Job placement prepares youth for community living
Two Grade 10 students at St. Peter’s Catholic High School are getting essential work experience, as possibly the youngest students with special needs to go into a work placement program at a community business.
Ashley Hiscott, Danielle Guenette and Loeb Cumberland store manager Charles Desforges. Photo supplied
Ashley Hiscott and Danielle Guenette have been doing vocational placements for more than two years, but always within the school – including working in the cafeteria, the onsite daycare, the library and at a nearby elementary school helping with food service.
For the first time, Ashley and Danielle are doing an offsite work placement, similar to the one their peers undertake through the co-operative education program. Under the supervision of a teaching assistant, the two girls take the OC Transpo bus every Friday to Loeb Cumberland, strap on their uniforms and undertake tasks ranging from stocking shelves to bagging groceries. “She feels very proud of herself,” says Ashley’s mother, Donna. “She likes the work and it really enhances her self-esteem.”
Steve Mittens, the high needs coordinator at St. Peter’s, says vocational placements are integral to helping special needs students prepare for their futures. “Most of the students that have a developmental disability and some kids that have autism, their pathway after high school will be some sort of community living,” said Mittens. “Hopefully that would be independent, but usually it’s supported, so you have to start them quite early.”
Although students with special needs can stay in the public school system until the age of 21 in Ontario, Mittens says many prefer to graduate at the same time as their friends. There are a handful of programs in Ottawa that offer post-secondary vocational studies to students with disabilities, but Mittens says they are highly competitive and students have to have a comfortable level of life skills training from an early age in order to succeed.
Through the program at St. Peter’s, special needs students are required to take a Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) course, as well as visit the work location several times before the placement begins. Transit training, a program supported by OC Transpo to help people with disabilities eventually learn to use the transit system independently, is also an essential part of the course.
Loeb Cumberland has three people on staff with disabilities, two of whom started much the same way as Ashley and Danielle, through a school co-operative education program. Store manager Charles Desforges says the grocery store environment can accommodate all skill levels and is a great place to ensure people with disabilities are part of the community. “We have positions that are less demanding for people with disabilities,” Desforges says. “If you put them in a fast food place, accidents can happen, it’s too fast-paced. Here, once they’re trained on a task, they tend to do that task quite well.”
Desforges added that the customers really appreciate seeing Ashley and Danielle in the store, since “there are always such huge smiles on their faces.”
Donna Hiscott says it’s also important for Loeb customers to see students with special needs, like her daughter Ashley, making a valuable contribution. “If we want our people with disabilities working later, this helps the community to become sensitized to these students in the workplace,” says Hiscott. “These people have something to contribute. They’re out there and they can do a job.”