The sixth profile in our series features Steve Noel, Employment Counselor at Saint Mary’s University. I sat down with Steve in his office on Wednesday, August 24th.
Steve Noel was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1961. Naturally gifted with co-ordination and athleticism as a youth, pastimes included running and climbing trees, as well as sports like basketball, football and hockey. These skills were encouraged by Steve’s family, particularly his father’s side, which boasted a very strong athletic background.
The trajectory of Steve’s life would be altered at the age of 16, when he suffered a severe brain hemorrhage, leaving him with extensive paralysis of the left side of his body. What followed next was 10 months of intensive rehabilitation before he was able to resume his high school education, and a full three years before he learned to walk independently again. Asked what it was like attempting to adjust to such a life-altering event at such a crucial age, Noel offered an interesting perspective. “The injury was so massive that I couldn’t do anything on my own, even eating. The fact that I had nothing made it easier in a sense because you have to re-learn everything. I had a great number of friends who were supportive and remained so throughout the process. I also resigned myself to the reality that recovery was going to take a long time, similar to my education.”
Indeed, following this initial period of rehabilitation, Noel threw himself into his education with zeal. Inspired by a friend who was taking classes at Dal while in the 12th grade, Steve did the same, and finished high school in only two years. Following this, he embarked on a degree in psychology at Saint Mary’s University. While those around him were supportive-if apprehensive-as he began his post-secondary education, Steve never doubted himself for a second. “Everyone’s expectations were so low that I really couldn’t fail, but I knew I could do it.” And do it he did, graduating with his Bachelor of Arts in 1988 before returning to add his honours with a research project focused on childhood autism, completed in 1990. Next on his agenda was a master’s degree in Counseling, which he undertook between 1991 and 1993. I asked Steve what made him gravitate toward these fields, to which he responded, “I found psych really interesting, and it made a lot of sense to me. I gravitated to it more than other subjects.” While he initially trained his eye on becoming a sport psychologist, he eventually changed course. “They [athletes] are some of the most fortunate people in the world, and I decided I’d rather work with people who struggle.”
Following the completion of his education, Steve got a job working as a Clinical Therapist with Addictions Services in Amherst, Nova Scotia. While Steve thrived in the position and described it as “career heaven”, it came to an end after nine months, as the position was term only. This began an extended period of unemployment for Noel, who spent three years searching for work in Halifax before deciding to try his luck in Vancouver, British Columbia. A further year of job searching there, while enjoyable and informative, also proved fruitless in terms of securing employment. Following a bad fall in the middle of a busy street, he decided to return home to Halifax to attend to his health and have corrective surgery. The following year, Steve was hired in a part-time capacity in his present position as an Employment Counselor at Saint Mary’s. The job later grew to become full-time, and has lasted almost two decades thus far. Asked about his experiences in the position, Steve responded “my experiences have been that I’ve learned a tremendous amount…the position is challenging. It’s so specialized that I don’t think everyone can do it. I think it’s a knowledge piece that goes beyond common sense. It’s been challenging, but I’ve had some students who got really good jobs. It’s rewarding to hear them say things like, “I can start paying off my student loans.”
Given Steve’s extensive educational and professional experience, as well as his own practical experience as someone with a disability, I was interested to hear his thoughts on why persons with disabilities often lag behind their able-bodied counterparts in the areas of education and employment. I first asked him about attendance at post-secondary institutions, where statistically, the numbers of persons with disabilities is often well below average. I asked if this trend has begun to change to any degree: “I think it has improved, but it has only improved some. I did some research on this earlier in the year. I thought we had narrowed the disparity, but we’re far from on par.” He also added, “I think we’ve done a good job of completing undergraduate degrees, but we’ve had trouble accessing professional schools, like medical schools for example.” To illustrate this point, he cited the example of a student he knows who aspired to attend medical school, but whose disability prevented him from taking on the required full course load.
We then moved on to discuss some of the myths and obstacles that make it difficult for many with disabilities to find gainful employment. One thing that Steve noted was the hardships that one may face when their speech is impaired. “That is difficult to overcome. I’ve had some interviews that I’ve really aced, but I didn’t get the job. I don’t blame anyone though. I think the point also applies to persons with mobility impairments. I’ve known people who are geniuses but don’t move well, and have a really hard time getting jobs. I think that’s the reason. It’s also interesting that in my time here some of the most accomplished students have had the hardest time getting jobs. However, they have gotten jobs, good ones, but it tended to take longer.”
We also discussed some of the myths that tend to follow disabled people around as they seek employment. The first “myth” Steve discussed was that of employment equity. “some people believe there is a strong element of employment equity [with regard to persons with disabilities] and that a person will get promoted simply because of equity. This is false, and a myth. There is also this myth that if you hire someone with a disability they’ll be sickly and miss time, and that if you hire someone with a disability and they aren’t doing the job, you can’t relieve them. This is false. There is a stereotype that unless you’re fully able-bodied you can’t do anything on your own. This, too, is a myth.”
Because Steve has spent the majority of his life as a resident of Halifax, I wanted to get his perspective on accessibility in the city, and how it compares to years past. “I see a lot of improvement in the last few years, particularly in this area of the city [the South End], improved curb cuts for example. The worst spot I’ve seen though, is Quinpool Road and Windsor. The curb there is so bad, and there are a lot of wheelchair users in that area. I also want to mention the difficulty in the set-up of some of the crosswalks… it’s often difficult to hit the button, go around and onto the street, and then across. You almost can’t do it. I’m particularly interested in this, as freedom of movement should be an inalienable right, similar to education. I don’t think it’s quite seen that way, but it should be.”
One question that has been frequently asked of our interview subjects throughout this series is whether they have any pet peeves. As might be expected, answers to this question have varied from person to person, but when put to Steve, he had a particularly interesting answer. “My pet peeve would be what the media does to us. It’s unfortunate that persons with disabilities aren’t out there all the time because I think people want to know us. The world has a strange set of values. The world wants to look at beautiful people. If you turn on the TV, everyone is graceful and beautiful. They don’t want to watch people struggle, because it reminds them of their own.”
Asked who he admired most, he answered that it was Jean Vanier, philosopher and founder of L’Arche movement, dedicated to helping persons with multiple disabilities grow and reach their potential while at the same time improving knowledge and perceptions of them throughout the world. When asked if he had any parting thoughts to share, Steve replied, “there is a huge loss to the world because people with disabilities are marginalized. The loss from not mobilizing persons with disabilities in the professional world is huge, not only economically but societally as well.”
Each of the interviews done so far throughout this series has offered unique perspectives on a number of different issues thus far. The opportunity to interview Steve and gain his insights, particularly with regard to issues pertaining to persons with disabilities and the worlds of post-secondary education and work, have I think, proven to be an invaluable addition to this project. Until next time,