Breaking through barriers for workers
who have children with special needs

25 years of Research Action and Creativity

Reflecting on the Special Needs Project with Jamie Kass (Former Child Care Fund Coordinator), Shellie Bird (Current Child Care Fund Coordinator) and Gail Holdner (Special Needs and Moving On Projects Coordinator)

The Special Needs Project’s 25th Anniversary is a big milestone, and we wanted to do something special. So we invited Jamie, Gail and Shellie to get together (by Zoom, of course), so they could talk about the project’s history and what they think it has achieved—for members and for CUPW.

GAIL: Jamie, you were there at the very beginning. The whole idea for the project came out of the recognition that members had trouble finding child care given their work hours. In 1989 CUPW and Canada Post in bargaining agreed to look at the child care needs of postal workers. Out of the needs assessment, the union became aware of the additional struggles members experienced if they had children with disabilities.

JAMIE: And then the 1996 study [In Our Way, conducted by SpeciaLink researchers Sharon Hope Irwin and Donna Lero] really explained the impact having a child with a disability had on our members’ work. We heard about stress, lack of specialized supports and financial pressures. The summer was particularly difficult for postal workers with children, so we did a summer project in 1996. The focus was on supporting members with funding so they could find appropriate programs. They found it really helped them, and more people got interested. We put it all together into a full-year, permanent project that fall. We wanted it to feel community-based, so we made its home in Cape Breton. And then we said, okay, it’s about funding, but it’s also about support. And that’s where our network of special needs advisors came in.
In the early days we also did a lot of education. The 1996 study showed that people were working side by side and yet often didn’t understand each other’s worlds.

SHELLIE: Education and promotion of the project is still so important. CUPW is developing a network of social stewards and we will be working with them to help us get information about the Special Needs and Moving On projects out to members. We’ve also toured depots and plants across the country and spoken directly to 5,000 members. Sometimes people were angry, because they had a child with special needs and this was the first time they were hearing about the project!

Gail Jame Shellie Lucy

 G: We track where new members have heard about the project and it’s word of mouth 98% of the time.

J: I think we can’t understate the importance of the advisors. They’ve helped to make the project really special. In many ways, they’re how we hear about what’s going on in the workplace.

G: The advisors have a fabulous empathy and ability to support members. They help members find community resources and they conduct interviews on our behalf, but they also share members’ stories with us. It is important we understand the challenges, and successes, that members experience in their work and home life. The information we receive from advisors is key to being able to keep the people in mind when we are looking at the paperwork. I don’t know if the members understand how valuable their input is. Not only so we can tweak the project so it better serves them, but also in terms of feeding important information back to the union.

J: During the very stressful period of Postal Transformation the advisors really began to understand the collision of work and special needs for the members they spoke to. Those stories really helped us let the union and the employer know the impact it was having on the workforce. I think we made such headway with overtime this last round of bargaining because of that.

G: We’ve also used the interviews with members to ask about health care, and how their benefits were working for them.

J: And this led to some important changes to benefits.

S: And we’ve heard from members about the difficulty of returning home after a ten-hour day and then having to get on the computer to search for a program or something else their child needs. We’ve been working on a national database of supports and services across the diversity of disability and across the lifespan with the Canadian Centre on Disabilities Studies and the 211s in different provinces. We’re testing an accessible, user-friendly portal with members now, which will also be available to the public. It’s a big project with cutting-edge technology. And it grew out of feedback from our Special Needs Project members.

J: We always wanted this: for what we could do for our members to also have a broader impact. Pushing for better public policy has been our goal through all of our child care projects.

G: And just over the past year we’ve started two other little projects. One about supporting siblings of children with special needs and another to help children transition to adult services, which is always challenging.

J: The Moving On Project, which began in 2005, also really came out of hearing about those challenges from parents: just because their kid reached adulthood didn’t mean they stopped having disabilities. And we haven’t even talked about Member to Member Connection! It started as a little newsletter with want ads and offers. Now it’s another way for members to share their stories. And now it’s important to see what our members are saying about the pandemic—about what they have lost, and its impact on children with disabilities.

G: COVID is immense and affects everything we do. But it’s also very impressive how creative members have been with what they can do for their children right now. We’re seeing a lot more requests for things that kids can do at home. We know from the advisors that people are struggling to find the resources and services they need during the pandemic. We’ve adapted with a funding exception that allows more discretionary spending for now. The members educate us all the time. And we need to be constantly adapting to the information that we’re receiving.

S: It’s symbiotic. The project and what the members are experiencing feeds the union the information that it needs to more effectively represent members.

J: You know, postal workers are about action. Research is good, but it’s how you use the research that’s most important. The Special Needs and Moving On projects were the most important thing I did over my career. They made a real difference. This work affected peoples’ lives. It has led us to be able to do the most creative stuff.