The best advice we receive is often the most straightforward. When Nicholas “Nick” Popowich, who has Down syndrome, is asked about working, his advice for people with disabilities is straight up, “A job is a good thing. Love your job, and love what you do there.”
Next year Nick will celebrate ten years with SaskTel in Regina. Following a summer position at SaskTel’s offices, Nick transitioned to retail as Store Assistant. For any new role, SaskTel’s Human Resources Manager, Sharon Davis, has good advice, and a good system. “We facilitated a pre-employment workplace readiness meeting, involving Nick’s manager, co-workers, human resources, a job coach, and his parents. It’s important for everyone to be on the same page and to know what to expect. Nick’s parents shared his abilities, strengths, weaknesses, special interests, his personality, etc. This really helps to provide a supportive work environment.”
A few years ago, SaskTel partnered with the Saskatchewan Abilities Council to adopt a formalized supported employment program, after recognizing barriers that limit employment for individuals – especially those with cognitive disabilities. SaskTel has truly set this program up for success. As Sharon describes, “The individuals we employ bring skills and abilities we need to run the business effectively and bring value to the workplace. It really is a win-win situation for employees and the business.”
So what is Nick grateful for when it comes to his job? In his own words, “Oy! …What’s not to value? I value everything about my job. I value my job because it values ME.” Nick and his parents expand on these “valuable” things: his job gives Nick a healthy routine, good work friends, and money to spend on the typical things a young man would enjoy, like travel, social outings, and the odd visit to Booster Juice. But Nick is also contributing to his household…and to his future. Next year Nick will move out of the home he’s grown up in and into a condominium. This is a huge accomplishment for any young individual in this day and age, but for an individual with Down syndrome to plan and work towards, and to save a significant amount for, this goal is monumental.
According to Courtney Birnie, Nick’s Manager, SaskTel is also grateful. “We love Nick’s personality and spirit, his determination and attitude. The store is a better store for having Nick in it!” Sharon agrees, “Nick has really been a change agent for our corporate culture. We have learned a lot from Nick, in particular that every individual has strengths and abilities and brings something of value to the table. He has educated us on how to be a more supportive employer, and has sparked a sense of creativity and innovation in our culture. We (have learned) to match the skillsets of individuals with the needs of the business and have now grown our program to twelve individuals in supported employment programs.”
Setting up the supported employment program at SaskTel did have some hurdles, as any new program will. Sharon’s advice is to recognize that it is “…important that groups are ready and willing to accept a new employee into their work environment, and understand how they can provide support and guidance to help them along and truly succeed. Human Resources needs to do their homework regarding the work environment, the people, the culture.” This is true for all companies, large and small.
Nick’s family encouraged him from a young age to get into the workforce. Since he was a teen they’ve used their own circle of contacts to find jobs that are good fits for Nick, emphasizing that “You know your child best.” Nick’s mom, Elizabeth, has some perfect advice to get started, “Talk about the value your child will bring in terms of loyalty, consistency and spirit.” And to “Let go of the notion that the only valid work week is 40 hours long.” The Popowich’s also feel strongly about expecting real pay for real work, “You can’t eat experience; you can’t pay rent with it, so don’t let anybody tell you they are doing your child a favour by giving them experience instead of a wage. That works as a warm-up for real life, but it is not a long-term substitute for real employment.”
Nick’s family may have set up introductions and advocated for a good job, but the real success is owed to Nick and his colleagues. “He has friends and a whole social life that we didn’t create for him. He did that; they did it together. His work team is amazing. They are valued friends,” says Elizabeth. It feels good to know that an employer values their son, and good to have a bit of pressure taken off of them as primary support. As Nick’s dad Greg explains, “The fact that Nick is becoming more self-sufficient takes some pressure off of his brother, Lucas, too. The two of them are very close but we don’t want Lucas to feel all the responsibility for his brother as we age. Helping Nick do for himself is the best gift we could give both our sons.”
Nick likes to think of his career as being inspirational to others with disabilities. “Having a job has changed my life forever. Ever since I was a teenager (prior to SaskTel Nick worked at Smitty’s), it changed my life for the better. It was great and it changed the perspective of people and other teenagers looking for jobs. I was a teenager and I hope it relates to other teenagers who are looking for jobs in the workplace world, and I hope they can be as successful as me.”
Nick, his family, and his supervisors have all worked hard on common goals and open lines of communication. Today they all sing the same tune when asked about hiring someone with Down syndrome: “Go for it!”
The Inclusive Employment Success Story series is co-presented by the Canadian Down Syndrome Society and the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation. Check CDSS website and the DSRF blog from June 10-20, 2019 for additional stories.