Brantford's Bernard Akuoko overcomes barriers to employment

August 29 2017 - Bernard Akuoko.jpgSince he was 17, Brantford’s Bernard Akuoko has always been employed.

The 29-year-old has worked at a retail store, movie theatre, a call centre, a group home for adults with mental disabilities and as a peer employment mentor outreach specialist. He is a residence counsellor at W. Ross MacDonald School.

That would be an impressive feat for any young person, but Akuoko has an extra challenge. He was born with retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that has caused him to gradually lose his vision.

This has not slowed him down or shaped his life. He went on to successfully attend traditional elementary and high school. Unfortunately, through the years, Akuoko felt the need to hide his disability.

“As a teenager, I didn’t want to be singled out as the visually impaired kid,” says Akuoko.

His strength of will served him well at Sheridan College; where he went on to earn his Social Service Worker diploma in a year and a half instead of the normal two.

He was ready to go out and work, but his parents urged him to go on to university. This meant a bridge year at Ryerson University, where he took continuing education classes every Saturday morning. To pay his way, he had two jobs working at the movie theatre on weeknights and in retail on the weekends immediately after class.

The retail sector taught him some painful lessons.

“I had a manager who seemed like he did not want to deal with me,” says Akuoko. “He kept insinuating: ‘he didn’t want me there'."

One Saturday, he told Akuoko not to come in for his next shift.

Upon returning to work, a different manager surprisingly asked: ‘Where were you?'. He vowed to work valiantly so no one would ever question his dedication again. He fulfilled every task he was given and beyond. With his work ethic and outgoing personality, he earned the respect of his colleagues. So much so that four years later, when Akuoko left for university, he received praise for his hard work with a gift card, signed by fellow employees and management.

Even after graduating from Laurentian with his Bachelors of Social Work degree, he still faced barriers. Despite his education, he was steered toward a call centre job in Burlington. Akuoko felt the company took advantage of employees, demanding long hours for minimum wage pay. One morning, a new recruit came in. Just as Akuoko started to explain the routine, a manager stepped in stating “You can’t train new employees. You use adaptive technology. You are good at what you do, but you can’t train new recruits because you will confuse them.” (Akuoko uses a screen reader and screen magnification program).

“Stuff like that really hurt,” says Akuoko. “I started looking for a new job.”

His aunt, who had always looked out for him, spotted a posting for an outreach specialist position working with people with disabilities in Mississauga. Akuoko’s heart leapt at the possibility of helping clients improve their lives. He joined a team of energetic young workers.

“At first, some of them weren’t too keen on me. They didn’t know whether I’d be able to get around and meet clients,” recalls Akuoko.

He quickly put their doubts to rest. He walked, he took the bus, and he took the GO train to get the job done.

“I was on top of the world. I loved my job,” says Akuoko.

Unfortunately, it was a pilot program and his contract wasn’t renewed.

Heartsick and adrift, he applied to Wilfrid Laurier’s master of social work program, but he didn’t get in. At the same time, he developed a cyst on his jaw which had to be removed. The surgery was more debilitating than he expected.

“I was really down,” recalls Akuoko. “I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to move on.”

While recovering from the surgery, he stumbled upon a job posting for a residence counsellor at W. Ross MacDonald School for the Blind (WRMS). Realizing this was a great opportunity, he applied, putting his heart into his resume and providing a detailed cover letter.

He was offered an interview. Determined to get the job, he prepared a powerful 10-minute presentation, explaining how he would support a student with vision loss. A week later, he got the call. Immediately, Akuoko moved from his residence in Oakville to Brantford, where he attributes all his determination and work ethic to all his experiences over the years.

Without his determination and supportive family and friends, Akuoko might not have been where he is today. Akuoko likes to let others know that nothing will come easy, especially while living with a visual disability or any other barrier.

“It is important to equip yourself with a positive mindset and cease in making excuses," says Akuoko. “Prepare to take risks and fail, but at the same time learn how to recover from setbacks.”

With this attitude, Akuoko believes this is only the beginning for him in his journey towards employment success. Sixty-two per cent of the working-aged, blind and partially sighted population is not employed, compared to 27 per cent of the sighted population. To learn more about employing someone with vision loss, visit cnib.ca/employability.