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Employers opening doors
Yellowknife businesses hiring people with intellectual disabilities

Thandiwe Vela
Northern News Services
Published Monday, June 4, 2012

Terry Kuliktana is legally blind and has a mild form of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). But what is most important to his employer at Stanton Territorial Hospital is that he is a great asset to the workplace.

NNSL photo/graphic

Terry Kuliktana, right, peels potatoes with job coach Shawna Stange-Brown, at Kuliktana's food services job with Aramark, at the Stanton Territorial Hospital. - Thandiwe Vela/NNSL photo

While in the past, Yellowknifers with intellectual disabilities have found meaningful work with in-house tasks, a new service by the Yellowknife Association for Community Living is partnering with businesses in the city to place its clients -- whose disabilities include mild to severe FASD, down syndrome, sight and hearing impairment -- in regular work environments.

"They do have the skills to be able to perform many of the duties that are required in these various positions," said job coach Gordon Ross, who helped develop and start the Open Doors initiative in Yellowknife. "This program goes a step further by including clients in the work environment, where they can work side by side with other non-disabled colleagues."

For Kuliktana, Open Doors has expanded his tasks with Aramark, the company which provides food services at the hospital, where he is now working nine hours a week. The 51-year-old loves his job, which includes duties such as peeling potatoes and setting up cutlery and condiment containers.

"I may be bored if I stop working," Kuliktana said.

Aramark is one of five companies that have signed on to participate in the work program, in addition to the Yellowknife Inn, the Yellowknife Golf Club, and Althouse Technical Services.

"Aramark is happy to participate in the work program and help enrich Terry's work experience," stated general manager Charlene Fleck, adding Kuliktana is a valuable member of the team.

Based on Statistics Canada survey data, about nine per cent of employable individuals in the Northwest Territories have a form of disability, Ross said, adding these individuals are "well under-represented" within the workforce due to lack of understanding.

"A lot of people question what an individual can do," Ross said. In addition to food preparation, tasks the clients can perform well include house-keeping, dishwashing, laundry services, groundskeeping, building services, recording and meter readings, and conference services. "You can't judge a book by its cover," he said.

Open Doors follows a 12-week model, which includes orientation, training, task enhancement, and a subsidized on-site job coach.

While a job coach can remain on site with the employees indefinitely, the goal is to reach occupational independence, and for the employee to complete tasks to the standard of the employer, when the job coach can transition off the worksite.

The first two individuals in the Open Doors program are currently transitioning into part-time work as direct hires.

Ross said participants have gained independence, feel inclusion, and are also gaining self esteem from key aspects of Open Doors.

"Just the ability to work with other coworkers, working in the environment, and at the end of the day, being treated like just anybody else," he said.

With seven participants, the program is currently at capacity for the staff, which includes one full-time job coach, one part-time job coach, and a casual employee.

Open Doors, which had an initial budget of $30,000, is also seeking renewed funding to continue next year.

Funding for the program comes from the federal and territorial governments, facilitated through the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment.

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