John Valente was watching a group of talented young people with disabilities act and sing when the penny dropped – why shouldn’t they be working backstage too?
“The kids on stage had done a great job, but I thought about how great it would be if they did all of their production themselves as well,” John said.
“I saw an opportunity to integrate everyone, so the production was seamless. People with a disability would work alongside celebrities and other artists, either performing or working backstage.”
The accomplished producer, production manager and audio engineer runs The Jam Factory production company on the Sunshine Coast and is always looking to share his passion with the community.
John soon found himself chatting with local Veronica Wain, whose daughter Allycia has an intellectual disability. Allycia had a love of all things backstage and would make an enthusiastic candidate for John’s stage production internship.
“It was a new step for me because I love watching people go backstage and now I'm in their shoes,” Allycia said.
Clearly the shoes fit, because three months into her internship Allycia was hired for paid shifts at The Jam Factory while continuing her on-the-job training.
“I get to work on the speakers and the headsets. It's a huge step from performing on stage into management - I'm really glad I took the opportunity,” Allycia said.
With John as her mentor and trainer, Allycia has flourished. She is a member of a close-knit team and is in demand from clients who specifically request her for their productions.
“[Having Allycia onboard] has been a great opportunity for other people in the workplace to learn new skills and gain qualifications, as well as create a more inclusive workplace,” John said.
Just like any employee, John found it was essential to take the time to understand Allycia, how she likes to work, her skills, and what she needs to learn and be able to do a good job.
“It's a real learning curve understanding how to help Allycia, to understand where her boundaries are. But then you get to work and get it done,” John said.
For John, the desire to build a genuinely inclusive workplace combines good business sense and his own lived experience of disability. Growing up with a family member with a disability, he saw first-hand the exclusion and stigma they faced. So, when he designed his internship, he was determined to create an inclusive environment.
“We train everyone on the job, as well as a weekly one-on-one session to focus on any knowledge or skills gaps and to reinforce the skills gained in the previous week,” John said.
“With all of our trainees, the process involves building skills in layers while working up to using the technical equipment.”
John's in-depth industry knowledge enabled him to create training that focused on layering information, week by week, with regular revision to ensure retention.
“We focus on good communication and training in a systematic way so everyone can learn the necessary skills,” John said.
Overall, John says any changes needed were minor and worked to the benefit of all interns, not just trainees with a disability.
“As well as a training manual for our interns, we created a small notebook filled with important technical notes which fits on a keyring so they can use it for easy reference while they learn,” John said.
It’s not just interns and trainees developing new skills at The Jam Factory. When it emerged that Allycia would need a support worker for her shifts, the irregular hours and limited funds to provide this presented a challenge. So, stage manager Tayler took the opportunity to complete support worker training. Now, Tayler is paid to work with Allycia through her shifts.
John says that offering an internship makes good business sense, and The Jam Factory has reaped the rewards.
“A traineeship is a great way for people to learn and get paid, plus your business makes money. You'll get things like loyalty and dedication to a higher level of performance, all for a little extra time and patience,” John said.
“Talking to Allycia and learning about her as a person has helped enormously. It's not something you can take out of a manual. I was aware that we needed to take an approach that built on her abilities and didn't reduce her confidence, and that meant thinking laterally at times.”
Allycia and John are now preparing for her first solo show, where she will manage all of the audio production and lighting. As a result of her success at The Jam Factory, Allycia has been offered work experience at the prestigious Queensland Performing Arts Centre.
The program's success has led not only to increased employment opportunities for its participants, but there's been an increase in interest in The Jam Factory as the community rushes to support the inclusive business.
“The adjustments you make in the business to be more inclusive make sense, because everyone benefits. I never thought of any of this as a hassle, but something to embrace. It's a real opportunity for businesses to change the way they think,” John said.
“You need to think like a business person and a compassionate person at the same time. It's a balance, but I believe you must have both in business.”
For Allycia, the program has opened up new opportunities for her beyond finding a new job.
“We're not just people with special needs. We want to have a chance in mainstream life. It should be about inclusiveness and respect. Inclusion is important - that's my message,” Allycia said.
As for employers who may be on the fence when it comes to introducing inclusive hiring practices, John’s advice is clear:
“Do it! If you have a vacancy, training someone to do it your way is a sure way of keeping them with you, and ensuring you get the quality you need for your business.”
Watch John and Allycia's story and learn more about employment of people with disability and how simples steps could transform your business here.