From South Africa to Canada: Making a fresh start on a new career

From South Africa to Canada: Making a fresh start on a new career

Finding employment equal to your skills in another country is challenging enough, but try it with a disability.

Heather Scott faced that challenge after she came to Canada in 2010 to pursue a new degree and a new career.

A dual citizen of Canada and South Africa, Heather had spent her adult life in South Africa working as a high school teacher focused on children with special needs.

But then she began to, unknowingly, suffer the onset of muscular dystrophy (MD) This progressive disease leads to increased muscle weakness and loss of mobility.

As her symptoms worsened, Heather found it challenging to work in a physical environment that lacked accommodation for people with mobility issues. It was also difficult to manage her class while adjusting to her loss of mobility.

“I had come to this crossroads in my life,” Heather said.

She decided to return to school for her other passion – international relations. In 2010, she moved to Canada with her parents to study and then find a job. Why Canada? Because of her family’s roots here and a much stronger network of services for people with disabilities.

But after graduation in 2012, Heather still found her job search a tough go. Doctors here had diagnosed her with MD. The disease’s progression had accelerated, leaving her unable to work full-time.

“I found it quite difficult to find anything that was part-time, let alone related to my field of study,” she said.

Through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), Heather teamed up with Ottawa’s Performance Plus Rehabilitative Care (PPRC).

PPRC works under contract with ODSP to help people with physical or developmental disabilities, as well as those who are coming off of any kind of disability leave, find gainful employment.

PPRC founder Linda Simpson and case workers Andria and Sofi helped Heather secure a part-time position with an NGO to obtain some practical Canadian work experience.

“For me it was a bit of work hardening, getting back into the workforce, getting some Canadian experience, seeing what my stamina is for a work week,” Heather said.

Sofi also put Heather through her paces with mock interview questions, brought her resume up to a Canadian standard, and counseled her on what questions an employer is allowed to ask in an interview.

It all left Heather well-prepared to break into the Bank of Canada’s short-term work experience program.

“When I went into the Bank, it wasn’t as intimidating as I thought it might be,” Heather said. “PPRC did a really great job to help me prepare. It was nice to speak with the people behind the job posting to see if they would be open to accommodation. If they were, I knew I could do the job.”

Heather has proven herself a capable asset to the Bank over the past 16 months. She has since worked her way up to an analyst position for a new one-year term, where she will be responsible for developing human resource policies and programs.

Since MD is a disease that is progressive in nature, it’s important for Heather to have an employer that is willing to offer flexible work hours. She works part-time and can shift her hours and work from home when needed. Accommodations have also been made in the office to help with her mobility needs, like being given a lighter laptop and planning meetings in nearby rooms.

Thanks to her own hard work, the assistance of PPRC and a progressive employer, Heather has been able to pursue her new career and prove a disability doesn’t prevent her from making a positive contribution.

“There are people out there who are willing to support you,” she said. “You don’t have to do this alone. People don’t have to have a disability to see how persons with disabilities are underrepresented in the workforce. Many employers are willing to step up and give you a fair chance.”