Applying for a job can be stressful. Even if it’s a process we’ve gone through many times, there’s still a mix of excitement and not knowing if it’s the right move for your career. Or maybe you suffer from impostor syndrome – which you shouldn’t because you’re awesome and you’ve written a great cover letter.

But these are privileges for most of us. For those in our community with developmental disabilities, getting a job isn’t just part of a career plan. It’s the difference between depending on help and being self-sufficient.

Ensuring people with developmental disabilities have opportunities to learn and work is KW Habilitation's mission. This year, they’re celebrating their 50th anniversary of supporting families of children and adults with developmental disabilities and, in the process, creating a community where everyone belongs and participates.

Ann Bilodeau knows this mission better than anyone.

“As of April 28, I will have been here at KW Habilitation for 43 out of those 50 years,” said Bilodeau, the agency’s Executive Director. She started volunteering there as a student in 1978.

“We were a baby at that time. We were considered sort of a very small organization. Now we’ve grown to probably the largest in our community that provides direct support to adults and children and youth with developmental disabilities.” KW Habilitation serves over 1,200 children through resource consulting in licensed child care facilities and 300 adults in various programs across Waterloo Region. 

Government support services for people with disabilities in the 1940s to 1970s were much different from today’s. In Ontario, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services didn’t exist yet.

“If you had a child with a developmental disability or intellectual disability, in most cases doctors would say you need to send them right to a regional centre or institution,” Bilodeau said. “Thank goodness we had some very strong family members in our community that said, ‘No, I’m keeping my son or daughter at home.’”

Today, education is a right for all Canadians. But this wasn’t always the case. It can be challenging to imagine, but during the 1950s, 1960’s and into the 1970s, school boards did not consider a child with a developmental disability as having a right to education. It’s here where local parents started to organize.

“They banded together and said, ‘We’re going to provide our own, then,’” Bilodeau said. 

Things really changed when these parents joined forces with the local Kinsmen service organization. “There was a Kinsman who was also a parent of a child with a disability, so that’s where the relationship with the KW Kinsmen Club came in,” Bilodeau said. “They said, ‘We want to fundraise, we want to do whatever it takes to get what you need.’ The parents and Kinsmen got together and they called themselves KW Habilitation Services.”

Providing services in the early days was often in conflict with existing attitudes towards people with disabilities. One example was group homes, which were not allowed to operate within city limits. In the 1970s, change began to speed up.

“Attitudes really started focusing on why do we have these big institutions,” said Bilodeau.

From their founding through the late 1990s, KW Habilitation created services such as the Kinsmen Training Centre for adults, the David Fisher Residence and the Development Centre for Children. “If you had a disability or developmental disability, you couldn’t go to child care,” added Bilodeau. “So we had to create our own at that time.”

Bilodeau has seen KW Habilitation’s mission grow and the work opportunities available to the people they support expand.

“I worked there the first couple of years as an instructor at the sheltered workshop,” Bilodeau said, referring to a program where adults with disabilities could learn job skills and earn a wage at the same time. “We used to recycle headsets for Air Canada – at that time it was Canadian Airlines. So when Canadian Airlines went under, Air Canada took it on and we turned our operation into one of the largest in Ontario, where we picked up partners all away all along the corridor to the airport.” All the profits from those programs went right back into the organization to help support more people. 

While the sheltered workshop programs were successful, the KW Habilitation leadership began to recognize that those programs weren’t philosophically matching the organization’s vision. The leadership team started to look at focusing more on each individual.

“We started the planning on what a day in the life of someone could look like and what they wanted,” said Bilodeau. Getting feedback from the families and people they supported led them to build their primary site at 99 Ottawa St. in Kitchener. “We knew about the light rail coming in, so that’s when we started and said, OK, what’s it going to cost?”

With funding support from the community, the provincial government and others, KW Habilitation turned an abandoned parking lot into a full-service site for the people they support. “It’s got a wonderful attitude. As soon as you walk in the door, you don’t have an admittance desk; you have a welcome centre and you have a café, because that's what our people wanted. They wanted to be able to go and have their place.”

Having a strong foundation through the child care programs and supportive housing leads to KW Habilitation’s other mission – helping adults with developmental disabilities find work. It’s more than just finding a job. It’s finding a way to fully participate in our community. One way of doing this is with their Career Compass program that connects employers and job seekers.

“We explore community employment opportunities for anyone with barriers to employment,” said Bilodeau. “Who cares what disability you have? If you’re having a barrier to employment, we want to help so we have specially trained staff that have gotten into this work quite deeply.”

KW Habilitation and two other organizations use the model for Career Compass in Ontario. They all follow the same program so that employers and employees can expect the same level of connection and support no matter where they are. Instead of a job board for employers, KW Habilitation talks to employers to find out what they need and hire someone through Career Compass work. Today, KW Habilitation has around 85 people working at regular jobs in the community and another 50 in job readiness training. There are over 90 businesses that currently participate in the Career Compass program.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected both KW Habilitation and the people they support. There were some job losses due to pandemic-related closures. “There’ve been many that were laid off, but they were entitled to all of the same government support that anyone else had if they were working,” said Bilodeau. 

KW Habilitation made it a priority to make as much of their training available online and virtual as possible. “We found during COVID, people just wanted to take the courses that we offer.”

Many of these courses were made digital so that they could be done remotely. The courses focus on everything from interpersonal skills to how to work in a commercial kitchen.

“We moved forward 10 years in one weekend,” Bilodeau said. “We immediately knew that technology was going to play a significant role. For many of the people we support, the biggest area for technology was keeping in touch with their families.”

Along with using technology to support people, KW Habilitation looks to the tech community for both assistance and knowledge sharing. “Because of COVID, we look to our tech sector even more than we ever would have before,” said Bilodeau. “The biggest area that I think we’re all going to face is mental health. We’re going to have long-term effects and we’re looking at how we can help each other and how we can get immediate help to those who need it.”

Building a community means breaking down barriers, so everyone has an opportunity to contribute, earn a living and support themselves and their families. Learn more about opportunities to support and volunteer with KW Habilitation on their website

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While we’re still washing our hands, I see and hear that....The City of Kitchener has a Lunar New Year’s celebration this Thursday, Feb. 11 starting at 7 p.m. The Caribbean Canadian Association of Waterloo Region has their Celebrate the Sunshine event this weekend. Join them to celebrate the contributions of Black, Caribbean and African Canadians in Waterloo Region. uxWaterloo presents “Duet, an intercontinental collaboration that makes connections” on Thursday, Feb. 18 at 8 a.m. Duet is an app that pairs participants and invites them to exchange details of their lives by answering a question a day, building new anonymous space and connections.