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Embracing Neurodiversity: Redefining Success with the Digital Economy Program

by L. Mercer   |   June 17, 2024   |   Share this:  

Meet Mel Broadbent, a resilient, determined young woman living in Lac La Biche, Alberta. Employed as a Digital Service Squad (DSS) by Community Futures St. Paul, Mel works hard to support local businesses in her community through the Digital Economy Program, while embracing her unique neurodiversity. Her story reflects the impact of inclusive employment initiatives, particularly for those living with autism in a rural community.

Upon graduating from business school, Mel felt uncertain about her career journey.

“When I graduated for my program, I had no idea where I was going to go” 

In Alberta, most specialized employment opportunities gravitate toward urban centers, leaving individuals in rural communities like Mel with limited options.  Adding to the daunting challenge of finding employment, Mel's journey is shaped by her unique perspective as someone living with autism and epilepsy. 

“The city environment is incredibly overstimulating, and I felt overwhelmed and fell into a very deep depression. If I’m if I’m away from my support systems that triggers a lot of my conditions because I’m so stressed.” 

With that support system being in the Lac La Biche area, she felt she needed to choose between her health and her career. Mel's path took a transformative turn when her mother sent her a job posting for the DSS at Community Futures St. Paul.   

Initially, Mel brushed it off.  

“What happens with people on the spectrum is (we) take things very literally so when roles have specific qualifications and specific prerequisites, we will take that as ‘if I do not have 100% of them’, there is no point in applying.” 

After her mother insisted, she apply, Mel took a leap of faith and sent in her resume. Little did she know, she was embarking on a journey that would not only validate her abilities but also foster personal and professional growth.   

Mel felt that even if she was the best person for the role, having autism could get in the way of her being the chosen candidate.  

“I’m hyper aware of what I need and that dwindles my ability to get hired because a lot of places that are hiring don’t want to accommodate people. If you’re looking at two candidates and one requires six accommodations and one is just like just hire me and put me on whenever, of course they’re going to pick the one without accommodations. People on the spectrum often face barriers due to rigid job requirements, but this program offered a different approach—a blend of routine and flexibility that resonated with me.”  

Mel's aptitude for the role was immediately recognized and she found a safe place to land under the guidance of her manager, Penny Fox.  Penny could foresee the benefit to the business community that could be had from having Mel work with them. 

“Penny has been my champion, advocating for my needs and fostering a supportive environment,” she acknowledges. “She put trust in me. She sees the impact I have on businesses and how I behave when I am well accommodated, which is happy, full of energy and ready to work hard.”  

Digital Service Squads provide support and guidance to small businesses on digital adoption. The Digital Economy Program takes a hyperlocal approach by partnering with local organizations such as Community Futures. These local organizations then hire youth/recent graduates in in the community that understand the nuances of their region to work and support the small businesses. The structure of the role is based on deliverables rather than rigid schedules, which has proved invaluable to Mel.  

“The first six months were so much learning, and I had so much anxiety because I thought that if I did one thing wrong, I would be fired. After six months, I started to realize that if I forgot something, it wasn’t the end of the world. It began to feel less rigid and more genuine. I found my own routine that would actually stick. ”

One of Mel’s unique skills is that she can actively listen and gain a deep understanding of people’s needs before even considering a solution.   

“I tend to see the things that most businesses don’t even think about.”

This has allowed her to successfully support many businesses in her region.   

Mel found solace in a work environment that prioritized her well-being while providing meaningful and impactful opportunities. Knowing her environment, her energy levels and what she can and cannot control has been important.   

“Meeting and talking with people that I don’t know is extremely taxing. I can’t have harsh lighting all the time. There are days where I will be late because I feel like I’m going to have an episode and I need to sleep more.   Being able to work from home is very calming and it prevents burnout. I could work within my comfort zone, adapting my tasks to fit my needs. Whether it's adjusting work hours to accommodate my health or utilizing remote tools like Zoom for communication, the program respects my individuality.  Penny put trust in me to do what I need to do. My deliverables will get done and that’s all that matters. Having a manager who prioritizes well-being over strict protocols has been transformative.”  

The program's hyperlocal approach allowed her to thrive professionally while maintaining invaluable connections within her community.  Mel's impact transcends the confines of her role which has led to invitations to teach classes at Lac La Biche College and facilitate workshops within the community. Moreover, her experiences have ignited a passion for advocacy, prompting her to contemplate launching initiatives aimed at supporting neurodivergent individuals in their quest for meaningful employment.  

Mel's journey is a testament to the power of embracing neurodiversity in the workplace. Her story challenges traditional notions of employment, highlighting the importance of accommodating individual needs and fostering inclusive work environments.  

Looking ahead, Mel envisions a future where she continues to leverage her passion for technology and community engagement. Whether through entrepreneurship or finding a role aligned with the supportive ethos of the DSS program, Mel remains steadfast in her commitment to meaningful work that honors her strengths and values. 

“I’ve learned that I can work just about anywhere, but only if my brain and my needs are accommodated. I now have the experience that I was unable to get before. I would like to be in a role that makes me feel safe. Work is 40% of our entire lives and I don’t want to spend it being miserable.   I would love to keep doing exactly what I’m doing. Being able to help these businesses brings me a lot of joy.”  

To learn more about the Digital Economy Program and how our Digital Service Squads can help your business, visit here. If you are local to the St. Paul – Smoky Lake region in Alberta, you can connect with Community Futures here

About Digital Main Street

Digital Main Street was created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) with direct support from the City of Toronto. DMS is also supported by a group of strategic business partners, including Google, Mastercard, Shopify, Meta, Intuit QuickBooks, Square, Lightspeed, Ebay and Canada Post.

Digital Main Street and Business Link have partnered to deliver the Digital Economy Program in Alberta. Through Digital Service Squads, the Digital Economy Program aims to help small businesses adopt digital technologies to grow and stay competitive. The Digital Economy Program is funded by the Government of Alberta and Prairies Economic Development Canada.

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