“It’s The Cherry on Top of a Sundae – Small But Good”
CUPW’s Support for Parents with Children with Special Needs
“My step-son was 10 and they had no services for him. Our family lived in chaos and dismay. The [Special Needs] Project was the first support my family received for my son. … [It] has been invaluable.”
Finding ways to help parents who have children with special needs was not always on the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ (CUPW) radar. But it became a priority shortly after the union negotiated its Child Care Fund in 1992. Through an initial survey, the union discovered that a small but significant number of parents had children with disabilities—and nowhere to turn for support.
After gaining full control of the fund two years later, the union decided to research the workplace barriers faced by parents of children with special needs, and provide support to help them work with these challenges.
The results of the union’s commissioned research were very dramatic (and continue to be confirmed by a growing body of literature on these issues). Parents of children with disabilities were found to have high stress levels. They were tired and overloaded. They took sick leave or vacation for child-related reasons, and made many economic and personal sacrifices that most other parents did not have to consider. Additionally, the union recognized that having a child with a disability affected these members’ ability to engage with their union and their community.
A key recommendation from the researchers was that CUPW set up a pilot project for its members to address these barriers. In 1996, the Special Needs Project made its debut as a summer program. It was so successful that the union made it a permanent, year-round project. It is now a well-established and highly respected initiative that has had far-reaching effects on the postal worker families who have used it, as well as on the union and its members, who have gained an awareness of the challenges of parenting a child with special needs.
The Moving On Project
“Our goal is for her to be independent. We’re getting older. We’re not eternal. So something good’s going to have to happen to her in life, right?”
In 2006, the union launched the Moving On Project after negotiating coverage in the Child Care Fund for adult children with disabilities dependent on their parents for care. As children in the Special Needs Project got older, they were no longer eligible to remain in that project. But as parents told CUPW: “Children don’t stop having disabilities when they turn 19.” In fact, issues of independence and future planning for the child’s security increase along with family stress and financial worries.
What the Two Projects Provide
“I have been able to put [the children] into programs that I wouldn’t have been able to. I have been given ideas on how to go about accessing therapies, and how to advocate. It’s been a blessing.”
The Special Needs and Moving On projects provide the following to members:
Funding to help with additional costs directly related to having a child or adult daughter or son with special needs, including inclusive summer programs (for children), transportation, equipment, services, and even uninsured health needs.
Special Needs Advisors, who call members three times a year to listen, provide ideas and strategies for community resources, and help in any way possible.
Phone-based support through a 1-800 number at the Special Needs Office in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Three full-time staff keep the heart of the projects alive.
Interview surveys during advisor phone calls to seek out members’ concerns and ideas.
Information and resources, including a newsletter, Member-to-Member Connection, which features articles, parent letters and offers and requests for specific help.
www.specialneedsproject.ca, the projects’ bilingual website for participating members to access specific information and resources on a range of disabilities.
Making a difference to the families
“Resource information has helped me advocate more. I have changed because of the program. Kids have changed too so they understand special needs better and kids need to learn that help is there for them. It has helped all of our lives.”
More than 365 Special Needs Project members and 80 Moving On members were surveyed in 2011 about the impact of the projects on them, their children and their families. The members reported the following:
From 1996 to 2012, 1,475 members used the Special Needs and Moving On projects, which provided support to an estimated 1,800 children. A growing number of postal workers have also become eligible in recent years—RSMCs, as well as members of the Union of Postal Communications (a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada), which negotiated a Child Care Fund with Canada Post. (CUPW administers this fund too, and all CUPW Child Care Fund projects are open to UPCE members.)
Making a difference to the union
“It’s been helpful to know that my union cares about more than just our day to day work. Adds a family feel to being part of the union.”
The Special Needs and Moving on Projects have enriched the union in many ways. CUPW has benefitted from working with a more “invisible population” of members who often struggle to keep working full time. Their challenges have shed light on the issues facing working parents of children with disabilities as well as all CUPW members with family responsibilities.
The union is more committed than ever to advocating for better government policies, funding and services for people—no matter what their age—who have disabilities. We also continue to be wholly committed to working towards universal and accessible child care, as well as improved public services for all.
The parents involved in the projects have told the union they feel they have a community of support and a sense of identity. These are principles CUPW has always promoted. The projects have not only been the vehicles for workplace and family support but by their very nature they have also been fundamental to creating a “national family”—the heart of what it means to build solidarity.