This story appears in the March 31, 2014 edition of the Saskatoon Express. I’m proud of it and everyone involved. I hope #yxecc and the Minister of Labour note the underlying message regarding the practice, supported by antiquated provincial legislation, of allowing certain non-profit agencies to work people with intellectual and physical disabilities without paying them.
It’s a typical morning at Saskatoon’s Motion Fitness gym. The cavernous, airy space echoes with the sound of treadmills whirring, weights clanging and the bass thumping of an upbeat tune. Upstairs, between the rows of heart-pumping cardio machines, 22-year-old Jordan Vassell doesn’t miss a beat as he strides purposefully between the elliptical trainers, busting a dance move to the Justin Timberlake song on the speakers.
Armed with a spray bottle and a cleaning cloth, wearing protective rubber gloves and a pair of sturdy knee pads, Vassell works diligently and non-stop. His job is to ensure all of the equipment in the gym remains spotless and sanitized. He does exactly that, taking great pride in doing an impeccable job, as well as the hard-earned pay cheque that goes with it.
Vassell, who has an acquired brain injury and has been diagnosed with autism, is a Motion Fitness employee. He earns a competitive wage directly from the company, and has held his job with the gym for over three years. Vassell was introduced to his employer through the Saskatchewan Association for Community Living’s (SACL) Employment, Education and Transition program as part of a work experience opportunity offered when he was attending Saskatoon’s Holy Cross High School.
After benefiting from the training and proving himself invaluable to the gym’s operations, management at Motion Fitness opted to hire Vassell as a permanent employee.
SACL’s mission is to ensure that citizens of Saskatchewan with intellectual disabilities are valued and supported members of an inclusive society, with opportunities and choices in all aspects of life. “The whole point of work experience is to make it as reflective of work as possible,” said Sheila Anderson, Employment, Education and Transition Facilitator for SACL’s Saskatoon and East-Central Region. “It’s a really inclusive program, helping participants gain employment skills, learn expectations, work on their social skills, build stamina and really absorb what they need to know to hold meaningful employment.”
Motion Fitness in Stonebridge employees two staff members who were recruited through SACL: Charlotte, 26, and Jordan.
“Jordan’s main challenge is that he initially takes a bit longer to learn a task,” said Anderson. “However once he’s got a routine, he’s got it down pat. He’s extremely conscious about his safety, being safe on the job. He’s come so far when it comes to working alongside co-workers and gym members. Some of his social skills are a challenge; for example, he has different ways to self-regulate his thoughts and emotions.”
Saqib Khan, manager of Motion Fitness Stonebridge, is quick to jump in and emphasize just how much he has seen Vassell progress and learn since his early days with the work experience program. “In the beginning we could not talk to Jordan,” said Khan. “We could not ask him to do anything or leave him alone for five minutes. Concentration was a huge issue.” Khan explains that Vassell’s mother, Joana, along with Anderson and the support systems provided by SACL, assisted him in learning the necessary techniques to communicate with Jordan.
“His mom told me to take him by the hand, touch him on the arm and really emphasize what I was saying,” said Khan, who initially wasn’t comfortable with being hands on with Vassell, but who soon learned to communicate with him effectively after being encouraged by the young man’s mother and SACL support team. “Jordan has never been rude. If he is having difficulties communicating, you need to hold him by the hand and say “Jordan, please listen, this is important”.”
“Now, Jordan is on his own,” said Khan. “I sometimes only see him once a week, when he fills me in on what he’s been doing. He’s got a daily routine and he does it well.”
That routine includes a signature sign-off. “After Jordan is finished his shift, he says, “Goodbye Motion Fitness, I like you all, I’ll see you next time”,” smiles Khan. “Every single day he is going to tell you Motion Fitness is great.”
Jordan’s mother Joana Vassell has a firm set of values in place for raising her kids, and she raised her son no differently than his sisters. “Manners and respect, all my kids have been raised on that,” said Joana, a single mom of three (Jordan and his two sisters). “Manners and respect are what brought Jordan to where he is today.” Vassell explains that she specifically chose the Community Living program after a teacher at Holy Cross brought it up.
“I told him I wasn’t taking Jordan to Cosmo,” said Joana. “That’s when Sheila (Anderson) got involved and Jordan did his work training at (what was then) World Gym. He did so good that they hired him.” In addition to working at Motion Fitness, Jordan is an award winning track and field champion, a competitive swimmer, and a highly-skilled musician who taught himself to play the piano, guitar, violin and drums.
His teacher’s recommendation of SACL changed Jordan’s life, and Anderson wants to ensure that everyone is aware of the programming and planning the organization offers for people with disabilities. Employment placement and educational opportunities are available across Saskatoon in a variety of settings and sectors.
“A lot of the comments I hear are about transitional planning,” explained Anderson. “Parents ask me, “Why do we have to transitional plan? My son or daughter is going to live in a group home, and they’re going to go to Cosmo.””
“That may be so, but there are many options,” she continued. “For example, some people utilize both programs. Maybe they go to one in the morning and then to their job in the afternoon. SACL is not in competition with other programs for people with disabilities, instead our goal is to advocate for those individuals and build relationships.”
Khan wants to ensure that employers consider using the SACL program in their own businesses and organizations. He says he is approached regularly by members who see how hard both Jordan and Charlotte work and ask him questions about how to get their own workplaces involved. “I think people need to be open minded about it,” said Khan. “You cannot say this isn’t going to work, you need to try it out. It’s only positives, no negatives. In the beginning it may be difficult, but it will work out.”
Khan, Anderson, and both Jordan and his mom all agree – Jordan loves his job, his confidence level has increased significantly, as has his quality of life.
As for any interference his competitive wage might have with any social assistance he could qualify for, Joana Vassell is emphatic.
“I would rather see my kid work any day than go on social assistance.”
If you have a friend, family member or simply know someone with a disability, the Saskatchewan Association of Community Living wants you to know that they have options for providing that person with meaningful work for meaningful pay.