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Technology for the Disabled

By Neil Hehr of Bow Valley IT Services

Rhonda, age 41, after a long ride on public transit, bounces into the offices of Calgary’s Gibson Energy Ltd. and heads up to the administrative station where she is employed three days per week.

After greeting colleagues, she sits down and turns on her computer. A picture comes on the screen showing Rhonda ‘recycling’, and the sound of a bell soon follows signaling the beginning of her work day.

This software feature is not one you will see operating at every Gibson Energy workstation. It is programmed to address barriers Rhonda experiences because she has Cerebral Palsy (CP) and a developmental disability. Rhonda’s CP – referred to as ‘congenital’ because it is a result of birth-related trauma – has impacted the mobility on her left side and seriously compromised her speech. The developmental disability is most noticeable when Rhonda is learning something new (for example, she needs extra time to read and to understand material and does best with clear language and concepts, and hands-on direction).

She requires specialized technology to do her job and getting what Rhonda needs has been a joint commitment between Gibson Energy and Rhonda’s support agency, the Developmental Disabilities Resource Centre of Calgary (DDRC), through its IT for Inclusion project. With funding from the ministry of Human Resources Social Development Canada, this initiative supports individuals with developmental disabilities to be included in today’s technology-based world. The project focuses on how individuals may access and use information and communication technologies to assist with both their employment goals and lifelong learning opportunities.

For Rhonda, specialized technologies help her schedule and keep track of important daily work tasks such as recycling for the company, folding towels and putting them in the lockers of the in-house fitness facility, supplying the fridge with fruit juices and water, delivering mail (which is sorted by color in advance), putting paper in the photocopier and – with assistance – ordering supplies from Grand and Toy. The technologies also help her communicate more effectively with others.

These specialized technologies, individualized to Rhonda’s needs, include:

  • “Sticky keys” (an accessibility feature which is part of Windows XP) on her computer act as cursors, help with functions like copying and pasting and also ‘beep’ so Rhonda knows her work is in progress. These keys take the place of a mouse, which Rhonda finds cumbersome to use. Rhonda’s keyboard also sits on a levered ledge which moves easily up and down so she can adjust it according to her tasks and functions;
  • The Vantage (a speech generating communication device) allows Rhonda to “talk” by typing in a few letters of what she wants to say.

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It has sophisticated vocabulary, spelling and word prediction functions and recognizes phrase options which are then displayed on the screen. When Rhonda presses the button which relates most closely to the message she wants to convey, a digitized voice will say the phrase out loud. Soon this technology will be activated with the phone system so when a caller leaves a message for Rhonda, it will be displayed on the screen of the Vantage. Rhonda will be able to select an answer which will then be electronically transcribed back to the caller. The Vantage also has environmental control functions which can turn lights off and on. “It is really versatile,” says Neil Hehr, coordinator of DDRC’s IT for Inclusion project. The Vantage, valued at $10,000, was purchased with the assistance of the Alberta-based Disability Related Employment Supports (DRES) program; and

  • A software program, called PASS loaded on the Vantage, interfaces with Rhonda’s computer and allows photos of her schedule to pop up on her screen at the time when she needs to be performing various tasks. This visual prompt is a quick and easy reminder for Rhonda to deliver the mail or to shift to another job.

Rhonda had a solid work history before joining Gibson Energy. She was employed at Instabox  through a DDRC-initiative called New Faces, New Work. She also worked at the Animal Resource Centre at the University of Calgary/Foothills Hospital cleaning cages, and she also did grounds-keeping.

A goal of Rhonda’s was to work in an office setting where she would have more opportunities to communicate with others and improve her keyboarding skills.

Enter Gibson Energy Ltd.

Teri is Rhonda’s supervisor at the company. Rhonda was hired after a senior executive at Gibson Energy returned to the office from a United Way of Calgary and Area presentation on Down Syndrome. He was impressed and recommended that the company contribute in a more direct way to individuals in the community who have developmental disabilities. So staff developed a job description connected to the administrative team and then went looking for an excellent candidate. Rhonda was the perfect fit!

“We love working with Rhonda,” says Lilley. Rhonda has been with Gibson Energy for more than a year. Gibson Energy staff work with Rhonda’s abilities, for example, the scheduling of her daily duties have shifted to accommodate her energy level, but she is not given preferential treatment at all. “Her work is truly valuable to us and we believe in her,” says Lilley. Rhonda has helped staff of Gibson Energy see and respect another side of the community. “We are more understanding and appreciative of differences,” explains Lilley.

The benefits for Rhonda? Shy at the beginning of her tenure, she now says “hello” every morning and “home” each evening before she leaves the office. Like her co-workers, her work at Gibson Energy gives her purpose; helps to give her life more meaning.

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And watch out if you are in her way when it is time for her to get to task – she is very time conscious and moves quickly. Rhonda takes great pride in her responsibilities and accomplishments.

A shared benefit is the ongoing learning that takes place – from both sides. “Once we got 12 cases of paperclips instead of 12 boxes,” laughs Lilley. But paperclips can be returned and next time, the order was correct.

The administrative team at Gibson Energy is not afraid to make mistakes as together they figure out the best way of supporting Rhonda to shine in the workplace. And Rhonda – quick to laugh just like others – is up for taking on more challenging tasks and tougher learning curves both onsite and within the community.    

Outside of work, she loves to partake of other, regular activities that many of us do, such as bake cookies with her room-mate, Marcy Madalang, attend church, do pottery at Indefinite Arts (a creative arts program in Calgary for persons with developmental disabilities), and go for weekly massages at the YMCA. She also plays a mean game of mini-golf. She enjoys stampede wrestling and is a huge fan of the Calgary Flames. Back at the company, alongside other employees, she attends staff social events at Spruce Meadows and team-building events in Kananaskis country.

It is clear that Rhonda has found an inclusive place to work and Gibson Energy – consistent with a key company value – has built one more relationship “based on trust, integrity and respect.”

Clearly, this is a match that works well for both Gibson’s and Rhonda – everyone benefits – and it makes good business sense.

Please contact us for full assistive technology assessments, resources and recommendations.

Bow Valley IT Services Inc.

#600 630 8Ave S.W.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

T3E 7B7

PH- 403-863-9353


About the Author

Neil Hehr has been working with technology and persons with disabilities for over 21 years, and has been conducting Information Technology and Assistive Technology assessments at Mandel & Associates for over 12 years. Neil has also provided technological support at Calgary Quest School as an Information / Assistive Technologist from 2011-2016.  For 5 years, he worked on a federally funded project called IT for Inclusion through the Developmental Disability Resource Centre of Calgary, which also involved working with people with disabilities in Calgary and performing assistive technology assessments. He received an Electronic Engineering Diploma in 1992, owned his own computer store for several years, as well as built computers and provided IT support for many agencies over the last 20 years. Neil now owns his own business Bow Valley IT Services which he conducts assistive technology assessments / training. He also provides IT services from small to medium size businesses.

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