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Happy World Down Syndrome Day: What growing up with a brother with Downs taught me about Communication

My path into a career in Communications was a meandering one (I started in the education system, focussing in Special Ed), but my need to look at outside-the-box ways of receiving and delivering messages and meaning started at a young age. When I was five years old, my baby brother, Jonathan, was born with Down Syndrome and it radically impacted my life trajectory in almost every arena: relationships, social life, hobbies, chosen neighbourhood and career. In fact, advocating for Jonny was my first introduction into the world of PR. I even married someone who also has a brother with Downs! Growing up with a sibling with disabilities taught me several foundational things about communication that I think are worth sharing with other Communications practitioners and the general public:

You know what they say about assumptions

Having an alternative communication style doesn’t necessary mean that a person is different from their peers intellectually. I can remember speaking with a brilliant Vancouver-based poet who happens to be non-verbal and, instead, writes by pointing to letters on an alphabet board. She explained that people rarely speak with her directly and, when they do, they change the pitch and volume of their voice and use simplified sentences. How annoying is that! If in doubt, it’s best to just ask people directly how they like to communicate. If need be, a support worker or family member may step in to help you make a connection.

We all share many of the same needs, and this plays out in communications

We still sometimes use the term “special needs” when referring to people with developmental disabilities. However, no matter where people are at in terms of their physical, behavioural or cognitive levels, the vast majority of our needs are the same (something pointed out in this video). We all need to learn, to enjoy the company of others, to share. We all feel embarrassment, loneliness and boredom. Most of us have a sense of romance, even if it might not look the same for everyone. When we communicate with people from a place of recognizing the needs you have in common rather than their “special” needs, everyone wins.

Effective communication is not an after-the-fact consideration – it’s fundamental

Accessibility is one of my foremost concerns when I notice businesses and organizations that consider Communications an “extra” or an “add-on” for when there’s more room in the budget. Nothing says bad business to me more than a company that hasn’t taken the time to think about how their service or product might impact a diverse cross-section of people, and this is a huge issue when it comes to D-I-Y Communications. When organizations fail to do due diligence with accessible communications, it sends a message – to individuals with disabilities, to their family members, to their friends, to their support community.

Alternative communications and accessible communications don’t usually require drastic changes

Thinking outside the box on accessible communications is great. However, if we’re thinking too far outside the box, chances are that the communications idea isn’t realistic or sustainable in a fast-paced world where people don’t even know where to start (if they’re thinking about it at all). Additionally, most people prefer communicating with people in a way that allows them to blend in with their peers. Demonstrating competence on accessibility can require as little as sizing up on fonts, including intuitive pictures or changing your venue to something that can be used by people who use mobility aids.

For initiatives that require a bit more expertise, like how to include braille on a document or in an event, how to include captions on a video or how to facilitate public engagement with non-verbal populations, don’t be afraid to send an e-mail our way. If we don’t have an answer for your question, we’ll connect you to someone who does.

Preparing an office environment for a visually impaired employee

Here at Switchboard, we’re constantly thinking about how we can improve the accessibility of the things that we create. One of our favorite notes on this topic is from Adam Morse, who said “When we build things – we must think of the things our life doesn’t necessitate. Because someone’s life does.” In PR, a lot of the conversations about accessibility tend to center around web and graphic design – colors, font sizes, navigation, information architecture, alt-tags – the list goes on. However, accessibility considerations shouldn’t stop there. Today, we’re pleased to welcome guest blogger Jackie Waters of who shares some ideas about what business owners and office managers can do to make their spaces more accessible for employees with visual impairments.  

More and more companies today are realizing the benefits of having a rich and diverse group of employees. This is a step forward, because freedom from discrimination is actually something guaranteed in our Charter of Rights. The American context is governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that more workers with disabilities are finding employment where they can put their talents to use.

When someone with a disability moves into a new home, typically the homeowner modifies it to match the needs of their impairment. The same should hold true for an office, with one important difference: In B.C., the duty to accommodate is on the employer, meaning it is not up to the employee to make the pre-existing environment work for them. When an organization hires an employee with disabilities, it’s important to adjust the workspace they will be using to fit their needs. The Switchboard office, for example, is a vision-friendly office. For those who are visually impaired, here are several steps you can take to ensure your hire has the most appropriate workspace.

Office Interaction

Widespread misinformation about disability issues can lead colleagues to make comments that, while well-meaning, are insensitive. This is why it’s helpful to educate your current employees on best practices for approaching their new co-worker, perhaps through a training session that helps with visual-impairment awareness. Also it’s critical that employees realize the disability does not define their new co-worker. Their new co-worker was hired on the merits of his/her skills, so there should be no question of their ability to perform the assigned job. One practical way to help others reframe their thinking, is to encourage a person-first approach and person-first language. Is your new colleague a “blind person?” Try “person with visual impairment” instead. Or, better, consider whether their visual impairment is relevant to the conversation. If it’s not, don’t reference it at all.


Depending on the visual impairment, different types of lighting might be necessary. Additionally, a workspace that can be easily navigated is a must. There should be no clutter, and walkways should be clear of obstructions to avoid accidents. Documents and resources should be well-organized, and physically accessible without barriers. It’s always best to ask your new employee for help with any necessary accommodations. More than likely they will already be prepared to let you know if there is a special keyboard, telephone, chair or desk that they require.


An abundance of great technology is readily available to help those with visual impairments. There are specific types of Assisted Technology, or AT, that enable the visually impaired to meet the demands of their jobs. Things like magnifiers, braille embossers  or computer programs that enlarge or speak text are just a few of the devices employers might need to acquire. And remember, as an employer, it is your responsibility to provide this type of technology to your employee.

When it comes to the hiring of a visually disabled employee, the human resources department will be able to fill in any information gaps. If you do not have an HR department, there is a wealth of information online. It’s imperative that employers pay close attention to the requirements of disability-related legislation in an effort to protect your employee and your company.

By hiring a visually impaired employee, you are broadening the diversity of your organization and helping your new hire take part in the benefits and accomplishments of working. Do you have a creative accessible office idea? Let us know on Twitter or Instagram.

Oh, what a year it’s been

It’s hard to believe we’re nearing the end of 2016. We’ve got our fireplace on in the office, snowman figurines on the conference table and Michael Bublé playing in the background. In December our team reflects on our successes and learnings, and makes goals for the following year. Here’s a taste of some the projects we’ve worked on throughout 2016:

The launch of Switchboard

In February of 2016, we announced that our team was growing too fast and too dynamically to exist under a single person’s name. We made the transition from Kathleen Reid Consulting to Switchboard Public Relations roughly one month into the New Year.

Educating Girls of Rural China

In the spring, we connected with Ching Tien who runs Educating Girls of Rural China. Being a female-led business, we were thrilled to be able to support EGRC in its mission to give women and girls from communities in rural China the gift of high school and post-secondary education. Together, EGRC and Switchboard put together a Dim Sum Luncheon that raised $28,000 to go directly to sponsored women and girls.


Over the summer, our team did a project with Faber, an online platform that connects skilled tradespeople with contractors for construction jobs. Faber exists to bring a much-needed dose of ethics back into the relationship between contractors and workers – one where pay security, safety standards and reliable staffing are notoriously lacking. We were particularly privileged to join the Faber team during their Community Connection Pancake Breakfast in Oppenheimer Park. Their business has since been nominated for “2016 Best Concept Award” by Small Business BC.


Later on in the summer we were introduced to Cody Curley and Simeon Garratt of Spark. We were elated to work with a team operating at the intersection of two of Vancouver’s hottest sectors – real estate and technology. After hosting the most well-attended Community Crawl event at Vancouver Startup week, Spark was nominated for Small Business BC’s Best Innovation Award.

The Garage Sale and Harvest Ridge Estate

When our team was brought on board to manage media relations for the Harvest Ridge Estate home auction, the 35-acre Okanagan property had been on the market for 10 months. Over an eight-week media campaign, the property’s auctioneer, The Garage Sale, had more than 150 inquiries, 60 hosted viewings and finally broke the Okanagan off-the-lake record price when it sold on September 22nd. The project also raised nearly $60,000 for The Children’s Wish Foundation through a charity auction.

Starling Minds

In the fall, we were connected with the Starling Minds team, who have developed an online program that provides education and a mental health toolkit to help people manage stress and prevent depression and anxiety. Together, we crafted a toolkit to assist with the uptake of their program within their client organizations. The Starling Minds team’s passion for the work they do has helped them sign a number of new clients in recent months. We’re excited to see them continue to grow and can’t wait to see what the New Year has in store for their amazing team.