In June, CERIC released the Recovery Pulse Survey with the aim of learning more about how COVID-19 was affecting career services in Canada. Nearly 1,150 career professionals from across the country responded. The results revealed a remarkable resilience and innovation from career professionals as they have reimagined their work. However, it also highlighted challenges for organizations and client groups.
To shed more light on the experiences of career professionals working in different areas of the sector during COVID-19, Ben Liadsky, Pulse Survey research analyst and Program Manager at The Counselling Foundation of Canada, reached out to survey participants to hear about how their work has been affected by the pandemic, their advice for their peers and more.
This interview with Carter Hammett of Epilepsy Toronto is the third in a series of Recovery Pulse Survey interviews that will be published on the CareerWise website over the summer. Other interviews in this series:
- How Career Advisor Marina Hai is navigating COVID-19
- How Experiential Learning Co-ordinator Dan Walters is navigating COVID
Can you tell me about where you work?
Epilepsy Toronto is the only agency in the Toronto area that deals exclusively with supporting the needs of people living with epilepsy and their stakeholders. We have three service divisions: children and youth services, adult services and employment services among other departments. We also have a busy fundraising department and a community engagement division as well.
Can you tell me a bit more about the clients you work with?
Epilepsy is both invisible and episodic in nature. It is a chronic, neurological condition characterized by recurrent seizures. It’s important to note that about 70% of all people living with epilepsy are able to live healthy and productive lives. However, the remaining 30% tend to struggle with it for a variety of reasons. They may not be candidates for surgery. Some are drug-resistant. There’s a host of reasons why people struggle with the condition. Epilepsy’s also a condition that seldom travels alone. There are often co-existing conditions that accompany the disability. These can range from ADHD to depression and anxiety. As a result of some or a combination of these concerns, many of our clients are also somewhat isolated.
It’s a disability that, unfortunately, carries a lot of stigma, unpredictability and fear, particularly in the eyes of employers. As a result, people are much less likely to disclose that they are living with this condition. Among other services, we help people normalize their condition. We also educate employers about epilepsy and the accommodations that can be implemented to help staff manage and thrive in the workplace.
Can you tell me about yourself?
I am the Manager of Employment Services and have had this position for five years. I oversee the day-to-day operations of the small but mighty department of two. In addition, I oversee most of the programming and handle many of the things that deal with pre-employment, as well as some of our advocacy work, helping to manage support groups and developing special events.
I hold a Bachelor of Community Studies degree as well as diplomas in social work, adult education and journalism. I’ve had a parallel career as a journalist for many years, writing and editing mostly for trade publications.
I love the continuous learning aspect of the work. There’s an incredible diversity of not only issues surrounding epilepsy itself, but the people who live with it, how they manage it and the approaches that we use to help guide them through the process.
How has COVID affected your organization?
We’re a small office compared to other agencies in Toronto. We have a nimble 15 person staff so we were well-equipped to pivot. In the process of shifting to virtual services, we found we strengthened our relationships with many of our clients. One example I can share of this is the adaptation of an employment support group that used to run for eight weeks twice a year. As a result of COVID, we decided to open this group up and make it ongoing for folks to connect virtually.
COVID has had a profound impact on many people living with epilepsy. We found ourselves working with a community that was left out and flummoxed on what to do and how to manage. As a result, one shift we made in our employment counselling was to move away from job search strategies and move toward more career planning for some of the new folks coming through the door. This seemed to suit our clients much better. It also gave us the gift of having a bit more time to understand what a person’s epilepsy means to them, how it affects their mental health and how they manage it.
How has COVID affected how you work?
We found ourselves fast forwarding plans that we had previously identified to develop new content for our workshops. For instance, we rolled out new workshops including one on employment during a pandemic, which was extremely well received.
I’ve also been able to create networking opportunities with other agencies that were in similar positions and have been able to share information back and forth.
Our annual virtual fundraising walk was a great success this year, raising about $105K for the agency. The theme was one in 100, which is the rate of the population living with epilepsy. We had people singing 100 songs, drawing 100 pictures, walking 100 steps. Our clients jumped in whole heartedly and joined us in raising money for our cause.
What is something that has surprised you during these past few months?
I had a conversation with one client early on in the pandemic and we were talking about how isolated we had all become and this person basically responded by saying, “Welcome to my world.” What was new for a lot of us, i.e., being at home and unable to see others, is what some people with epilepsy feel every day.
I have also been surprised to see that the attendance in our programming has been much higher than it would’ve been in person. A lot of our clients have memory issues. Our programming has provided them with a routine so that every week at the same time they know there is a support group for them.
What have you learned from your clients about what they need most right now?
I’ve learned a lot about how adaptable our folks have been. The resilience, the resolve, and using the opportunity to make longer-term plans has been such a strong focal point. Many have approached the pandemic from the point of view that it will be temporary and so they’re using this time to plan and think ahead so they can get on with their lives.
I’ll also add that while some people have come to us because they have lost jobs as a result of the pandemic, we’ve been able to help others with particular skillsets because of new job opportunities that have opened up during this time in customer service, nursing, IT or as personal support workers.
What advice would you give to others in the field based on your experience regarding how to work differently?
It’s very difficult to measure human potential. As such, it’s important to never underestimate the resolve, capacity and agency of people who are living with disabilities. They are part of an incredibly adaptable community. They have been conditioned to see the world differently than you or I might and as such they’ve developed skillsets that include different ways of seeing things, problem solving and alternative models of accomplishing tasks.
You can learn more about Carter and his work at Epilepsy Toronto by visiting the Epilepsy Toronto website.