BURNABY—CUPE members who are women with disabilities enjoyed a rare opportunity to discuss common issues at an informal ‘town hall’ meeting held at B.C. regional office on September 8.
The meeting, facilitated by CUPE National Women’s Task Force member Sheryl Burns (who’s also a member of CUPE BC’s Workers With Disabilities working group), offered eight CUPE sisters a safe and supportive environment in which to share their experiences as workers and union members with disabilities.
Their discussion was assisted by real-time captioning and American Sign Language (ASL) translation services.
“There was some nervousness when the meeting began, but a lot of positive energy by the end,” said CUPE 2950 (UBC Support Services) president Natalie Lisik, who has a hearing impairment. “There was a good exchange of ideas and a better comfort level for everyone.”
CUPE 1091 (Delta School District) member Carolyn Becker, who is deaf, said the meeting offered welcome relief from the isolation she feels as a deaf school custodian.
“It felt good to be able to explain how things are in my workplace,” she said, through a sign language interpreter. “I’m very isolated at work, because no one talks to me.”
Becker was one of several women present who said they have found, despite many advances in labour relations law, that their disability is the biggest barrier to advancement.
“It’s difficult to get a promotion or do another job, because the employer simply says I can’t do it—that I wouldn’t be able to do it,” said Becker, who served three years on the board of directors for the BC Deaf Sports Federation. “Even if I wanted to work as a teacher’s aide, I can’t because the employer won’t provide interpretation.”
But despite feeling stuck in this predicament, she added that she was encouraged by the discussion and felt genuinely supported by the other women in attendance—all of whom she was meeting for the first time.
One idea that came out of the meeting was to allow self-identification of disability on union membership cards.
“Why not?” said Carrie Bishop of CUPE 2262 (Castlegar Civic), who is dysgraphic (has an impairment in her writing ability). “For federal government jobs you have the option of self identifying as having a disability. If the union could do it, that would help us find more of our disabled members. Think about the difference that would make for their first contact with the union.”
Lisik said the meeting strengthened her own work as a union activist.
“I’m keen about educating on the issues,” she said. “There’s a real need to educate co-workers, and for employers to know what accommodation is required of them. But employers often don’t know what to do because they don’t have the resources. A lot of the time, things can be done that don’t cost money—but they can’t get around the money issue.”
CUPE 2950 member Karin More, who suffers from chronic depression, said she came to the meeting to learn about other forms of disability and to spread awareness about her own.
“Listening to women with other types of disabilities, getting that alternative perspective, really helps,” she said.
More, a fundraising secretary for UBC’s faculty of medicine, said she loves her job and is happy to serve as a workplace role model for people with mental illness.
“A lot of members won’t disclose [their illness] to anyone else for fear of retribution or stigma,” she said. “I’ve been pretty open about my illness, but my disability doesn’t disrupt my work, day-to-day. People know how well I work and how hard I work.”