It’s a fact that behind every successful person there’s a team. And that’s a useful concept for anyone looking for a job, particularly so if you have a disability, says Stephen McDonnell, who was recently presented with the 2008 Council of Canadians with Disabilities Award.
Over a 22-year career with BMO Financial Group, most recently as senior advisor of external communications, Stephen has worked tirelessly in the recruitment and accommodation of persons with disabilities. A native Torontonian who has been a community volunteer for close to 20 years, Stephen McDonnell advises every job-hunter to "captain their own team."
He suggests job seekers put together a group of four or five people who will give you some honest feedback at the start of their graduating year.
"The critical thing is not to invite people who are there to tell you what you want to hear," he says. "Get people who will speak to you honestly, give you real feedback and real information that will help you in your job search. Have someone on your team who is brave enough to ask, ‘When is the last time you laundered your clothes?’ or ‘When is the last time you cleaned your shoes or your wheelchair?’"
The ideal team, says McDonnell, might be made up of a fellow grad, an entrepreneur, someone with human resources experience, and maybe someone in a university Career Centre.
You can talk to your team about your plans and ideas and get some honest feedback. They can help you role play interviews – perhaps grab some sample job ads to try out and then keep practicing on a weekly or monthly schedule.
And when you get a job interview, your team is there to make sure you have a copy of your résumé with you, to check the batteries are charged on any adaptive technology you are taking with you, and to ensure you have phoned in advance to make sure the venue is accessible.
Then after the interview you can use your team to debrief. Indeed, keep your team around after you start work by including someone in your office. If, for example, you have a seizure disorder, your team can help make sure your dignity is maintained during a seizure.
"Find people who will commit to you for up to two years to help you find a job or maybe find out the reason you are not getting a job," says McDonnell. "And find people who will commit to you for a year after you are employed so you can say, ‘This is my first performance review, what do you think of it?’"
Four or five heads are better than one, so use your team to research and network to find an employer who is right for you. Read employers’ websites and annual reports to find out who they give money to, where their scholarships are held and what they do for philanthropy. "The litmus test I use is whether they are giving to the disabled or do they have a scholarship program for people with disabilities," says McDonnell. Call disability-specific organizations to ask about their experience with a particular firm.
And keep in mind: teamwork is a two-way street.
Team projects are a great way to gain the kind of work experience you may not be able to gain in a workplace. Create your own workplace and experience by raising funds for a cause, or organizing an event. This kind of self-driven work and volunteerism proves to employers that you’re willing, able and a self-starter.
"Most disabled people in some shape or form are an activist in the community or they are involved in campus doing something," says McDonnell. "So write that down like it is work experience and also quantify it. Write down your volunteer activities in a journal. At graduation, you can say on your resume you have over 250 hours of work in the campus legal aid clinic, or you’ve done volunteer tasks for 300 hours. Employers understand what that’s worth."
McDonnell also says it’s important to have a reference who can talk about this volunteer work if any employer calls. "BMO made hires based on that," he says.
In the end, working as team with people who are supportive and honest can go a long way towards bridging the gap between school and employment. But it’s up to you to build the team that will carry you to success. jp