Mentors lend hand to people with disabilities navigating corporate world

But both sides learn from mentoring relationship
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/14/2011

Twelve years ago, Pina D’Intino lost her sight due to complications from congenital glaucoma. Returning to work at Scotiabank, after 13 years on the job as a sighted employee, was one of the hardest things she has ever done, she said.

The bank provided her with the necessary accommodations, such as text-reading software, and partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to ensure the workplace was physically accessible. But it was still a lonely and frustrating journey, she said.

“When I came back after losing my sight, I did not have a mentor, I did not have anyone to turn to,” said D’Intino, who is the senior manager of enabling solutions and support management at Scotiabank in Toronto. “It was a huge adjustment.”

To help other people with disabilities along their work journey, D’Intino is a mentor as part of the JOIN Mentoring Connection, a project launched by Scotiabank, Deloitte and the Job Opportunity Information Network (JOIN), a community of 50 organizations that helps people with disabilities find jobs.

“It’s my opportunity to, hopefully, give back and provide some guidance to some people as they reintegrate, as they try to find their way through politics, through the bureaucracy and the processes here at the bank,” said D’Intino.

In the four-month pilot project, which began in February, 20 experienced professionals at Deloitte and Scotiabank are mentoring people with disabilities who are qualified for and interested in jobs in the financial services industry.

The mentors meet with the mentees for 12 one-hour sessions to help them become job-ready, develop a network, learn the nuances of corporate culture and learn about the job opportunities at both organizations. After the pilot, JOIN hopes to include other organizations in different industries, said Sharon Myatt, an employer development consultant at JOIN in Toronto.

“It’s hard enough for anybody to climb the corporate ladder or achieve their professional goals on their own,” said Jane Allen, chief diversity officer at Deloitte in Toronto. “If you have someone who can show you the ropes, help you navigate through the system, it just makes it that much simpler.”

Unlike D’Intino, not all mentors have a disability, therefore, the mentors are learning from their mentees, said Myatt.

“We hope the mentor gains understanding about disability and about accommodation and some of the struggles individuals with disabilities face,” she said.

There is a wide spectrum of disabilities, including visible disabilities, such as a person in a wheelchair, invisible disabilities, such as a person with dyslexia, and episodic disabilities, such as a person with HIV-AIDS, said Myatt.

“Disabilities are not necessarily something you see,” she said.

Thirteen per cent of Canadians have a disability that affects their mobility, agility, hearing, vision or learning. This proportion will only increase as the population ages, according to The Road to Inclusion: Integrating People with Disabilities into the Workplace, a 2010 white paper by Deloitte.

And yet, people with disabilities continue to be significantly under-represented in the workplace.

The employment rate for women with a disability is 52.1 per cent, compared to 70.1 per cent for women without a disability, stated the white paper. The employment rate for men with a disability is 55.5 per cent, compared to 80.2 per cent for men without a disability.

Employers are missing out on a talent pool of qualified individuals and the fresh perspective people with disabilities bring to the workplace, said Myatt.

“We do need to have the broadest talent pool available in order to hire the best people available and if we’re overlooking a part of the population just because they have a visible handicap, we’re doing ourselves a disservice,” said Allen.

Employers tend to over-estimate the cost, both financial and time-wise, of accommodation, she said. But accommodation is very individualized and often easy and inexpensive, said Myatt.

“Each person is unique, that’s the key, whether they’re disabled or not,” she said.

Many people with a disability fear failure, by not doing enough or not fitting in, said D’Intino. It’s important for them to overcome that fear and let employers know when they need help or when an accommodation isn’t working, she said.

Shannon Klie is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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