James Blair (left) and Jonathan Robins (a.k.a. Lucky) have worked together at Aaron’s for two years, after REALM helped find Robins a job there. Paul Rodgers photo.

James Blair (left) and Jonathan Robins (a.k.a. Lucky) have worked together at Aaron’s for two years, after REALM helped find Robins a job there. Paul Rodgers photo.

Realizing empowerment, and accessing life to the maximum

REALM’s Supported Employment program

Paul Rodgers

REALM’s Supported Employment program helps those in Cranbrook find jobs. More than that, however, the program increases these individuals’ levels of confidence and self worth as well as demonstrating their value to employers and, in a broader sense, society as a whole.

REALM stands for “Realize Empowerment Access Life to the Maximum” and was formed 14 years ago by Kerry Taylor-Johnson and her business partner Ana Yost. They seek to promote inclusion, outreach, support and employment for people living with disabilities in the community.


“Well REALM is an organization that is fully client-centred,” said Debra Preston, business relations officer for REALM. “That’s kind of a buzzword in our industry, client-centred, but I’ve worked for a lot of different places in my 30-plus years of working in this field and it’s a place that not only talks the talk but walks the walk as far as a client in the centre and figuring out what works best for them.”

Preston’s job is to find jobs for REALM’s many different individuals and she said that while many organizations have “one-size-fits-all” employment programs, REALM endeavours to work with their individual, and potential employers, to determine what exactly is best for them: what’s important in their lives, what are their goals and how they can best accommodate that.

READ MORE: New organization seeks to provide REALM with more funding

David Bernier, 23, is one of REALM’s individuals. On October 6 he will celebrate one year of employment with High Point Plumbing.

“I love it,” said Bernier. “Occasionally I go on jobs with Kevin, or one of the other plumbers, but I mostly stay at the shop, snow shovelling, weed whacking, keeping the shop clean … well I try to, the plumbers don’t really help much,” he added with a cheeky laugh.

Bernier was looking for a part time job and REALM helped him find something that fit within the framework of what he wanted to do.

“I’m strong on lifting heavy things, I just wanted to find something that was interesting and fun at the same time. High Point actually provided all that. And yeah it was really fun.”

Bernier works two four-hours shifts per week with High Point, but his manager Kevin Dyer says he’s love to have him on more.

“He’s really good,” said Dyer. “I like working with him he’s got a great attitude and everyone likes him. He gets so much stuff done, that I’ll find a days worth of tasks for him to do, write them all out and he’ll be back within in an hour: ‘done!’ ‘Really? Now I don’t have anything for you man, you gotta try to find something.’ So yeah. That’s David there.”

“He’s usually the person I prefer to take,” Dyer continued. “I’ll save the jobs that I need two guys with for his days so that I can take him. He moves, he hustles. I want to increase his hours, bring him on maybe a day or two more a week.”

Dyer admits that he was uncertain at first when Preston approached him about employing David.

“I would [recommend it] now, I was pretty hesitant, I won’t lie. Just liability, you’re kind of working with this that and the other thing, and I was pretty hesitant, and Deb was very persistent that Dave’s really good, so hindsight, Deb was right.”

The same is echoed by James Blair, manager at Aaron’s, who has worked with Jonathan Robins for nearly two years.

“When the previous manager had decided to go and do it, there was some obvious hesitation, but it ended up being great,” said Blair. “He absolutely loves it and we absolutely love having him.”

“He loves the job and it’s because it’s a job he actually likes and he feels useful and he’s actually doing something.”

For an employer to have concerns initially is totally valid, and as is the case for all people, not everyone with a disability is well suited to certain work.

“You can’t paint everybody with one brush,” said Preston. “Not everybody with disabilities is a great worker, not everybody with a disability has a fine sense of humour or whatever thing you want to put down there, but employers need to see what the bottom line is.”

Preston referenced examples of other international businesses that have employed people with disabilities. For instance, Ontario-based Tim Hortons franchisee Mark Wafer, who has hired over 80 disabled workers at his locations or Walgreens executive Randy Lewis, who gave his autistic son a job in one of his warehouses and saw it become the most productive distribution centre.

“That’s the kind of things that employers need to hear about,” said Preston. “They need to understand that it’s not about being charitable to a poor disabled person, it’s about putting money into your business and doing it in a way that’s smart.”

REALM has many different individuals working in many different jobs, they are employed at KC Gifts, Cranbrook Auto, Real Deals, Clips Hair Salon and many more. They all have their own individual strengths and challenges, and their own aspirations that often extend far beyond their job or this city; but the job is a great start. It shows them that they are valuable, just like anyone else, and it shows employers that as well.

In Canada, the employment rate of Canadians aged 25 to 64 with disabilities was 49 per cent in 2011 compared to 79 per cent for those without, according to a Statistics Canada report. The steps taken here in Cranbrook by REALM, and abroad by other open-minded organizations and individuals, are actively seeking to improve that, remove some of the stigmas that are engrained in society, and improve and increase the opportunities that are available for our disabled population.