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N.B. program aims to educate, encourage employers to hire more people with disabilities

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When asked what she likes most about her job, Kyra Thomas will tell you it’s helping people – and the money.

The Fredericton woman is refreshingly honest about her current employment, after working in retail for about a decade.

But she wasn’t always treated the same as her coworkers.

“The presumed incompetence was, just that overarching concept that was, as a parent, so difficult because she was being denied a human right to work and make a fair wage for the job that she was doing,” said Kyra’s mother, Debbie Thomas.

Kyra was being paid a stipend for the work she was doing, which was less than minimum wage.

Relatively new changes to the Employment Standards Act has made that practice illegal in New Brunswick.

“Unfortunately, there were some companies that, I’ll say they were unscrupulous and they took advantage of people with intellectual disabilities or physical disabilities and had them doing work that other people would have to do and didn’t pay them minimum wage, at the very least. So that's wrong,” said N.B. Education Minister Bill Hogan.

But the Thomas’ say there’s still more work to do to ensure an inclusive workforce in the province.

One of the barriers? The employers themselves.

“Building capacity for us means providing support to those with an inclusive mindset, and sometimes to those without an inclusive mindset, but to bring them around to understand with the right tools, strategies and resources that we can make inclusion a reality,” said Tara Werner, the director of Inclusive Communities Institute at Inclusion NB.

Inclusion NB is launching a training program for employers who might need some education and encouragement to hire people with disabilities – especially those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

That demographic are about 80 per cent unemployed, says Thomas.

And she says while many businesses – around 90 per cent – say they focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, fewer are actually putting that to practice.

“Only four per cent include persons with disabilities in their plans,” she said. “So we know that this is still a big gap of knowledge.”

The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency are helping fund the program with over $231,000, and the N.B. government is investing $75,000.

“I mean, it's the right thing to do, and employers receive such a benefit when they have young people with special needs working for them and working in their store because they're so friendly and they bring such an added value to the shopping experience,” Hogan said.

Kyra is working toward a more independent life. To do that, she needs to make money.

She’s now working a job where she’s making more than minimum wage after receiving a raise when a number of customers told her boss’ how helpful she was.

“It's very validating because I knew she was capable. She just needed the opportunity,” said Thomas.

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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