Christine Riley works every Tuesday and Wednesday at Delectable Desserts, a specialty bakery in Burnside. Riley started her job at the bakery in March 2022, but first started baking as a young girl when her nan and great nan shared their baking skills with her.
Riley learned about Delectable Desserts via The Next Step Reverse Job Fair, a program offered by Easter Seals Nova Scotia that pairs employers with potential employees. The goal of the program is to help employers become more inclusive by hiring people with disabilities.
At Delectable Desserts, Riley spends her days filling orders, folding boxes, making baked goods, and helping customers who come into the bakery, owned by Melissa and Dennis Mbeba. When asked what she likes most about her job, Riley replied with “everything.”
“I love working with Melissa and our wonderful team,” Riley said. “I meet new friends. I like to just do new things … I also learn money skills. There are so many things I can do now that I’ve been practicing and practicing.”
Melissa Mbeba said she remembers meeting Riley at the Reverse Job Fair. She said it was Riley’s personality that really stood out.
“Christine is always like a ray of sunshine,” Mbede said. “She was so eager. She told me all about her baking skills. She was really forward about what she wanted, and she seemed like a good fit.”
Mbeba said it was always a goal for Delectable Desserts to be an inclusive workplace since the bakery opened in 2017. She said they often hire high school students who have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, and she’s seen their self-esteem grow as they learn new skills and contribute to a team.
“It is our whole company,” Mbeba said of its inclusive policy. “Things wouldn’t look the same otherwise. We try to include everybody as much as we can. We come from all different backgrounds and educational skill levels. It’s a good blend. Everybody has a thing they’re good at and I think in bringing that thing forward, each person feels proud and that shows in the products and customer service.”
‘Get on board now’
Joanne Bernard, the president and CEO of Easter Seals Nova Scotia*, knows Riley well. Riley works at Easter Seals, too, where she honed her baking skills at the non-profit’s New Leaf Café in Burnside.
“Christine does a lot of baking here, so it just made sense she would do well in a labour market, very busy bakery,” Bernard said. “And she’s done fantastic.”
Bernard said Easter Seals has hosted three reverse job fairs so far, and they’ve been quite successful at connecting people with disabilities with employers in HRM, including Events East, Scotiabank Centre, Aramark, Superstore, and Delectable Desserts where Riley works.
Easter Seals offers The Next Step program that helps young people age 18 to 32 who have a disability and are looking for work. The program teaches its students first-aid, how to write a resume and do an interview, Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), and other skills to help them get into the local job market.
“Knowing what their rights are, knowing what to expect, knowing what their responsibilities are as an employee,” said Bernard, listing off some of what the students learn in The Next Step program. “It’s been tremendously successful, and Christine is a wonderful testament to that.”
Still, Bernard said some employers are reluctant to hire people with disabilities. She said employers are fearful and think hiring a person with a disability will change the culture of their workplaces.
“What we have found, and what employers have told us, is that, yes, there’s a change in culture, but it’s for the better,” Bernard said. “You want to be known as an inclusive workplace. Why wouldn’t you want to be known as that?”
“At the end of the day, we find employers, once they understand what the value is that these folks can bring to them, they are more than willing to bring them on and say yes, this is working for us. It has changed the attitude, it has educated us, and we are now more inclusive in the way we think and the way we work.”
Easter Seals also has job coaches who assist the employees and the employers through the hiring and post-employment process. The coaches are there to help the employee settle into their new job, but they’re also on hand to answer any questions and mediate any issues there may be with an employer.
Bernard said companies should consider the acronym EDIA when crafting their hiring policies. EDIA stands for equity, diversity, inclusive, and accessibility, but Bernard said sometimes the A in that acronym is forgotten in the workplace.
“If that place wants to be inclusive and they hire you based on their own EDIA policies, it doesn’t mean anything if the person can’t get through the door,” Bernard said.
And if employers still have concerns about becoming a more inclusive workplace, Bernard reminds employers that removing barriers to employment is also the law.
In 2017, the provincial government passed the Accessibility Act, which has the goal of making Nova Scotia more inclusive and barrier-free by 2030. The province is working with people with disabilities, as well as public and private sector organizations, to develop standards that will apply to goods and services, information and communication, transportation, education, the built environment, and employment. Bernard said employers should do the work now to become more inclusive for people with disabilities, including in hiring staff.
“It’s legislated, it’s law, and there will be penalties after 2030,” Bernard said. “My advice is get on board now. Figure out how to make your space accessible, whether that’s a ramp, whether that’s an electric door, whether that’s an accessible bathroom. Whatever you need to do, and there are government programs to help you do that, putting it off isn’t going to make it go away. In the meantime, you’re leaving out a segment of the population who are economic drivers. They are part of our economy. They are excellent employees. They want to work.”
‘Use their gifts and their talents’
Prescott Group in Halifax’s north end offers training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities, too. One of its social enterprises is the North End Baking Co. Liam Johnson is serving customers at the bakery the day the Halifax Examiner stops in.
“They’re nice, funny, and very good to hang out with,” Johnson said of his colleagues at the bakery.
Working at North End Baking Co. was Johnson’s first job and on this day he’s filling in on a shift. Johnson recently got another job. In February, he started working with 2 Crows Brewing Co. in downtown Halifax. His training and experience at Prescott helped him land the role.
“I never had an interview before,” Johnson recalled about 2 Crows. But he clearly impressed his employer.
When asked about his favourite part of his new gig, Johnson is quick to answer: “Getting free beer.” Also, he said, “it’s fun.”
Alice Evans is the executive director of Prescott Group. On its website, Prescott says, “we help adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) find friendship, community and success.”
Evans said Prescott has 40 full-time employees and 80 part-time staff, many of whom have disabilities. One of the most important aspects of employment with Prescott is its fair wage policy. All the staff at Prescott’s social enterprises are paid at least minimum wage, as is required by law. Prescott makes sure its employees are paid for any work they do. For example, employees who take part in photo shoots for Prescott’s marketing materials or join in on interviews of other staff get paid for their time. Paying a fair wage is also a requirement of the community employers Prescott works with, too.
“If someone is working, we make sure they are paid for the whole time they’re working, even if they’re being trained for the job. You still are working. You should be paid while you’re being trained,” Evans said.
“People with intellectual disabilities quite often are living in poverty, so we are really working hard to make sure people have work as much as they want it.”
Shelley St. Peters and Michelina DiBacco are both clients at Prescott. DiBacco works part-time at Pinkie’s Thrift store, another one of Prescott’s social enterprises on site in the north end. At Pinkie’s, DiBacco helps customers, organizes displays, and stocks shelves with products. DiBacco said she appreciates Prescott’s fair wage policy.
“It’s for us to be able to have enough money to live off of, more than just spending. To be able to pay bills, buying things at the store,” she said.
DiBacco also brings her passion for and knowledge of the weather to Prescott. She’s Prescott’s weather person and does a presentation each week with details and maps she makes from information on Environment Canada’s forecasts. Dressed in a navy blazer and standing in front of a large TV screen in a room at Prescott’s location, DiBacco reads off weather forecasts, which are recorded and shared on Prescott’s social media. Last year, Global Halifax did a story on DiBacco’s weather forecasts and invited her to tour their studio downtown.
“They said I’m a natural,” she said. “I feel really good when I tell people the weather.”
As for why it’s important for employers to be inclusive, DiBacco had this to say: “The idea is for people with all abilities to have a sense of belonging and use their gifts and their talents.”
St. Peters, who has been a client at Prescott for 30 years and serves on its board of directors, also works as a cleaner for outside clients a few days a week. She was hired via Prescott where she also works at the North End Baking Co.
“I just love everything about it,” St. Peters said of her cleaning work.
As for the fair wage policy, St. Peters said it gives her independence.
“You need support for your house. If you need it for your bills, for a car, house insurance, groceries. If you have any pets, you need pet food.”
Bernard said at Easter Seals, the question about wages is one they’ve heard, too. Bernard said employees hired via Easter Seals must earn at least minimum wage.
“That’s just a given. We don’t subsidize. It’s all on the employers,” Bernard said. “So far we’ve had very little resistance from employers about paying at the very least minimum wage.”
‘Priceless at the end of the day’
Eric Daponte is the operations manager at 2 Crows Brewing Co where Liam Johnson works. Two other clients from Prescott, Andrew Bryant and Jen Richardson, work at the Halifax craft brewery, too.
Daponte said during the COVID pandemic, 2 Crows decided to look at how inclusive it was, including in its hiring policies. The craft brewing industry, Daponte said, is “exclusionary” and “ruled predominately by white men.”
“We took it upon ourselves to delve into that to see how we could be more inclusive in all aspects of our business, not just hiring, but in terms of how we are portraying ourselves to our customers and how comfortable people feel coming into the space,” Daponte said.
Daponte said 2 Crows, along with North Brewing Company and Stillwell Brewing, hired Ren Navarro, an Ontario-based diversity educator and craft beer consultant who runs Beer Diversity, to host a session with all Nova Scotian craft brewers. During that session, Daponte said, Navarro and the brewers talked about inclusive hiring practices.
Daponte said because of that session, 2 Crows started to look at its job postings and hiring practices.
“In the past, we were doing [the job posting] through our social media and general network,” Daponte said. “So, we decided to expand past that and let other people know these jobs are available.”
Daponte said they eventually connected with Prescott Group and a few of its staff went to 2 Crows to learn more about the jobs available. The Prescott staff went back to 2 Crows with the names of a few clients who would best fit the jobs at the brewery.
Richardson, Bryant, and Johnson work as part of the production team, helping the head brewer. Daponte said it takes four or five people to run their canning line, so Bryant, Richardson, and Johnson build boxes, fill them with cans of beer, stack those boxes on pallets, and take on many aspects of the canning process.
Daponte said the new inclusive hiring practices have boosted morale at the brewery.
“Any time Jen, Andrew, or Liam are here, there’s usually more spark in everyone’s steps because they are excited to be here,” Daponte said.
He said employers that want to be more inclusive in their workplaces should just make the leap and that there are supports to help employers. He said employers will have to make their training practices more accessible, but the changes are worth it.
“I think if you’re patient and willing to take that first step and reach out to an organization like Prescott, see what your options are, how you can get involved, and how you can do something, you really have to make the jump,” Daponte said.
“Once everything fell into place, we haven’t looked back. Internally and customer facing, it’s been a good move for us, and it’s been awesome to just see the growth of all three of these employees, how they flourished. I think that’s priceless at the end of the day.”
At Delectable Desserts, Mbeba suggests employers “think outside the box” when it comes to hiring. And like 2 Crows, she suggests employers be more creative and broaden their scope in their hiring practices.
“It could be challenging for some people to build a resume or show the work experience they have,” Mbeba said. “Sometimes people who don’t have work experience get put to the bottom of the pile or overlooked and maybe there are reasons they’re not getting the work experience they need. That’s not to say they don’t do the job well.”
The value of an inclusive workplace
Evans said Prescott offers people with intellectual and developmental disabilities their first job experience. Through its Job Links Program, staff learn how to be team players, how to keep track of the hours they worked, and the value of money. Clients also learn how to make a resume, do a job interview, and they take part in role playing activities to learn how to navigate situations in a workplace. Evans said clients also learn how to work and live in the community. Skills they learn include taking the bus and buying bus tickets.
Evans said she’d like to see more employers understand the value of having an inclusive workplace.
“I don’t think they realize how much you get when you have an employee who has diverse experience,” Evans said. “When you have employees who have intellectual disabilities, in particular, you tend to find people who are very reliable, very supportive of their colleagues, very keen to work, very excited to work, and they really increase the positivity in a workplace. I don’t think traditionally people have understood and valued that. People have tended to be excluded from the workplace if they have an intellectual disability.”
Evans said she’d like to see employers put people with disabilities on career paths, so they can move up in a company and with what work they do.
“I would like to see more flexible opportunities, more promotion of people who have disabilities,” Evans said. “People with disabilities should have career pathways. We should be looking at everyone having career pathways and not just the menial jobs. Get people in the marketing teams and in different sorts of positions in organizations and think creatively.”
In an email after her interview with the Examiner, Evans wrote that there are other reasons people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have trouble finding work in the community.
“Sometimes people are scared to take risks and put themselves in situations that are confusing and unknown, so taking a very gradual approach to community employment is important,” Evans wrote. “If you have personal experience of being ignored, excluded and stigmatized you may be reticent to get back into a situation that is potentially isolating, so having a strong support network is really important. Our school system doesn’t adequately prepare youth with intellectual disabilities or their caregivers for employment in community, which also leads to people being reticent to take the risk.”
Employers may also be concerned that there’s a cost to hiring people with disabilities. Bernard said there are programs, including the Business ACCESS-Ability grant program, with the provincial Department of Communities, Culture, Tourism, and Heritage.
Bernard adds that being an inclusive workplace is good for business since many of a company’s customers may also have disabilities, too.
“It’s really important for employers to model that inclusivity because oftentimes the very people they serve are the very people you can bring into your workplace and learn from,” she said.
‘I want it to have accessibility’
Back at Delectable Desserts, Riley said she’d like to one day own a café. She already has a name for it: The Rainbow Butterfly Friendship Café. She plans to serve breakfast and lunch, and will offer cooking classes at night.
“I want to hire a lot of people with disabilities,” Riley said. “I want it to have accessibility. I also want it to have gluten free [options] and for people to have more options to try and not worry about what they are allergic to.”
Mbeba said Delectable Desserts has grown more than they expected in the past number of years, and they’d will eventually move to a bigger space. That could mean hiring new staff and, of course, Mbeba said they’ll keep their policy of being inclusive.
Mbeba said it’s a “no-brainer” for employers to offer inclusive workplaces.
“The support exists,” Mbeba said. “We’re saying there’s a staffing shortage and being inclusive solves some of those problems. There’s no harm in trying.”
*Suzanne Rent previously worked on a contract with Easter Seals Nova Scotia.