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Adaptations All Around

Editor's Note: Janet Hunt is Secretary of AEBC's Winnipeg, Manitoba, Chapter.

In 2009, I will celebrate 30 years of employment with Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI). For ten of those years, I have been totally blind.

MPI is a Crown Corporation, and as such I enjoy the benefits and security of a "government job"--a strong union, better than average wages, Blue Cross health coverage, and good opportunities for advancement. I didn't realize how fortunate I was until I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, six months after I was hired.

Over the next 17 years, I experienced many diabetic complications, and my work performance often suffered. MPI had the resources to grant me sick leave when necessary, and modify my job duties to accommodate my frequently unstable condition. I doubt that private businesses could have afforded to be as generous.

Eventually, I lost sight in both eyes to diabetic retinopathy and went on Long-Term Disability (LTD). For the next three years, I remained in contact with the MPI Human Resources Department while I learned how to perform activities of daily living without sight. HR followed my progress through home management training, orientation and mobility lessons, and the acquisition of a guide dog, not to mention dialysis treatments.

I had the option to stay on LTD indefinitely, but the department was committed to finding me a suitable position if I chose to return to work. I had every intention of returning, but before you assume I'm a workaholic or a career woman, I must confess that my incentive was to reclaim my social life--most of my friends work for MPI!

I enrolled in a course on JAWS (Job Access for Windows) screen-reader basics to learn Microsoft Word, Excel and other applications, while MPI researched adaptive technology and suitable positions within the company. Since it is so large, there were several options for me in the clerical field. My employer also funded the purchase of the JAWS program for my work computer, and gave me authorization to load a copy onto my home computer (and recently my new laptop), sparing me the expense.

Eventually, I accepted a position in the Bodily Injury Rehabilitation Department, which is responsible for coordinating workplace accommodations and training for accident victims to facilitate their return to work. My co-workers are dedicated to rehabilitating claimants and securing necessary training and adaptive devices for them. Who better to appreciate the inevitable bumps in the road ahead for me?

The week before I returned to work, I attended a department staff meeting, where I had an opportunity to explain guide dog etiquette and answer their questions. We covered everything from people not distracting a working dog to identifying themselves by name when saying hello to me. This was one of the best things we could have done, as we eliminated a lot of the awkwardness that could come from being in an unfamiliar situation and not knowing how to act.

Although I returned to a lower paying position, MPI paid me at my former wage, but it was "frozen" until annual cost of living increases allowed the pay scale to catch up.

Fast-forward ten years. I still work in the same department, although the job duties have changed and we have progressed from Dictaphone machines to digital recorders. Since I am not particularly ambitious and I am not interested in promotions at my age, I am quite satisfied with my position and job duties. As a result, I have not pursued many of the in-house training courses.

For those I have attended, a computer equipped with JAWS was available, but the course instructors taught using "mouse" techniques while I muddled through using the keyboard. I have listened to Power Point presentations that were difficult to follow, and printed course materials were not always available in alternative formats, or I received them weeks later.

Access to Information has improved with the introduction of the corporate "Intranet", an internal website containing everything from office procedures and in-house course calendars to an employee buy and sell bulletin board. It's quite accessible apart from the PDF documents. When I find something inaccessible, I hound them unmercifully!

Despite the company's willingness to provide adaptive technology, I find there is a tendency to implement new or upgraded computer programs without considering accessibility. I am often expected to come up with my own solutions, or continue to use old systems until they get around to addressing the problem. I am also finding that the manufacturers of adaptive technology are having difficulty keeping up with the ever-increasing number of new computer programs and operating systems on the market. As MPI looks ahead to the future, I have real concerns that I may be left behind.

In areas other than technology, MPI continues to work towards equal access and providing a safe and respectful work environment. Although MPI promotes diversity in the workplace, I am not aware of many disabled employees in the higher paying jobs. Perhaps this will change once a few motivated and computer-savvy disabled young people get their foot in our corporate door.