Couple aims to assist autistic adults with job skills

A Salmon Arm startup called Focus Ability is bridging the gap between disabled adults and employers

Spreading the word: Dan and Pearl Hiemstra at their Focus Ability booth at the Shuswap Farm and Craft Market on August 9.

A Salmon Arm startup called Focus Ability is bridging the gap between disabled adults and employers and preparing a program to help their clients succeed.

Dan Hiemstra, one of Focus Ability’s creators, said the company is preparing to launch its first six-week assessment and training program for adults with special needs, the end goal of which is meaningful employment. The first class will begin on Sept. 6.

Focus Ability focuses on high-functioning disabled adults, primarily those with Aspergers or on the autism spectrum, a group which Hiemstra says is in need of support both in the local community but also in the country as a whole.

“There’s a group of individuals that is not being supported after they graduate from high school; usually when a special needs person comes out of high school they are able to obtain some kind of financial aid if they are at a certain intellectual level. We are finding that there’s quite a few that are above that level and so don’t qualify,” he said.

Hiemstra said that as the aid drops off, many individuals are left desperate in the transition to adulthood and are in need of employment and independence.

The course that begins in September will feature generalized assessment and training in various job skills that will identify both special skills and deficiencies and offer personalized instruction and support stretching far beyond the end of the course.

“Through that training process they’ll be able to achieve much more success than they would doing it on their own,” Hiemstra said.

According to Hiemstra, Focus Ability has identified around 10 candidates for the course in Salmon Arm so far, many of whom have exhausted other employment resources such as those offered by Work B.C.

“There’s not much job support beyond saying here’s where the jobs are around town, now go apply,” Hiemstra said.

He offered the example of one young man who recently got a job at Staples in Salmon Arm, but dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer. Focus Ability helped with the interview process and provides him job support.

Focus Ability also encourages volunteer work for its clients, working with the community garden and the Silverbacks to create opportunities for work experience and resumé building.

Although the need for Focus Ability’s services are apparent, funding them has become an issue.

“We’ve been struggling a little bit trying to get some funding so we can run these programs in  a sustainable way so we’re paying our bills and providing financial aid  for those candidates who can’t make the $600 cost of the course,” Hiemstra said.

Focus Ability is accepting donations to help get the course up and running.

The business model for Focus Ability is based upon that of the tech firms Meticulon and Focus Professional Services who provide support for high-functioning disabled employees in the technology sector.

Meaningful employment for the disabled is a personal issue for Hiemstra and his wife Pearl who have helped their autistic son take his own first steps into the job market.

“We’re talking about adults who are high functioning, who are capable of being trained and working in any company in any area but have a very difficult time navigating the complex process of finding and interviewing and dealing with the first three months of work. That’s usually when they need the most support.”


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