Career & Education

'Disability does not mean inability'

Grace & Staff foundation employs, empowers people living with disability

Sunday, January 06, 2019

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D r Curtis Sweeney loves his job. He cherishes the opportunity to work with at-risk youth from various communities across the island in an effort to empower them to one day realise their full potential.

As the counselling psychologist and programme coordinator at Grace & Staff Community Development Foundation, he spends his days counselling underserved minors and their families in order to help them cope with the daily challenges they confront, and participating in other charitable efforts.

But most people are surprised to learn, during his interactions with them, that he is also totally blind. He lost his sight more than 20 years ago while working as an accounting clerk at Grace Foods International.

“My vision started deteriorating and I had gone to so many different ophthalmologists who all gave me the same opinion — there was nothing that could have been done to restore my sight. So my HR manager at the time, who was very proactive, took me to the Jamaica Society for the Blind (JSB) and that was a turning point for me,” said Sweeney.

Initially, he went in for an assessment to determine which alternate job positions or placements they could recommend for him. He, however, became inspired to help others with disabilities and chose to pursue a doctorate in counselling psychology.

“My meeting other persons who had disabilities, particularly visual disabilities, and seeing just how well they coped, changed my perspective. I met persons who were working or going to university. Up to that point, my whole perception of being blind was very negative, ” he said.

He confesses that this negative perception, framed by a general unacceptance of people living with disabilities in the wider society, led to him being depressed for a period. But that has long changed, and Sweeney has helped hundreds of young people over the years and hopes that more local businesses will give persons with disabilities the opportunity to pursue their dream jobs or have gainful employment.

“Participating in the Day of Care at the JSB was a pleasure. The JSB helped me to dispel my misconceptions about blindness and to focus more on my abilities as well as to be more solution-focused. I was obliged to share my story to encourage beneficiaries as I was encouraged by others,” he said.

According to 2018 statistics from the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, 10 per cent of the population lives with a disability, and 85 per cent of people with disabilities are unemployed. Stigma and discrimination were cited among the primary reasons.

Further, a 2016 market study of more than 200 local companies conducted by the Institute for Applied Social Research showed that few organisations were capable or willing to employ people with visual, hearing, speech or physical challenges. It revealed that only 22 per cent had ramps and other accommodations, only six per cent had appropriate information communication technologies, and only eight per cent had appropriate job-training provisions. When asked if they were willing to make changes to the workplace's physical environment to accommodate people with disabilities, 31 per cent said 'yes', 19 per cent said 'no', and 50 per cent said that they did not know.

At the handover of donations of food and toiletries from the Grace & Staff Community Development Foundation, GK Insurance and GraceKennedy Money Services to the JSB in early December, the society's executive director Conrad Harris, explained that “Usually, people think blind persons can't do some job functions, but many are teachers, social workers, telephone operators, musicians and farmers. We've even had somebody who does auto-body repairs.”

He added, “One of our major issues is opportunity. People don't give them a chance to show what they can do. Once they see the blindness, often a barrier builds up there and you don't get any further. We need people to approach blindness with more of an open mind.”

The GraceKennedy Group points to its continued employment of Dr Sweeney, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa – a rare genetic disorder of the eyes that gradually causes symptoms including trouble seeing at night, decreased peripheral vision and loss of vision — as proof that the organisation accommodates hiring .

“We wanted persons to be aware that disability does not automatically mean inability. We know that the recent implementation of the Disabilities Act is high priority for the government and so we're continuing to ensure that GraceKennedy is at the fore of this exercise of socio-economic inclusion,” Tanketa Chance-Wilson, general manager of the foundation said at the handover.

The conglomerate added that its 'We Care' philosophy does not only apply to consumers, but also extends to staff — who it considers its most valuable asset — as they are employed based on their competencies and not physical challenges.

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