Why you shouldn’t give up on your career dreams because of a disability
How one woman is leading the charge to help people with disabilities acquire both life and job skills
By Abigail Cukier
Melanie Taddeo suffered a stroke when she was 21. She was in a coma for two weeks and, when she woke up, discovered she was blind and paralyzed on her left side.
Taddeo was in the hospital for five months, followed by outpatient rehabilitation for a year. She had to learn to live without her sight, to walk again and to feed and dress herself. “My whole life was turned upside down,” she said. “I was in fourth-year university, but people spoke to me as if I would just stay home now.”
Instead, Taddeo graduated with a BA from York University and pursued a teaching degree. In 1999, she became the first legally blind teacher to graduate in Ontario. “My dream my entire life was to be a teacher,” says Taddeo, now 44. “I think I had a bit of what I call ‘stroke brain,’ when you don’t really have rational thoughts when that part of the brain is affected. My father just calls me stubborn. Either way, I thought I could still do everything I wanted.”
After graduating, Taddeo worked at an adult learning centre implementing learning programs for adults with disabilities. Many students told her they wanted to be more independent, but there were no programs focusing on life skills or employment training—so Taddeo created one.
For professionals looking for a career, there is nowhere to brush up on skills or to learn to look for jobs.
In 2014, she launched Connect 4 Life. Run by volunteers, the charity serves people living with disabilities in Peel, Halton and the GTA. It focuses on life skills and job readiness training, referrals to community services, advocacy and counselling, as well as sensitivity training for the public and employers. Its radio broadcast training program is the first in Canada designed for people with disabilities and introduces students to operating studio equipment, writing and presenting on-air. The program’s Voices for Ability is the first around-the-clock internet radio station for, about and by people with disabilities.
“One of the first graduates of our broadcast training program, a young man with cerebral palsy, wanted to be a sports broadcaster. He did an internship at Voices for Ability and eventually became our station manager and hosted a sports show,” Taddeo says.
She suggested he pitch a show to Accessible Media Inc., a national multimedia organization providing accessible television and audio programming for Canadians who are blind or partially sighted—now hosts his own sports show for the organization. “It’s amazing to help someone who has that kind of determination, and to see them succeed,” Taddeo says.
While the GTA is gradually becoming more accessible in its built environment and has many organizations providing rehabilitation, recreational and social programs, Taddeo says it still lacks services supporting independence and providing career training.
“For professionals looking for a career, there are not many places to brush up on skills or to learn to look for jobs,” she says. “There is room for improvement and we hope other organizations will catch on to that.”
For Taddeo, Connect 4 Life is a chance to help others while using the teaching skills she herself fought so hard to acquire. “I want to make sure no one goes through what I went through, being told you can just stay home,” she says. “I don’t want anyone to feel they’re alone. There are so many individuals who have great skills and could contribute to the community through employment or volunteer work, they just need to be given the chance.”