Christy De Souza and Kellie Simmons both work in this country’s banking sector.
Since January, De Souza, 31, has been employed in Republic Bank Ltd’s human resources department, while Simmons, 29, has been working as a banking concierge with Scotiabank T&T since 2020.
De Souza had previously worked in the public service at the Office of the Prime Minister before transitioning to the private sector. Simmons, on the other hand, previously interned at the Central Bank of T&T.
Both De Souza’s and Simmons’ stories may sound common enough.
But they are not.
The women are Down Syndrome self-advocates.
And were able to enter the world of work through the Down Syndrome Family Network’s mentorship programme.
But Karen Tom Yew-Jardine, the general manager of Group Marketing and Communication at Republic Bank, wants you to know that the bank’s decision to hire De Souza was not meant to be trendy.
Tom Yew-Jardine said the bank has been partnering with the Down Syndrome Family Network over the past decade as part of the Republic’s Power to Make a Difference programme.
“The interaction with Christy has really been so beneficial and a learning experience for us all,” Tom Yew-Jardine said.
She said when you work with someone on a daily basis you get to learn about them and the challenges they may face.
“Christy teaches some of the older staff, who may not be as technologically savvy, about computer shortcuts. She is also the resident deejay in HR because she loves music so she would bring her speaker and play her music during the day. And of course, it is an avenue to allow the HR team, who have the privilege and opportunity of interacting with her, to get to know one on one how people who have different abilities are in a real genuine, non-contrived setting, which is important,” she said.
Tom Yew-Jardine said “Respect for the Individual” is one of the bank’s five core values.
“Respect for the Individual is really at the core of inclusivity,” she said.
“All the research shows that having as wide and diverse a talent pool, in the long run, redounds to the benefit of the organisation,” she said.
Scotiabank, where Simmons works, said its most important investment is the one it makes in its people.
“As such, we strive to create an inclusive culture where every employee is empowered to reach their fullest potential, respected for who they are, and their differences and similarities are embraced. We unlock our employees’ potential through bias-free practices and one set of inclusive values across the Bank,” it stated.
Scotiabank said its present employee base has people of all abilities.
“The inclusion of people with visible and non-visible disabilities remains a priority for the long-term success of our bank. Inclusion of diverse people and perspectives allows uniqueness and we believe that differences should be celebrated,” Scotiabank stated.
“We seek to develop an inclusive workplace by recruiting, developing, and advancing people of all abilities and promote an environment where every employee has access to workplace resources and accommodations to reach their fullest potential,” said the bank.
Scotiabank said in its most recent employee feedback, 93 per cent of its employees believe that the Bank is building and supporting an inclusive workforce.
Tuesday (March 21) is World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD), which signifies the uniqueness of three copies of the 21st chromosome that causes Down Syndrome
This year, the theme for WDSD is “With Us, Not For Us,” and encourages communities to move from the outdated charity model in which people with disabilities were treated as objects of charity, deserving of pity and relying on others for support.
Lisa Ghany of the Down Syndrome Network said the day is a platform to talk about the challenges that people face and also to remind the Government and the people of T&T that there is a great deal of work still to be done to make sure that there is equality and inclusivity for people with disabilities in our country.
Ghany said when the Down Syndrome Family Network scanned the local environment, it realised that many people with disabilities were not employed. This was due to several reasons including deficiencies in education.
“What we always say is that if you are not educated you cannot be integrated. We have a lot of jobs vacant but employers would tell you that they are just not employable because they do not have the right skills to fit the jobs that are available,” Ghany said
That is where the mentorship programme came into play, she said.
“Because we were able to identify persons in our network who could be employed, who were young adults, who had gone through some level of schooling and were now ready to go out into the workplace so that is how the mentorship programme started and we approached corporate T&T and also the government,” she said.
Ghany said the Office of the Prime Minister was the first ministry to come on board when they employed De Souza who worked in the Ministry of Gender and Child Affairs.
“And she did very well there and was very included and she had her position there. She became an on-the-job trainee and also went through that programme,” Ghany said.
Ghany said so far in the mentorship programme they would have had about six self-advocates who are now in employment.
“I think we’ve touched the tip of the iceberg,” Ghany said.
Ghany said the Down Syndrome Family Network has been bringing awareness to the situation in T&T.
“Through the Lots of Socks campaign and the Buddy Walk we have been able to really get the national community on board with recognising Down Syndrome and understanding a lot about what it is and what persons can do. It has brought a lot of families out of their shells,” she said.
“It brought them out and it got them to be participating, taking their children out, going to the movies, going anywhere, it has given them that courage to bring their children out and not be afraid of being bullied or laughed at,” Ghany said.
Ghany said people have been coming forward willing to take a person on board.
“But at the end of the day, it comes back to who do we send because you cannot send a child who does not have the competencies because we want them to work and perform the duties that they are assigned and not fail, we do not want them to fail. You know you can make mistakes, everybody, we all make mistakes when we go to do a job the first time. But at the end of the day they have got to be at least functionally literate and be able to communicate so they can be understood in the workplace,” Ghany said.
“In those areas we still have a lot of work to do with the parents and with the school to get them on board and that brings us to the major part of the Down Syndrome work has been in the area of advocacy,” she said.
Ghany said the organisation has lobbied continuously with the government through the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of social development and the Office of the Prime Minister-Gender and Child Affairs to have legislation passed because we already have a policy on disability.
“T&T has a disability policy and we have not yet taken it to the next step to legislation. And that is what we really need because, without legislation, it is still at the discretion of the employer or at the discretion of the school to say yes I am going to take your child,” Ghany said.