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Local firms recognize ability

Two young women are breaking the mold for adults with development disabilities by making their mark in legal world.

25-year-old Emma Acres and 27-year-old Joanna Morris are hard-working law firm employees in downtown Kelowna showing that dedication, skills and a great attitude can go a long way in changing stereotypes.

Both are part of inspirational group of employed adults with disabilities in the Okanagan which includes a group from Starbucks that Castanet introduced you to last month.

Joanna Morris works for Pihl Law Corporation and is known for her amazing attitude, dedication and fabulous wardrobe.

“She brings a fresh approach and a different attitude to her job. She has a great attitude, always excited about coming to work, always thrilled to be here and very positive,” shared Sean Pihl of Pihl Law Corporation who was part of Joanna's hiring. “She is very dependable, a very sharp dresser, she is a very good listener, she takes new tasks on without complaint, we have a phenomenal staff here and Joanna is one of them.”

Morris has worked at the law firm for almost five years now and told Castanet she loves going to work each and every day.

“Working here is very special because of the people I work with, they make it very good, and I just love to be here and spend time with the lawyers. I work hard and organize everything and it feels so good to be here,” Morris told Castanet

Her dedication comes through in her amazing organizational work both alphabetizing files and tidying, her positive attitude and love of the job.

“I want to work here for a long time, to be happy and fit in and have a future,” said Morris. “Having a job is really important to me, thats why I need a good job, it helps my life.”

Pihl Law Corporation took Joanna on in 2010 and say they have not looked back.

“In my mind, a business or work environment can be successful based on the work you put out but you are truly successful if you create a friendly, warm work environment that people want to be a part of and Joanna adds a lot to that,” explained Pihl.

Emma Acres is also a valuable asset to a local firm having worked hard at FH&P Lawyers for over two years.

She is administrative assistant who has become part of the family of FH&P.

“Emma is one of those bright lights. She is always smiling, even if you are having a bad day she taps on the door and pokes her head in and everyone is immediately like 'Hey Emma!' and right way everyone gets that warm feeling cause she exudes that,” said Firm Administrator Barb Davy.

“It has been really great, everyone enjoys Emma coming and they miss her when she is not around. She picks up a lot of jobs that probably wouldn't even get done frankly,” added Emma's supervisor Del Scovil, Legal Assistant in the Corporate Department.

Emma comes into work every shift with a smile and says her job means the world to her and has given her the ability to move out of her parents and in with a roommate.

“I love it here, everyone is very kind and happy I am here,” shared Acres.

She has become a valued member of the staff and was even treated to spa day from the lawyers along with all the other Administrative Assistants for Administrative Professionals' Day.

“We got a pedicure and manicure and a massage...because we work too hard,” said Emma to a burst of laughter from fellow staff nodding with agreement. She says she wants to work there for years to come.

Both these women are breaking a society mold that prevents adults like them getting work in places like law firms, a pattern both firms are glad they ignored.

“It is about stigma and stereotypes right and we do it everyday about everything. We look at people and judge on how they dress, or what they do, or where they live in Kelowna, or what kind of disability they have and it is all about looking beyond the stereotype, getting rid of the stigma and saying what can this individual add,” said Sean Pihl.

He believes that if other companies can go in with a open mind and willingness to push the envelope they too can benefit with a relationship like his firm has with Joanna.

“If your whole attitude is that a person with divers-abilities needs to do the same job in same time with the same efficiency you are being too narrow minded to approach this. But if you are looking at what everyone can bring and adding a unique perspective that makes it a better place to be and you want people with different talents then yes you are the kind of employer that should consider this.”

The group over at FH&P has also never looked back and had some comments on businesses not willing to give it a try.

“It is something I am super happy we were able to do. If we were to go through this process again, we wouldn’t give it a second thought,” said Davy. “Those not willing are truly missing out on having that relationship with someone like Emma. Most of us bring our home troubles to work but Emma comes in and brightens up the room everyday.”

Both law firms worked with TIER Support Services to employ the women. TIER is a team that helps find the right fit for each person and employer with the aim at creating a long lasting working relationship.

TIER's Support Services Employment Programs Coordinator Scott Klassen sat by and watched the interviews with both women with pride. He wants law firms and other companies around the Okanagan to know about his amazing clients and the work they do.

He says they are hard-working, loyal, dependable employees and regardless of any disability they are a smart business choice.

“I think it is a bit of a misconception of what hiring a person with a disability looks like. I think when you mention working with adults with developmental disabilities there is an image in their mind immediately and sometimes we just want to break through that,” said Klassen.

“I understand from an employers perspective it has to be value based, they have to bring value to the job. The days of it just being a good thing to do does not work anymore, not in this economy.”

And the job statistics for adults with developmental disabilities are slim, in Canada the national unemployment rate is around seven percent, however less then 50 per cent of those with adult development disabilities are employed.

So he and his team work with employers throughout the Okanagan like Pihl and FH&P that break the mold and give their clients a chance.

“If one out of two people with a disability aren't working that needs to change,” said Klassen. “It is really about creating opportunities and getting employers to see that it is not just the traditional jobs that have been in the past, but there are so many more opportunities that could be created based on what the individual wants to do and what their interests and abilities are.”

“Instead of asking why would I hire someone with a disability it should be why wouldn't I consider this?”

TIER also aims at showcasing the value of work for adults with developmental disabilities. He said his clients crave a job and a purpose, like we all do.

“Work is what defines us. You go somewhere and the first thing people ask you is what do you do, and they mean your job, so we know the value of work. It is financial dependence, it is a feeling of significance,” said Klassen.

Part of his job is asking employers to forget the old HR resume rules and judge the person, not the piece of paper.

“For many of our people the resume is not going to win them the job compared to other people. Their personality is going to win them the job, their work ethic will win them the job, their intense loyalty to the employer will win them the job, but those things aren't covered in an online application.” He urges businesses to, “Make a decision based on competency and ability after having met them.”

TIER which stands for Teaching Independence Employment and Responsibility has been serving the Okanagan since 1987. Clients are referred to them from Community Living BC and their services are government funded .

If you are interested in hiring someone with developmental disabilities or learning more about the program visit TIER.ca

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