The rumours are true! I’ve accepted a very exciting volunteer position with United Way Ottawa. I’ve been very supportive of the United Way Ottawa transformation, which has been in the works for a decade, but has taken shape in a public way over the past two years. In brief, they have achieved a remarkable level of clarity with respect to what they do, why they do it, and the outcomes of those efforts.
One of their new focus areas is called Belonging To Community, and I am one of the Focus Area Champions (along with Zaina Sovani, her particular niche is immigrants and new Canadians). My role? Employment for people with disabilities!
Here is a clip from the United Way Ottawa press release on the occassion of their campaign launch event:
New to this year’s campaign are eight Focus Area Champions. These Champions will take on the role of providing the community with a deeper understanding of the issues associated with United Way’s three focus areas: Growing Up Great, Belonging to Community and Turning Lives Around. They will speak directly with donors about the importance of this year’s campaign and how their contributions are directly supporting United Way’s focus areas and making a difference in our community. All eight people bring leadership, passion and expertise to their new roles in support of United Way’s work with other community organizations.
To understand what it is I am doing (and why I am doing it) please read my short speech that contributed to the launch. I’ll make a few comments at the bottom.
Keenan Wellar, Focus Area Champion “Belonging To Community”
Employment of People with Disabilities
Thank you Karen [Karen Soloman from CTV Ottawa]!
The audience members who are helping us out by holding up Jeremy’s picture represent all the people in Ottawa who have a disability. Now, please flip your cards over and keep them up high.
The YELLOW cards you see now represent the 57% of people with disabilities who are not a part of the labour market.
That’s more than half of local citizens with a disability who don’t have work.
As you heard earlier, Ottawa as a city is behind many other cities when it comes to employing people with a disability. On average, we are 17% less successful. We have to do better.
Unemployment results not only in poverty, but impacts on mental and physical health. It harms individuals, families and our community.
For those who are working, think about how important your job is to you. It’s probably where you spend most of your daytime hours. It’s where you build your professional networks and make friends. And, of course, your job offers the quality of life that comes from a steady income.
While unemployment for the general population is less than 8%, it is a daily reality for more than half of people with disabilities in our city. The consequences are very troubling: Canadians with disabilities are twice as likely to be living in poverty as people who do not have disabilities.
So, how do we change this?
As a nation, a province, and a municipality we have declared our intent to reduce discrimination through legislative efforts and ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
But significant and lasting change can only come when we all work together by choice, with a shared belief in supporting employees and employers to find each other and experience success. We’re talking about a community-wide and systems-wide social change that United Way Ottawa is uniquely positioned to support – and to lead.
By bringing together employers and agencies like LiveWorkPlay, United Way Ottawa is helping to shift workplace cultures, to change attitudes, and to focus systems resources on helping people with disabilities to find and keep a job in workplaces that embrace the opportunity to better represent the diversity of our community.
From having the privilege of helping match employees and employers in this community and seeing first-hand the results, I can tell you the evidence is very clear: workplaces welcoming people with disabilities as a part of their staff are also some of the very best employers in this city!
It’s now my pleasure to introduce you to Jeremy Robin, who is here in the audience today with his employer from The Parliament Cleaning Group, Vaughn McKinney. Please watch the screens and learn more about Jeremy and Vaughn.
And there you have it just one example of an exceptional employee and an exceptional employer. It’s a life changed, a workplace changed, and with your continuing support of United Way Ottawa and its partners, a community changed.
Bravo Jeremy, bravo Vaughn, and thanks to all United Way Ottawa donors for helping make this relationship happen!
Some people might wonder why, as the founder of a charity (LiveWorkPlay), I would be spending time helping United Way Ottawa instead of just spending more time promoting LiveWorkPlay. I’m very proud of what LiveWorkPlay has accomplished and will continue to accomplish. We do some very intensive and challenging work with individuals, families, and the community. But our work is also about contributing to changing the entire community so it becomes a welcoming place where people with intellectual disabilities can live, work, and play as valued citizens.
That’s a wonderful goal, but we’ll never accomplish it alone. A social shift of that magnitude cannot be achieved by any agency working in isolation, and we should not even be trying to do it alone – how can we promote an inclusive community and not lead by example by working with others?
And let’s consider one key fact – United Way Ottawa has built up incredible long-term relationships with hundreds of businesses – who better than that United Way to help deliver a message to employers?
You might wonder if my new role has to do with money. I know some people are wondering, because they’ve asked! For example: am I volunteering in hopes of more funding for LiveWorkPlay? Or, do I feel obligated because LiveWorkPlay receives United Way Ottawa funding? No and no. I was actually trying to think of a way I could help contribute to Belonging To Community so when this opportunity came along, I didn’t hesitate to give an enthusiastic “Yes!”
But to answer the questions: LiveWorkPlay is finishing up year 2 of a 3 year funding agreement (about $40,000 per year) for the employment of people with intellectual disabilities. Last year we actually declined the opportunity to apply for more funds (not because we don’t like money or couldn’t put it to use, but because we are also careful to manage our growth responsibly).
As for question two, $40,000 represents about 4% of our annual budget. In financial terms, the ties between LiveWorkPlay and United Way Ottawa are relatively small. What binds us much more is the joint pursuit of a better Ottawa, and of course in particular improved employment conditions for people with disabilities.
I’m also not dismissing the significance of the financial contribution. If a single donor walked in an handed me $40,000 I’d be over the moon! I think a lot of people forget that United Way dollars are donor dollars. I try to remember that.
As the LiveWorkPlay and United Way Ottawa partnership continues to evolve, it may or may not result in a change in the financial aspect of the relationship. Far more important is sharing the same beliefs espoused in the Belonging To Community priority goal, and I just couldn’t be happier about that!
When United Way Ottawa support for the issue of disability and unemployment results in (for example) local employers contacting LiveWorkPlay (and/or any other of the many fine agencies that do similar work) looking to develop job opportunities for people with disabilities, it’s difficult to put a dollar figure on the value of that type of outcome – it’s huge for us and more importantly, it’s huge for one of our members (people with intellectual disabilities) who are waiting by the phone for an opportunity.
I recently wrote an article and presented at a conference on the topic of risk-taking in the non-profit community. I’m not kidding around when I say that by inviting me to be a Focus Area Champion, United Way Ottawa is showing they are willing to take risks in order to go after the changes they want to see. It’s not that they should be worried I will change my mind and stop believing in employment for people with disabilities. In simple terms, the risk lies in the very act of “sharing.”
Sharing – as much as it would seem a part of the world of charitabile organizations – is hard to do! As much as it represents opportunity, it also represents the relinquishing of control. For example, the text of that speech (above) was co-authored (with me). And the collaboration wasn’t just between the three individuals directly involved in the writing. It’s also a merger of legacies and the long-held beliefs of two different organizations. It’s a merger of the various pressures, hopes, and dreams held by each organization and it’s volunteers, staff, and other constituents.
You might think this is commonplace in the non-profit sector, but authentic sharing or partnering is, in my 20 years of experience, both difficult and rare. No matter what happens, it’s pretty exciting to be a part of it. What I’ve learned is people and organizations that TRY to change their communities for the better are spectacularly more successful than those that make no effort at all. Want to join me? I’d be happy to talk to you about how your unique talents (and/or unique bank account) can help!