Jon Breen in no way fits the mold of the stereotypical bureaucrat; and he’s got the statistics to prove it.
He is the manager of Disability Employment Services (DES), which is a division of the Workplace Diversity Employment Office.
“Our mandate is to give people with disabilities increased representation within the Yukon government,” he says of his office. “We’ve been in existence for six years.”
For Breen, his office fills an important role in advocating for a group of people that sometimes gets neglected.
“Historically, employment rates for people with disabilities have been far below average. It’s not that they don’t want to work, it’s that there are a variety of barriers in the way. Systemic barriers, corporate barriers and attitudinal barriers.”
Recent estimates place the proportion of disabled people in the Yukon at 14 per cent. By extension, that means the goal of DES is to see that 14 per cent of all Yukon government employees are disabled. “It is important for the government to be representative of the people it serves,” says Breen matter-of-factly.
“When our office started, five per cent of YTG employees were disabled, now that number is 11 per cent.” Then, as if to put a cherry on top of the sundae, Breen reports: “We recently did a client satisfaction survey and 88 per cent of clients rated our services as ‘Good’ or ‘Very Good’.”
This success is the result of Breen’s proactive approach to management. “I abandoned the polite and Canadian approach that if you wait for things, good things will happen.”
As with many people who excel at their profession, there is something deeply personal driving Breen to succeed. In 1953, when he was an infant in Winnipeg, Breen contracted polio. Now he walks with the help of arm braces.
Still, Breen has never felt particularly oppressed by his disability. “I just got used to growing up with whatever limitations I had.”
As impressive as the growth in employment has been, Breen is still reluctant to take too much credit. He recognizes that the Yukon government’s journey toward employment parity is in part due to an overall social trend in which disabled people are becoming increasingly enfranchised.
“Opportunities for disabled people have improved significantly,” say Breen. “It really had a lot to do with the Vietnam War. Vets came back disabled and started demanding services. Sport wheelchairs came out of that era.”
And for our part, Breen finds that Whitehorse is ahead of the curve. “There is always more that could be done, but we are doing well,” he says. “We have had a very proactive community for quite some time.”
Whereas once the Yukon was deemed too harsh for many disabled people to live in, now those very same people are actually choosing to move to the Yukon. “More and more people are willing to give the Yukon a shot, and less people are moving away because of their disabilities.”
There is an ironic note to all of this though: as Breen continues to work hard to make the Yukon an attractive place to live and work, the very job he excels at may become obsolete. One suspects he would take some pride in being the victim of his own success.
Peter Jickling is a Whitehorse playwright and the assistant editor of What’s Up Yukon