Disability was never on Anna-Karina Tabuñar's radar. Although she considered herself to be open-minded and informed, she had no experience with disability. Until one day she became one of the 7 million Canadians living with it.
In 2009, Anna-Karina Tabuñar was juggling a busy life – three young kids, a husband, career, everything was go, go, go. One day, she was presented with strange neurological symptoms – balance issues, numbness and vision distortion. Like many working moms, she didn’t pay much attention to them. ‘I should drink more water,’ she told herself. Until the symptoms got worse.
It turns out, Tabuñar had a variant of Guillain-Barré symdrome (GBS) – a rare condition in which the immune system attacks the optic and peripheral nervous system. At the time, she had no idea whether she would get better, and was not permitted to work. “It’s devastating when you can’t work,” she said in a recent conversation. “Especially when you’ve wrapped your whole identity around career and work.”
Anna-Karina’s path to recovery
Getting better took a lot of time and occupational therapy. She suffered two relapses because she tried to get back to work too soon. Through her recovery, she surrounded herself with people with disability, who taught her how to use screen-reading devices, count stair risers, and other safety hacks. As she learned, she realized how smart and innovative these people were. And she also realized what they all had in common. “They were all unemployed or underemployed,” she said. “I was compelled to tell that story to help open doors of employment to people with disabilities.”
Talent Untapped: Telling the story
Talent Untapped is a documentary film that was two years in the making. It tells the story of five individuals at very different stages of their careers, from different fields and walks of life. “What binds them is their journey through disability,” says Tabuñar. The film premiered at the Canadian History Museum on December 3, 2014 – the International Day of Persons with Disability. “It was so moving because so many people with disabilities made the incredible effort to come to the screening,” she said. “It was a sold out crowd and over half was people with disabilities. I felt like I was speaking on their behalf.”
Through word of mouth alone, the film quickly gained momentum and Tabuñar held private screenings with organizations, municipalities, global corporations, the diplomatic community in Ottawa and many other unique forums.
Six years later and buoyed by the success of the film, Tabuñar was looking to do a sequel – but when COVID hit, she knew she wouldn’t be able to pull a crew together and create a safe and accessible environment. Instead, she decided to follow up with the people she already knew to understand how they were coping through the crisis. And knowing how innovative and resilient they were, to see what she – and other Canadians – could learn from them.
The original disruptors
Anna-Karina Tabuñar calls people with disabilities the original disruptors and innovators, as they’ve had to find solutions to life’s challenges out of necessity. “For instance, somebody who has to manage a chronic illness or fatigue needs to learn how to pace themselves – energy pacing is a very real thing,” she said. “They may set alarms so that every 15 minutes or so, they take a step back from a work station, give their eyes a rest, shake out their hands… these are little techniques that are part of the day-to-day for people with disabilities.”
And today, with people working from home, pacing can be a technique to avoid burnout. “Many of us no longer have the luxury of changing locations to shut off work, because we now live at work. We can borrow some of the strategies that people with disabilities have been implementing pre-pandemic.”
More Talent Untapped: The podcast series
More Talent Untapped is a special six-part podcast series that airs every two weeks, sponsored by RBC and EARN — the Employment Accessibility Resource Network, an initiative of United Way East Ontario.. Today, Tabuñar is working on getting the word out, particularly among employees at large organizations – such as RBC – who understand the need to be more representative within their workforce. “Building a diverse talent pipeline helps position companies for growth, innovation and inclusive prosperity, which matters even more today. At RBC, Diversity and Inclusion is a core value and we are committed to making our workplaces, culture and communities both inclusive and welcoming to all”, says Gopal Bansal, VP Diversity & Inclusion, RBC.
While it is intended to reach hiring managers, Tabuñar also aims to get the podcast in front of those who work with people with disabilities. “Listeners will learn something in terms of the way they deal with colleagues with disabilities and the way they work and lead. There is so much richness that can be learned and nuggets of wisdom and practical applications that can benefit everybody,” Tabuñar explained. “Ultimately, the goal of the podcast is to create more inclusive environments where everyone can thrive.”
Anna-Karina Tabuñar has been a storyteller throughout her career, and knows that stories can influence perspective, open doors, and break down barriers. “This era has sharpened my focus on the work that is meaningful for me, that I know has to be done to create more systemic inclusion. This is my mission, my promise to myself and to those who don’t have this forum.”
As the podcasts are released, Tabuñar says: “I’m proud to be giving a voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t have a platform.”
Learn more about Anna-Karina Tabuñar and how her Talent Untapped Group is playing a leading role in building more equitable, inclusive systems.
Listen to the More Talent Untapped podcast series here or wherever you get your podcasts.
Diane Amato is a Toronto-based freelance writer who loves to talk about finances, travel and technology.
This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.