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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

On the job—Beautiful journey

Stuff’s people and culture director Annamarie Jamieson talks to Raewyn Court about the Creative Spirit programme and how employing people with disabilities has taught patience and compassion.

Media company Stuff’s Auckland office opens onto a large sunny deck with tables and chairs for coffee breaks, and views over Ponsonby. Also on the deck sits The Coffee CO-OP, a chic cedar-and-glass-clad café that’s only about the size of a shipping container, but it’s here that 300 staff and their visitors flock to order barista-made coffee—using only sign language.

Barista Sejin is deaf, as is organisational development co-ordinator Steph who shows me how to make a “C” with my fingers and swirl my hand to ask Sejin for a cappuccino, with the signed letter “D” to make it decaf. As she hands me my coffee, Sejin asks Steph why I’m here. Her eyes light up and she signs to me, “I look forward to reading the article”.

The Coffee CO-OP is the brainchild of people and culture director Annamarie Jamieson. It’s part of a wider movement, known as Creative Spirit, which aims to provide employment opportunities for young adults with intellectual disabilities.

Stuff partnered with Sydney advertising agency Droga5 to bring the Creative Spirit programme to New Zealand six years ago, and a number of other businesses have since joined the movement. Stuff now employs at least one person with disabilities in offices with more than 100 employees, and the Auckland office has four staff members with intellectual disabilities.

The catalyst for Creative Spirit came in 2012 when Jamieson was talking to a friend whose daughter has Down Syndrome. “He was very disheartened because although she had been supported through the education system, she was now just sitting at home on the couch.

“I came back to work and thought, you know what, we could do this. I found out about the Creative Spirit programme in Australia and it really resonated because it matched what we were trying to do.

“I was doing a building relocation at the time and the building we were in was quite untidy, so I employed two people, Emma and Chloe, to share the job of tidying up. Emma has foetal alcohol syndrome and Chloe has ‘failure to thrive’. When they arrived, I was quite open about their disabilities. I said this is what they’ve got and this is how we treat them, but I’ve stopped doing that, and now they’re just Chloe and Emma.”

Jamieson says it was interesting, because at first people sat Emma and Chloe on the couch and didn’t want them to do the “menial” jobs they’d been employed for.

“So I said, it’s about an opportunity to work. I think everybody has the right to work and pay taxes and connect and be part of a community and have a laugh with people. And now we treat them exactly the same as everybody else. But when Chloe first arrived and I said ‘here’s your desk’, she started to cry. She said she’d never thought she would have her own desk. And Emma said she thought she’d always just be pushing supermarket trolleys.”

After employing Chloe and Emma, Jamieson looked into the unemployment statistics for people with disabilities and found that 24 percent of the population have a disability of some sort, “and the unemployment stats for them are huge. It’s shocking.”

She believes businesses should take a stand in creating a community and a culture of inclusivity, but says it can be difficult to navigate the disability sector. She now sends out information packs to other companies to assist with the process.

“It’s worked so well here. We’ve created about eight jobs within our business, but we’re only one company, so I go out and talk to lots of other businesses. And people here have become ambassadors and created jobs for people with disabilities when they’ve moved on to other businesses.

“It’s such a beautiful programme—it’s changed our perceptions around being accepting of people and it gives people a sense of purpose. One guy told me his two-year-old son has Down syndrome and he said he’s so proud to work here because companies like this are making a difference and it gives him hope that when his son is 18 he’ll have a job.”

Creative Spirit was featured in a documentary about Portia, who has cri du chat syndrome and is employed by Stuff’s Waikato Times. “When the documentary aired, I was inundated with CVs from mums and dads. Some people had double degrees and might have been blind or in a wheelchair. They were prepared to work anywhere, but they couldn’t get work and I thought gosh, that’s an embarrassment for businesses in New Zealand if this is what’s happening.

“I feel incredibly strongly and passionately that we need to ensure companies have a duty of care to employ everybody from all walks of life, within reason. And it’s got to be real jobs and real pay—not a charity.”

The idea for The Coffee CO-OP came to Jamieson when the company moved into the building in Ponsonby. “Everyone was moaning about the coffee and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we had our own company barista? There was a meeting room on the deck and I decided to turn it into a café and I thought, instead of employing a trained barista, why don’t we find someone who’s passionate about being a barista, but has never had the opportunity?”

While Jamieson was speaking to someone in Government about making the space wheelchair-friendly, he mentioned that she wouldn’t want to employ a deaf person. “And I said, “why not? I’ll prove to you I can”, and that’s how it came about. I got beautiful people in to help me, an architect who made it really cool, I had Deaf Aotearoa in, a barista from Atomic Coffee Roasters for training and in two weeks we had spun up a café.

“Then, on day one, 300 people all learned sign language in a day. You could put a course on and people wouldn’t do that, so that’s simply how the CO-OP came about. That proves around accessibility that you can do anything, but I’m fortunate that I work in a business that lets me do these things, and I have a CEO that supports me.”

Following the success of employing Emma and Chloe, the company employed Steph, who has a communications degree, through social change initiative “Be. Accessible”.

When I speak to Steph at the CO-OP, she says, “There’s a lot of opportunity here. My colleagues are open-minded, support shared ideas, and especially embrace ideas that’ll make a positive difference to our society. Placing new processes can be challenging—there’s lots of factors to consider like costs, time, consistency and continuity. It’s about problem solving, creative thinking, and sometimes an MVP gets the ball rolling.”

Jamieson adds that the beauty of employing someone with a disability is that they bring a different lens and can teach the business how consumers with that disability might access their products.

“We’re in the business of sharing news, and say someone is blind—you won’t know how they can access that news until you have somebody in your business with that disability. It’s the quickest way to be learn to be accessible.”

Some of the companies that Jamieson contacts about following her lead ask her about the “corporation” behind Creative Spirit.

“I tell them it’s not like that, it’s just a movement. And they say, “what’s your policy?”. But I don’t have a policy—you can’t “policy” this. You just have to look around to see how diverse our organisation is. That’s what the coffee shop does—it teaches people about diversity.

“That’s my subtle but bludgeoning approach to proving to people that you can do anything,” she laughs. “And it shouldn’t be about a person’s disability, it should be about the skill set they bring and the things they can bring to the table.”

Jamieson says that as testament to how much Emma and Chloe have enriched the company, when a morning tea was recently held to mark their six-year anniversary at Stuff, every staff member turned up for it. “Having them here has taught us patience and compassion. It’s been a really beautiful journey for our organisation.”

RAEWYN COURT is an Auckland-based freelance writer.

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