Quebec Fairmont inns begin hiring employees with autism as assist program helps out

Derek Selwood says he couldn’t be more excited to start a new job.

It’s at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, in the laundry room — the very job he’s been gunning for.

“I’m very ready to start working,” he said. “I’ve worked quite hard for the past few weeks to get myself ready, get prepared for the interview.”

Selwood just graduated from a program called Ready, Willing, and Able – offered through Montreal-based organization Giant Steps – which helps neuro-divergent people participate in the workforce. The program also works with businesses to make them more inclusive.

All kinds of programs like this are deeply needed, and not just for the employees’ sake, says Andre Pereira, director of marketing and communications for Giant Steps.

“A recent US study showed that 87 percent of families with autistic children do not travel because of fear of barriers they may encounter while traveling,” he said.

“But when asked, 93 per cent of those same families said they would travel if they knew the destination staff had been trained on autism.”

Pereira says there’s a lot a hotel can do to make the travel experience safer for those families, like assessing areas of a hotel that might create sensory overload with loud music or lighting. They can make more accessible dining rooms and outfit some guest rooms to better host children with autism.

When the general manager of Fairmont’s Mont Tremblant heard of Giant Step’s initiative, she said she knew the hotel business would make a perfect partnership.

“I put all the pieces together… looking at the strength that they bring to the workplace: discipline, honesty, work ethic,” said Anne Marie Johns.

“I though the hotel business — very warm and welcoming — we’re in the hospitality business, like a second family, [so] I thought a marriage between the two made sense.”

She says she was able to make the application and hiring process more inclusive to neuro-divergent staff thanks to mentorship and guidance from Giant Step and from Ready, Willing and Able.

“Without that element of support, I’d find it very hard on our own, succeeding,” she said.

“But with the coaches on-site that provide coaching for as long as it takes, we have all the pieces in place to make the program succeed.”

Johns added that there is no quota on how many candidates from Ready, Willing, and Able she’ll hire.

“We’re open to as many as we can take in,” she said. “At this stage it’s one success at a time and building on these successes.”

Staff from the program will be making the same wages, receive the same benefits, and have the same working conditions as all other staff.

“Through the Ready, Willing, and Able program, the philosophy is ‘same pay for the same job,’” said Pereira.

“It’s not about wage subsidies because that, from the get-go, provides negative connotations.”

For Selwood, the best part of the program was the personal journey it inspired, he said.

“The thing that I liked the most was really finding out a little more about myself and how autism affects me,” he said. “That was something I have to say I wasn’t expecting, but I’m glad it happened.”

Soon, many more neuro-divergent people will have similar opportunities as Selwood, since Giant Steps is building a $50-million autism center in Montreal that’s set to open in summer 2023.

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