Nelson Creates Employment For People With Disabilities

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There are hills of the sort you find in the steep climbs of B.C.'s history-steeped Nelson, and then there are the hills community members with disabilities have to climb on their way to employment.

With the help of funding from the 2010 Legacies Now Measuring Up Fund, Nelson has found ways to overcome both kinds of barriers.

"The geography of Nelson is a real challenge for anyone with a physical disability," says Alison Roy, coordinator of the supported employment at the Nelson Cares Society. "It's a steep, hilly area with a lot of heritage buildings – which means a lot of stairs. And it's worse with snow. "

Retro-fitting those old buildings for contemporary needs doesn't come cheap.

But for Kootenay Co-op Radio, a community access station run by volunteers who fundraise to stay on the air, it was a necessity. Those stairs were interfering with their mission of providing "a varied perspective" to their community because they were excluding those with physical and mobility-related disabilities. The architecture was an obvious barrier for would-be volunteers using wheelchairs and scooters, or those who use walkers or other mobility aids, but the snowy winters also made it tough to negotiate stairs for a wide range of people, including older people and those carrying a lot of equipment or luggage.

But with just $2,000 of a larger $20,000 Measuring Up grant, they made a big difference. Materials for a wheelchair ramp were purchased and the ramp was built with volunteer labour, ensuring the station is now truly accessible to the whole community.

"I couldn't believe they did it on such a tight budget – it was really amazing what they could do with volunteers. They had professional welders, carpenters, a landscaper…," Roy says. "The station is real hub for the community."

2010 Legacies Now and Nelson Cares also helped level the playing field for future workers with developmental disabilities, providing another legacy for Nelson's workforce. With its Measuring Up grant from 2010 Legacies Now, Nelson Cares also established a program that supports individuals with development disabilities gain experience in the retail industry.

The Sales Floor Training Program supported 10 participants in moving from sorting thrift store stock behind the scenes, to working front-of-shop. The program allowed participating individuals to gain valuable employment skills including customer service approaches and technical skills such as operating a cash register. The additional staff is also a boon to the Women In Need Society, which runs the thrift shop and supports the training program.

"With these skills, some people could move into paid positions with other retail locations – it's really opening doors for them," Roy says. "I see a real difference in their confidence. They're excited to be entering the workforce and to be moving to paid employment, often for the first time." The program has been so successful that Nelson Cares is planning to run it again, in a new social enterprise shop featuring eco-friendly products.

With these and many other projects on the go, Nelson has been a keen participant in the Measuring Up program and is leading by example for other B.C. communities to become more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

Measuring Up helps communities assess and improve how accessible and inclusive they are for people with disabilities, seniors and others with similar needs. The program includes a fund, established by the Province of BC, which offers grants to communities to complete accessibility-related projects.