professionals help show them (and the viewer) the flip side – the workplace strengths and abilities they have as a result of coping with their limitations. So, for example, these job seekers’ ability to figure out work-arounds shows great problem-solving skills. As well, in a work environment, someone’s obsessive behavior can be seen as a heightened ability to pay attention to detail.

But of all the skills and traits, the most impressive quality each job seeker exhibited was tremendous self-awareness. For example, one gregarious young man who was born with many complex medical issues that he still struggles with, interviewed for a job at a senior’s residence. He teased and joked with the seniors during an art class. You could tell he and the residents enjoyed it and the position would be a great fit. But, he ended up turning down the job because he realized he’d have difficulty handling it when a resident dies. Another woman with Tourette’s knew that because of the energy demanded by her ticks, for her the physical demands of an 8-hour shift is the equivalent of a 16-hour shift. So, in her interview with the company that ended up hiring her, she specifically asked if they could accommodate her on a five or six-hour shift.

After figuring out how their strengths and skill might apply in a work environment, the next part was to me the hardest: finding potential employers to match the candidates with. It’s fine to conclude that a blind young man who enjoys sports and who holds a record in the 100-metre dash should consider a career in athletics. But, to my un-trained – and uncreative mind – that sounded pie-in-the-sky. I couldn’t imagine what kind of job that idea could translate to.

Well, they sent him off to a private boxing gym that was looking for a “member ambassador” that would encourage and motivate members. Hmm… I could see that – this guy has such a positive outlook and the fact that he doesn’t let blindness stop him from competing is motivating. But then, when the gym wanted to see how he did sparring with one of those huge, hanging punching bags – I thought they were kidding. How could they expect this blind guy to learn to spar? Well, the blind guy didn’t seem to think it was odd – he relished the chance to learn it.

The series really opened my eyes about a lot of things. For example, though I’m coming to this revelation too late to benefit much by it in my own career, it’s given me much better appreciation for career counsellors and Human Resource folks. Until this show, I never really saw them as specializing in seeing people’s capabilities and in helping folks achieve their potential. What a gift those professionals are.

The series also makes it very clear that physical disabilities aren’t necessarily career limiters. Indeed, those who have learned to cope with disabilities often have more empathy and are leaders capable of motivating others to achieve their potential. In short, the series has given me great hope as I realize that people are capable of coping with all sorts of challenges.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


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