Social work degree gives Kamloops woman skills to advocate, but not employment | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Social work degree gives Kamloops woman skills to advocate, but not employment

Image Credit: Angelsharum via Wikimedia

Trish Rhode has been advocating for herself for twenty years, and having a degree in social work made her even more effective.

Unfortunately, having a degree doesn't guarantee her employment, so she's also been handing out resumes for five years.

Rhode, who is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair, graduated from Thompson Rivers University with a bachelor's degree in social work.

While simply getting around Kamloops can be difficult in a wheelchair at the best of times, finding an employer that will hire her can be even more challenging.

"I've learned that planning sets me free," Rhode said.

READ MORE: Accessibility in Kamloops can only be understood by trying someone else's shoes

Whether it's a prospective job interview, or a coffee date with a friend, she calls ahead to make sure the place is accessible - something she's learned since acquiring her disability in 1998.

When she calls to ask if a building is accessible, the reply is often a yes, but Rhode says people often forget the small step at the front door. One employee downtown restaurant assured her the business is accessible, but didn't mention the washroom is actually down two or three steps.

"People aren't even aware. It goes deep," Rhode said. "It is a societal obstacle to employment. The government can regulate its face off, but without the people on the ground to get the job done, it doesn't change much. It's got to be a bottom up effort."

Rhode has two diplomas related to office administration along with her bachelor's degree, but she said employers often fail to recognize how difficult it is for a person to access or work in an environment while using a wheelchair.

"It's frustrating because I look everywhere. Everywhere I go, there's help wanted. I go into the place and I can't reach desks, counters, computers, and photocopiers."

Things able-bodied people take for granted, like the height of a counter or accessibility to a washroom, are difficult challenges for someone who uses a wheelchair. This is exactly why she pursued a career in social work in the first place.

READ MORE: Unique homes designed to be disability accessible being fought by Kelowna neighbours

"I've been labelled as a trouble maker at many agencies, because I don't take things on blind faith. That is how my bachelor of social work is just priceless, because I would not have these skills or ability to find out this information," Rhode said. "I had to learn about policy, procedures, legislation. I had to learn it because people don't know it. I advocate on a daily basis because barriers are just everywhere."

Many students eventually find employment out of school through their practicums during the bachelor degree program, which allows students to learn on the job. But the two that she worked at could not hire her, while one offered her volunteer work instead.

Rhode said although employers have a duty to accommodate to avoid discrimination, some changes to make a business more accessible can be avoided by claiming them as an undue hardship.

According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, accommodations can be avoided as undue hardship if they create health and safety risks or they simply cost too much.

In July 2019, the federal government passed the Accessible Canada Act.

READ MORE: Merritt residents who stayed are collecting rain water, helping neighbours get by

"This involves identifying, removing and preventing barriers in federal jurisdiction," the summary of the bill reads, which includes employment, accessibility and communication barriers in federal buildings and public spaces.

The goal is to "make Canada barrier-free" by 2040.

This does not apply to private properties, or properties regulated by provincial and municipal governments, but it could set an example for how to create barrier-free spaces across the country.

Until then, Rhode said while using a wheelchair can sometimes be isolating, she plans to continue to use her education as a way to advocate for herself.

"I can't go to a friends house because it's not accessible. I can't go to a movie theatre," she said. "I just advocate everywhere I go, which has labelled me as a troublemaker. I try to do it nicely and politely, but I make work for people."

She added she's thankful for the home she found for herself in a Kamloops apartment. After inching close to homelessness, she found a suite in an ASK Wellness apartment where the rent is reasonable and she is close to crucial amenities.

— This story was corrected at 10:25 a.m., Nov. 29, 2021, to correct the misspelling of Trish Rhode's name.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Levi Landry or call 250-819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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