Young People with Disabilities and Employment: A Conversation with Franca Ursitti
Franca Ursitti is a member of the Holland Bloorview and SCIO Community. As mom to a
passionate undergraduate who hopes to pursue a legal career, she has many insights on the
world of employment for youth, particularly in the high school stage, where gaining customer
service skills through retail or service jobs is like a rite of passage.
In our interview, she shares some of the programs that helped put her daughter Jessica on the
path to success, as well as critical challenges that continue to impact youth with disabilities and
her hopes for the future of work.
Nikoletta: Tell me about some of the resources that helped your daughter gain work experience
as a young person with a disability.
Franca: Over a period of two years, while Jessica was still in high school, she participated in the
Ready to Work program at Holland Bloorview, which was excellent. She went to Holland
Bloorview everyday and the program included skill building components as well as practical
project work. She was paired with a bioethicist and got to conduct research, coordinate
meetings, develop her communication skills and contribute to a project that would inform a
workplace training program.
What was really helpful was that Jessica was informed on how the project she was working on would be used – it was about health information. For her, knowing she was working on something relevant that would inform an ongoing program was rewarding.
Nikoletta: In what ways has the program set the foundation for Jessica’s success?
Franca: It helped her to build confidence and the program was unique because it had various
components. On the skill building side, there were workshops taking place and on the work side,
there was a bioethicist who was there to support Jessica in achieving her goals. She has an SCI
from an injury and the team was well equipped to help her find her strengths and contribute in a
The following year, as part of a co-op, we continued working with the team and the local school board to facilitate a co-op placement for credit. It was a great experience where she got to work at a law firm in the financial district with a receptive employer. Navigating the busy, vibrant downtown core, Jessica went through tons of growth through that experience.
Nikoletta: What do you think are the biggest challenges for young people when it comes to
gaining work experience?
Franca: When I think about how I would have looked for a job in high school it was typical
service and retail roles, and those are not easily adaptable to people with disabilities. Counter
height is a big issue for someone who uses a wheelchair and so is the speed in which those
everyday transactions take place. How you even look for those opportunities can be a
challenge. The spaces might not be accessible to navigate and with part time work, there’s not
an enormous effort to be inclusive, so it can be discouraging. As a parent, that’s the hardest
part, because your child feels like they’re missing out on opportunities their peers have access to.
Have we as a society really thought through how we can integrate these age appropriate work experiences in an adapted and inclusive way?
Nikoletta: And what would your hopes be for the future of work for people with disabilities?
Franca: I would love to see a world where everything is barrier free and irrespective of ability,
there are opportunities for everyone. That in the same way a person without a disability
navigates work opportunities, there are barrier free ways to do it too.
Nikoletta: Is there anything that can help narrow that gap for people with disabilities and their
Franca: I find that as time goes on, that gap becomes smaller. For instance, at 25, when my
daughter and her friends are out of school, the gap would be smaller because education helps
to level the playing field. But I would love to see the gap narrowed in the younger stages, so that
young people with disabilities could have the same types of experiences as everyone else. Living with a disability requires a lot of effort to plan and manage day-to-day activities. It would be great if the burden could be lessened for youth when seeking employment so they can be as carefree as their peers.
Nikoletta: Lots of parents of teens with disabilities just aren’t sure where to get started. What
tips would you give them to help their teens find work?
Franca: Become familiar with what’s available in your community. We live in the GTA, so we
had close access to places like Holland Bloorview and SCIO, who both offer excellent employment programs for people with disabilities.
Becoming involved with pediatric rehab centres or hospitals is a great start. Inform yourself of programs and find out what the commitment is to get your child involved. Start early; it will create the foundation for long term success.
Nikoletta: What are the overall benefits to providing inclusive work opportunities for young
people with disabilities?
Franca: Apart from gaining work experiences, Jessica learned a ton of new skills that have
impacted her path and will help her contribute to the world in a more meaningful way. We live in
Mississauga, so going to her downtown co-op, she learned to navigate the Go Train daily and
each morning, planned her route. Work opportunities show young people with disabilities that
though there may be extra challenges, it’s doable. You meet new people and network, become
more organized, have to meet deadlines and learn transferable skills that will benefit you for the
rest of your life.
Jessica is studying in Ottawa, successfully managing course and volunteer opportunities and takes local transit to navigate the city. She has built on the skills that she picked up through the various programs she was in and it set her up for success. Even her co-op extended her into the school year. Like any other youth, she has these experiences and continues to build on them