Collaboration at Work by Shelley Ann Morris

I have been employed in the non-profit sector for the past twenty years.  I worked in the employment field, helping job seekers with barriers to prepare for, find and keep employment. My current position with Volunteer Ottawa involves assisting our member organizations to recruit volunteers. I also manage a group of volunteer public speakers who represent V.O. in the community. Occasionally, I facilitate workshops for people looking for volunteer opportunities.

I was born with limited vision.  Thankfully adaptive technology, education and a strong support system have helped me to conquer the barriers that visual impairment imposes. As I have some sight, my visual impairment creates very few limitations at work.

As a teenager, I felt excluded as many of my peers were already working and I was not.  A wise high school guidance counselor suggested that volunteering would be a good alternative.  Her sage advice helped me to develop the skills, experience, references and above all, the confidence that I needed to eventually take my own place in the world of work.

Volunteering has helped me throughout my career. This, and research, attending numerous ‘information interviews,’ participating in job search programs and networking also helped.  Although it is a struggle sometimes, maintaining a positive, proactive attitude while job searching is vital.

At school and on the job, I was dogged by certain problems that seemed unrelated to my visual impairment.  In 2006, I summoned up enough courage (and money) to have some testing done and confirm what I’d suspected – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Getting that diagnosis was like having been relieved of a great weight.  I could now begin healing and adapting.

Thanks to expert advice, help from friends who also have ADHD, plenty of books and information, and a very healthy lifestyle, I am able to structure my workplace to fit my individual needs and succeed in working around the duo of disabilities that battle for hegemony at work and beyond.  Colour-coding, large-print documents, checklists, work plans and electronic cues help me to stay on track and on task.

It’s not what helps me on the job, but whom.  While a visual impairment is challenging, having an invisible disability is by far more pervasive and difficult to manage. Accommodation requires a collaborative approach from both employer and employee. We constantly negotiate the balance between the employer’s need for productivity and the employee’s need for accommodations. Everyone in the workplace will need some accommodation. A good manager and colleagues is the key to the success that I am enjoying at Volunteer Ottawa.  My workmates love my talking computer, and they are OK with my using my digital recorder at meetings.  My manager works exceptionally well with me, helping me to coordinate competing tasks, set priorities, create definite timelines and reach goals.  My coworkers are patient when I ask more questions than most, seeking clarification on an assignment. We have adapted so well that sometimes we forget that I have disabilities.

Today’s workplace requires us to be more mobile and flexible.  Frequent job and career changes are the norm.  While my Zoom Text software can be easily uninstalled from one workplace computer and re-installed in another, a much bigger challenge lies in  educating my most important resource—the people.  Those new job jitters can be compounded when disability is added into the mix. Often, those of us with disabilities are besieged by questions: Will they like me?  Will they understand why I do things a little differently?  Would they be willing to make the accommodations I need? Will they see beyond the disability as I do?

While progress has been made, the numbers of people with disabilities who have succeeded in finding and maintaining employment is woefully scant.  We can only look forward, as education continues to put an end to discrimination.



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