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Making Art Work: Using a diversity of abilities in life

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Emily Kettleson inside her art studio in her Tsawwassen home. Photo: Adrian MacNair

For 21-year-old Tsawwassen resident Emily Kettleson, perhaps the biggest thrill of getting to work in her first job was meeting the company president.

“I never met a real president before!” says Emily, with excitement as she recalls the memory. “He wasn’t like those old rocks from that landmark.”

While Century Group’s Sean Hodgins isn’t carved into Mount Rushmore, nor is he a former American president, he did give Emily a sterling letter of reference for her next job.

“I’m open to new jobs now,” says Emily, who was unable to follow Century Group when the company’s headquarters moved to Surrey. “It might be a difficult place to get to. How am I going to get there? How am I going to get home? It wouldn’t be safe and I wouldn’t want to get caught by strangers.”

Emily is an adult living with autism who was able to find work thanks to the support of the Delta Community Living Society’s Solutions Employment Services.

Rochelle Ali, who works for Solutions, met Emily two years ago during what they call the “discovery process.” This involves learning about a client’s strengths, developing a resume and handing them out to local businesses, and then facilitating an interview with an employer to customize the job so that it will work out for all parties.

“We don’t look at what they can’t do, we focus on what they can do, and then try and find an employment situation that would best suit them,” says Rochelle.

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Emily with her faithful canine companion Dixon. Photo: Adrian MacNair

Emily isn’t a person with a disability, but a person with a “diversability.” This new term is being used by professionals like Rochelle, who are seeking to remove the stigma of the term “disabled” in order to look at the diversity of abilities and talents among their Solutions clients.

“A disability is saying we’re broken and we can’t be fixed. With a diversability we’re not broken, we just need a little extra help and care with what we do in order to be successful,” she says.

Emily’s mom, Jenny Kettleson, says she had no idea what her daughter might do for work as an adult, but just takes it one day at a time.

“One of the mystery quotients to her is she has an ability to draw people in,” says Jenny. “Everyone finds her charming and delightful. I have mom brain so sometimes I don’t see it.”

With Emily’s great personality and infectious smile, her mother says she might be a good hostess for a restaurant to welcome and seat diners at a table.

But one of the talents Jenny wasn’t expecting to take off was her daughter’s artwork, painting in acrylic, watercolour, pencil drawings and other mixed media.

When Emily started making art she wasn’t sure whether it was good or whether it was her “mom brain” again. But it didn’t take long before people outside the home confirmed her daughter’s talents.

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She won the 2014 Delta Heritage Banner Design Contest in the youth category and has since started selling homemade holiday cards at businesses throughout Tsawwassen. It’s something that delights Emily to no end.

“I love Valentine’s Day! I can make as many hearts as I want,” she says, holding up one of her cards proudly.
Rochelle recalls the time she introduced her to Vancity Credit Union Tsawwassen branch manager Michelle Laviolette. During that meeting, Rochelle asked Emily to draw something and she whipped out a napkin and penciled a pumpkin snowman.

“She did it in less than two minutes,” says Rochelle, before Jenny pipes in, “She’s always trying to close a deal.”

“Yes, she’s always a seller, Emily could sell ice to an Eskimo” laughs Rochelle, before Emily interjects, “I don’t work with ice, ice would be too cold.”

Michelle, however, was sold on Emily’s talents right away. They worked to develop a portfolio to display her artwork and sold her Christmas cards in the branch.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Emily is that her parents didn’t tell her about autism until she became an adult. Emily never realized she was different, and at first she rejected the idea outright.

“That was something she used to struggle with because she only wanted to be with normal people,” says Jenny. “That’s not really a politically correct thing to say but we didn’t actually even tell her about her issues until she was 17 or 18 because we didn’t want to hold her back.”

But once Emily was placed in the Delta Life Skills Summer Fun program with other children who have physical and mental and learning disabilities, they saw how well she interacted with her peers.

“We’re just really grateful that she enjoys people. The typical autistic person doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t like to be touched. She’s the other way around, we call her the mauler at home,” laughs Jenny.

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Emily with Rochelle Ali of the Delta Community Living Society’s Solutions Employment Services. Photo: Adrian MacNair

To help transition her into adulthood, the DCLS has taught Emily to travel alone on the bus, carry and use a cell phone, expand her art business, and interact with others who have a diversability.

Rochelle says there are many benefits for a company hiring a person with a diversability. They take less vacation and sick time because they’re happy to be at work, have a happier and upbeat attitude, and raise the morale of the rest of the company.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

“I think it’s really important to be inclusive in our community,” says Rochelle. “Everyone deserves the right to employment. Everyone deserves the right to not live in poverty.”

Although Emily is an only child who is loved and supported by her parents, not all persons with a diversability are in the same fortunate situation.

To learn more about Solutions Employment Services visit dcls.ca.

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