December 2, 2020

Seeing the ability in disability

Steven holds his other, high-tech left leg. It’s equipped with Bluetooth technology, a gyroscope to know where he is in real time, an accelerometer to keep up with his gait, and safety features like anti-stumble mode to help prevent him from falling.

Too often we’re prevented from seeing another’s true, whole self because of pre-conceived societal filters and unconscious biases. That’s the barrier often faced by those with disabilities. Today is International Day for Persons with Disabilities, an opportune time to reflect on this, and the fact that around the world more than one billion people, or approximately 15 per cent of the world’s population, experience some sort of disability.

However, strides in accommodation and attitudinal changes are happening. Part of the evolution is realizing and understanding that people are differently abled – not disabled.

After being at Suncor for only a few months, Steven Jeffrey, learning manager, Base Plant fixed plants and in situ, was the victim of a crime near his home that crushed him between two cars. He lost his left leg from above the knee at the scene, then went through a medically-induced coma, months of recovery, and came back to work five months later with a prosthetic leg. But the changes didn’t stop there. 

“After about 18 months of being back at work, things changed yet again when my doctor put a permanent restriction on me walking over the rough, uneven terrain around the plant,” remembers Steven. “These site visits were an important part of my job and now I was faced with uncertainty about my career at Suncor.” 

Steven needed to disclose this restriction to his supervisor and was naturally nervous about how this would affect his job. “It’s a dilemma people with disabilities face every day – will I be relegated to somewhere ‘safe?’ Somewhere tucked away with different duties and no career advancement?” said Steven. 

His trepidation soon ended. “I had an incredibly supportive and productive conversation with my director,” he remembers. “We focused on what I could do. This allowed me to move into a new role that was in a controlled, safe environment, while still enabling my growth at Suncor.” Physically and professionally, there were no barriers holding him back. 

Steven is giving back by helping others see the ability of disability. Alongside Christine Godby, procurement specialist, Strategy & Operations Services, and others, they are in the beginning stages of forming a community for Suncor employees called Persons with Disabilities. “We had our first virtual meet and greet on Nov. 24. A group of us who identify as a person with a disability came together simply to chat and share stories, and we began brainstorming ideas on how to create a more inclusive and supportive workplace for our colleagues with disabilities.   

 “We need to become comfortable with having honest discussions with our leaders and disclosing our realities. Of course, that will depend on the individual. That’s why we are here to help set those comfort levels and support them on their journey,” said Steven. 

Hayley with her big brother Ross.
Hayley with her big brother Ross.

For Hayley Kenyon, a mine engineer at Fort Hills, her big brother Ross always seemed a little different to most people. Born with Down syndrome, Ross excels at making friends, delivering wicked one-liners, spouting uncanny sports trivia and being an important member of his family. Having Ross as her brother made a difference in her overall acceptance and understanding of those with different abilities.

“As a kid, people – and when I say people, I mean mostly kids – would stare and that made me feel uncomfortable, because Ross is just my big brother,” says Hayley. “I often thought: what would he be like if he didn’t have Down syndrome? But as we grew up, that perspective changed because I know how cool he is and how fortunate I am to have this experience as his sister.”

When a co-worker is supporting a child or parent with a disability or is in the hospital, Hayley has more empathy towards those challenges because of her own experience growing up with Ross. As Hayley notes, it’s important for people to know that oftentimes your colleagues may have ties to friends or family members that aren't always included in society. We need to address the stigma for people who are differently abled. 

“I want people to open the door and have a conversation from a place of wanting to learn and grow,” says Hayley.

Facts and figures: 

  • Over one billion people in the world have some form of visible or invisible disability – 15 per cent of the world’s population
  • More than 100 million people with disabilities are children
  • Children with disabilities are almost four times more likely to experience violence than non-disabled children
  • 450 million people live with mental or neurological conditions
  • 80 per cent of all people with disabilities live in a developing country
  • 50 per cent of people with disabilities cannot afford health care

    Source: The United Nations