girl working in a stock room


How My Teen With A Disability Is Teaching Me About Dignity

Feb 8, 2021

Dignity is defined as the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect. It comes from the Latin dignitas, meaning worthy.

Think about that word in the context of teenagers and then add a disability lens.

My youngest teenager had a job and then it stopped in September 2019. For well over a year, she taught martial arts one night a week and made an income from that. That might not seem like a big thing to you and me, but it was a source of pride. Kids with disabilities are frequently made to feel that they don’t fit in. They can be ostracized as different and even labelled as problem kids. In short, they are not given respect or treated with dignity. 

At 14, she was a sensei and she loved it, plus she enjoyed having a bit of money to spend on Chipotle and clothing.

But then the job ended and there was no money, no after-school job. That year she was extremely explosive and angry all of the time. Our family struggled with that as we searched for therapy and support, anxiously lingering on youth mental health waitlists for months.

Paula's tired of the eye-rolling she sees when people believe her daughter is "acting up" since it's usually a result of her disability. Read why she wishes others would think before reacting here.

Finding Something New

After a year of that, I made a choice. I signed her up — during the pandemic despite her anxiety — for a Goodwill Youth Job Connection training program. For two weekends solid, eight hours a day, she did sessions on workplace safety, how to identify harassment and employee rights. The groups discussed resume building, workplace skills and strengths.

"This is a child I
have seen cry happy
tears maybe twice
in her life."

When the training concluded, we went out and bought some basic workplace clothing items: comfortable shoes, a black turtleneck with no logos and a tidy new pair of jeans. In less than two weeks, she had a job placement at either a local national coffee chain or a pet store. Even during a pandemic, those stores were open and accepting partnerships with the program. Both national chain stores had extensive training programs and were open to working with youth who were new to Canada, at risk or had an identified disability.

Immediately, my daughter spoke up and said she felt a pet store might be a better fit for her skills. As a teen with ADHD, multiple sensory issues, anxiety and FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder), she has learned to advocate for herself and she immediately spoke up indicating that a coffee shop might be overwhelming for her. People with sensory issues often don’t do well with loud, bright or overly busy spaces. I was proud of her for knowing herself and speaking up politely and articulately.

She started at the pet store in November 2020.

Here’s how that went.

The Pet Store

The first week at work my daughter came home crying. I asked her what was wrong and gave her a hug. “Nothing is wrong,” she said through the tears. “I have the best job on the planet.”

This is a child I have seen cry happy tears maybe twice in her life.

Most weeknights when she was scheduled to work, she was dressed and ready. She left the house with a smile on her face and came back with stories about work. Moving pet food, stocking shelves and selling a pair of sisters a hamster were highlights. The store also had a few pets and my teen quickly grew attached to the cats, giving them snuggles, cleaning their cages and feeding them.

Learn what it's like for Paula's youngest adopted daughter to have FASD and how they parent through it daily here.

At Christmas, when she got that first paycheque, she asked me to go out immediately and take her to several stores. She was anxious that a lockdown was imminent in Ontario, and she wouldn’t have the chance to buy all of her presents. It was early December and while I had argued with her about waiting a bit to spend it, anxiety and FASD don’t work that way. So I drove her around one weekend to the stores she wanted to shop in, and she spent it all on extremely thoughtful gifts.

"It was early December and while I had argued with her about waiting a bit to spend it, anxiety and FASD don’t work that way."

I asked her why it was so important for her to go Christmas shopping and I got an answer I was not expecting.

“Last year was hard. I had no money. I had no job, and I wanted to buy presents for everyone.” Instead, we bought some together, or I bought some things and added her name to the card.

“This year, I am able to choose my own and buy them with my money that I earned. That is so important to me. I love choosing something, and paying for it, and wrapping it and then seeing that expression when you open it. Seeing that expression makes me so happy.”

Kids With Disabilities Need Better Support

The reason why I believe we need to do better supporting kids with disabilities in the search for part-time work is dignity.

Dignity is having access to simple things that able-bodied, neurotypical youth and adults take for granted every single day. It looks like the smile on a 16-year-old’s face when she gives you a book she thoughtfully picked out on her own and paid for.

Dignity is tied to mental health and family health, and it is not something that should be overlooked for people with disabilities or youth who are at risk. Dignity is built by people understanding you, believing in you and asking you to be an active participant in society, education, health care and the workplace. It’s showing someone they have worth and gifts to give.

Dignity looks like a job for my teen with a disability.

Article Author Paula Schuck
Paula Schuck

Read more from Paula here.

My name is Paula Schuck and I have been writing professionally for over 20 years. I am a mother of two daughters, and I am a fierce advocate for several health issues. I am a yoga nut, skier and content coordinator for two London, Ontario, trade magazines. I have been published online and in traditional magazines and newspapers including: Today’s Parent, The Globe and Mail, Kitchener Record, London Free Press,, Ontario Parks blog and Food, Wine and Travel magazine.