Catherine Décarie was sitting at her kitchen table with her laptop in front of her. It was 2021, and like many Canadians, she had transitioned to a work-from-home model as the pandemic dragged on. On her screen was a virtual ceremony for a TD Insurance bursary award that provided students with disabilities support to help them continue their educational pursuits.
Following the ceremony, Décarie – Associate Vice President, Affinity Market Group, TD Insurance – had a chance to virtually connect with the recipients to get to know them, their studies, their career goals and aspirations.
During this conversation, she asked each of the recipients a very important question: What else can TD do to support you?
That's when one student replied: "We're so grateful for these bursary opportunities, they really help us on our education journey. But what I think we could also benefit from is some real-life work experience prior to starting our careers full-time."
Struck by this response, Décarie thought about it for a while. It made sense. Financial support is one way to remove barriers for persons with disabilities, but providing hands-on work experience could really elevate these students' skillsets to help them move into their future careers.
So, she decided to take action.
After some research, Décarie discovered that in 2017, according to Statistics Canada, 22% of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over – or about 6.2 million individuals – had one or more disabilities. She also learned that among those aged 25 to 64 years, people with disabilities were less likely to be employed (59%) than those without disabilities (80%).
An underrepresented community, or from Décarie's perspective, untapped potential.
Bringing the Internship to fruition
Shortly thereafter, Décarie went back to her leaders to pitch an idea: A flexible TD Insurance summer internship program specifically for students who identify as having a disability.
In under a year, alongside a small but mighty working team of six, they were able to introduce the first People with Disabilities (PWD) Student Internship program at TD Insurance, Canada.
In May 2022, seven students from the PWD community were welcomed to work from home for TD Insurance in various lines of business and different roles for the summer.
Students were sourced through existing relationships TD Insurance has developed with several post-secondary institutions across Canada.
The TD Insurance working team made a conscious decision to forgo the traditional university career services outreach and instead opted to go through each participating school’s accessibility services department. This niche recruiting tactic was meant to connect directly with students from the PWD community. It was a unique way to look for exceptional talent, according to Décarie.
Shanda, a fourth-year student at Dalhousie University studying Actuarial Science, is one of the seven students participating in the first cohort of the program.
"I am registered as a student with a disability at my school," she said. "They send out a newsletter with job postings to the PWD community, that’s where I found this program. Honestly, if I had seen this opportunity shared more broadly, I probably wouldn’t have applied."
"Seeing this program being shared specifically with the PWD student community made me believe that TD meant it when they said this program was designed for students with disabilities. Opportunities that are marketed for people with disabilities but shared broadly are sometimes not as accessible as they claim to be.”
Shanda said that sometimes the standard interview process can be stressful for people with disabilities, because the formats in which the interviews are conducted tend not to be very accessible.
"If someone with a disability is applying for an opportunity shared with the general public, they might not be as confident to ask for the accommodations they need without the fear of it having a negative effect on their chances for the role," she said.
"Seeing a program marketed specifically for PWD students was reassuring and motivated me to apply."
The working team overseeing the internship program at TD Insurance provided hiring managers with the training and guidance needed to help students have the most accessible and comfortable experience possible. This includes offering a fully remote work environment for the entire duration of the internship.
"Being able to offer a flexible, remote internship was a conscious decision," Décarie said. "We were looking based on skillset, not location. We wanted to remove barriers for these students including the need to relocate."
Relocation may not seem like a huge issue for some, but for some individuals with disabilities relocating comes with many difficulties including finding accessible housing, accessible transit and can be a mental stressor trigger, Shanda said. Relocation could be the deciding factor for a candidate to self-select out of the program before they even apply.
Shanda works remotely as an Actuarial Intern, General Insurance Pricing & Profitability, supporting the Actuarial team in Quebec, but is currently residing in northern Ontario.
"Being remote has really helped me get the most out of this program," she said.
"Not only has it alleviated financial stress, but it has allowed me to work in my most accessible environment. Being at home helps me to avoid potential distractions and fully focus on my learning during this internship."
Building a community
Although the program is completely remote, it was still important to ensure students get to experience the TD Insurance culture, according to Décarie. At the heart of TD Insurance is a culture of care and a sense of community, she said.
Bi-weekly touchpoints with People Managers were implemented to check in on the students' experiences; to help ensure they're thriving in their working environments, feel comfortable asking questions and included in day-to-day activities while being remote.
Décarie said it was not only important to help the interns foster a sense of community with the working teams, but also with their fellow students participating in the program. Virtual bi-weekly student socials were arranged to bring participants together to get to know one another and help students see that they weren’t alone in this program.
"This program has provided us with a community," Shanda said. "Not only with the colleagues we work with day-to-day, but with the other students within the program. It was nice to know that I wasn't the only one going through this experience. I had six other students who were right alongside me. And now I have six new connections that I plan to stay in touch with outside of the program."
Décarie said the goal of the program was to provide students with the most enriching and educational work experience to develop themselves, and one that could possibly lead to future careers at TD Insurance. More than just the work experience, the goal was to make their corporate experience positive, something beyond just a 9-5 workday.
"I want them to see the big TD Insurance world and learn," Décarie said "I want them to gain that comfort level and feeling of 'I can do it and I did do it this summer.' To go back to school and want to come back to the corporate world with excitement.
"If these students leave with one thing, I want them to leave having the confidence to pursue their dreams regardless of their disabilities."