HIDDEN HEROES: Surrey man with cerebral palsy helps others see their value

Neil Matheson works to inspire others who are disabled through the Employment Mentorship Support Project (EMSP), run by ConnecTra.

Neil Matheson outside his Newton home.

NEWTON — As a single parent with cerebral palsy, Neil Matheson chooses to focus on his abilities, not his disabilities.

“I would say that my confidence was instilled in me from my parents at a very early age,” said Matheson, a 48-year-old Newton resident. “I just always believed I could do anything I wanted, provided I put in the effort.”

Despite being born with cerebral palsy, Matheson has worked most of his adult life.

He now works to instil such drive in others with disabilities.

“If I can do it, so can you.”

It’s a simple but powerful message that “connectors” like Matheson are sharing with their clients through the Employment Mentorship Support Project (EMSP), run by ConnecTra, an organization that helps people with physical disabilities. EMSP is offering eight months of one-on-one support for people with disabilities, pairing them with volunteer mentors to help find them employment – and though this is year four for the program, this is the first year they’re tracking the results in partnership with UBC to hopefully improve provincial policy.

Matheson is the Surrey “connector” for the project.

“There’s one (client) who is non-verbal but uses a speech board,” said Matheson. “His brain is still there. He’s a DJ and he goes out and does weddings…. I’ve been trying to boost his profile and make it more of a business for him.”

Another client has done some acting in the past so Matheson, who has dabbled in photography, did head shots for him and they’ve signed him up for an audition.

It all boils down to relationships, said Matheson.

“It’s relationship building, it’s cheerleading, it’s about confidence building. That to me is what connects us. We’re plugged into the disabled community in a way that WorkBC can’t be,” he said.

“Everybody wants to matter, everybody wants to be heard, everybody wants validation.”

Matheson serves as an inspiring example of what can be achieved.

After graduating from UBC in 1994, he got his first full-time job with the Ministry of Environment in Surrey, as a data management tech. Then he moved onto the Ministry of Transportation, in a similar role. He also worked for Royal Bank for several years.

“I really tried hard to carve a good life out for myself and my wife as well,” he said.

Together they bought a home, a condo in Newton, and worked hard to pay the mortgage.

He took about four years off when his son was born and then landed a job with ConnecTra. But after a fight with lupus, his wife passed away around their son’s fifth birthday. He took a year off after that but he’s back at it with ConnecTra working on the employment project.

Matheson is excited about the research component this year because he hopes it will make policies in the system fairer.

After all, he has seen first-hand how tough it can be on disability.

When his wife was alive, they had an income of about $3,300 between disability benefits and work (receiving $1,500 in disability, plus benefits for their son, and they were each allowed to earn $800 a month without disability benefits being reduced).

When his wife passed, his disability benefit immediately dropped to $1,100. Grief stricken, he said he didn’t work for a year after her death. Though he received $715 through from a survivor’s pension, the government clawed that back from his benefits disability benefit so he saw just $1,100 in all. The financial strain was hard.

“She passed away and all the sudden, they say we’re going to punish you more because you don’t deserve a death benefit? It’s perverse.

“I felt pressure to work again or risk losing my condo, my mortgage,” he said. “And stability for me and Jake. Ministry clawbacks are punishing and completely counter-intuitive to how our social assistance system should function.”

He’s been advocating via email to Premier Christy Clark to change rules so death benefits aren’t seen as “unearned” income and deducted from benefits. Matheson notes in his emails to Clark that other provinces don’t have such practices.

He said he hasn’t heard a peep back from Clark.

“That is a very clear example of something that’s not fair within the ministry,” said Matheson. “So I’m excited about the project because the goal is to get a good snapshot of what it’s like for people (with disabilities) to find work and hopefully change policy.

“I can wear two hats and champion this (employment mentorship) program and say there’s actually a lot of things they’re doing right (in the system)…. I see the good they’re doing but I see huge flaws as well.”

Matheson also hopes to break the stereotype that everyone on PWD (Persons with Disabilities) is “dumb and stupid and not motivated and deserves to live in poverty because they’ve never been motivated to do anything.”

“If you look at just my wife and I, we were both employed for 20 years,” said Matheson, again singing the mantra that if he can do it, you can too.

For more information about ConnecTra and the employment project (which is still accepting volunteers and clients) visit connectra.org.



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