July 14, 2023
Inclusion creates opportunities to bloom
Interview with Joe Steeves by Karina Sinclair

Joe Steeves is a young man who exemplifies how a passion for plants can overcome physical challenges and anxiety. He was born with cerebral palsy, which can cause shaky hands and a reduction in fine motor skills due to damage to the part of the brain that controls movement. His family would say he was also born with a green thumb.

Joe got his first exposure to the green sector when he got a part-time job in a Superstore garden centre. That led to a high school co-op placement at a local nursery, which went above and beyond to accommodate Joe’s disability while sparking a light. Since then, Joe has progressed through a series of jobs at different greenhouses and nurseries where a few thoughtful modifications by his employers allowed his love of horticulture to flourish. In a recent interview for the Landscape Ontario Podcast, Joe described the transformative effect of being accommodated in the workplace. Since recording this interview, Joe has since progressed to another workplace and is learning even more aspects of horticulture.

What inspired you to pursue a career in the green sector?

I have a really, really great passion for the horticulture sector. And as soon as I got exposed to this sector, I just fell right in love. So my journey began at MacArthur's on a co-op program  through the high school, and I got my foot in the door there. I got a feel for the workforce and I really clicked with my coworkers. I have cerebral palsy, so they gave me a lot of patience and dedication. And I learned a lot about myself there. And during the day, I would do plant care, management and retail, dealing with a lot of customers. I really got my hands dirty with the soil and I just loved it and I fell right in love with the sector.

For those who might not be familiar with cerebral palsy, what kind of unique workplace challenges does that present to you?

In my case, I lost a lot of oxygen at birth, like brain trauma, so I had to be born really fast. Relating to support in the workforce, MacArthur's was just really good at understanding and gave me everything I needed to succeed. Especially with multiple tasks in a row, I would tend to forget and I need to pay even harder attention. And I just need a little extra reassurance of what I'm doing. And so that was when I logged what to do and when on my phone, taking a bunch of pictures. I learned a lot about myself through the co-op program and spending time at MacArthur's.

Tell me more about the physical benefits you discovered while working in a nursery.

Oh my gosh, I would be here all day explaining to you. It was so, so awesome. When I was pruning and cleaning the plants, like a lot of the tropicals, it's really those fine motor hand movements with the pruners. And so basically it was a little rough at first. I was very shaky and stuff. But just those hand movements and my muscle memory  gave my hands the work out that they need. And I built up a lot of strength at McArthur's, and plant care is so, so good for my fine motor. It was great.

When I was young, we used to have a private occupational therapist come to the house and I'd work on little games with them with a lot of pieces and stuff like that just to work on those hand movements. So being at MacArthur's, tending to those plants all day was basically therapy and I found a really marked improvement and everyday tasks got easier. It's so, so good for me because it's my passion, but it's also really benefiting me in life.

How did MacArthur's Nurseries, which happens to be a member of Landscape New Brunswick, accommodate your physical challenges so you could contribute while avoiding injury?

A very good question. They had a lot of inclusion at MacArthur's. For example, when I was watering a plant I had to work on my dexterity a lot and I would be hunched over a lot during the time I was watering. So they actually made my own personalized watering cart. It had a grill and a two-tier cart with the bucket to catch the excess draining water so I would just set each plant down, water it, and any spilled water would come out the drain holes and into the bucket. And just wonderful, wonderful people there; Thomas and Ashley really changed my life because they're the ones that had this wonderful idea to make my own watering station. Thomas made it for me and he put a spout on it so I could walk the cart up as soon as it would get full and then drain it in the draining system at MacArthur's, it was perfect.

It just made my every day a lot easier. And everybody's so awesome there. They just gave me the time I needed and were so supportive. And every day I would go in there with a smile on my face because all of them, they really, really understood. Tony, who hired me, is a great, great guy and Trudy, another manager there took me under their wing and really, really trusted me. Now, working at a few more jobs, that confidence is always staying with me, and that's because of MacArthur's. I can't say enough good things about them because I've learned a lot about myself to succeed in this sector I love.

What do you think makes the difference between somebody just giving you a job and somebody making you feel like a valued member of the team?

Well, it speaks volumes of the company because somebody with cerebral palsy like I do, I’ve had to overcome challenges all my life and them hiring me was just the great, great confidence booster that I wanted to experience in the workforce. And thanks to them hiring me and I got some really good relationships and that workplace balance to really get to know what I need in a workplace and they welcomed with open arms for me to go on and achieve my dreams.

Do you like flower gardening as well? Or houseplants?

I love houseplants. When I started at MacArthur's on a co-op program, I had one houseplant. Now I have over 60. And any time they need care I'm always there and watering them and tending to them and cleaning them up because again, it's so therapeutic. Tropicals and annuals and perennials and outdoor garden plants are a lot different care-wise, but they're still a plant. And obviously I just love tending to them, it's relaxing and soothes me.

I've started propagating my plants. I'm just in the starter phase of it, so there's still a lot to learn. I kind of know the basics of propagating for now and I'm looking to get some more experience about propagating, but a lot of my plants now I have at home I can start them in water and they'll root with the rooting powder, some of them. It was a great learning experience for me. I took a super rare tropical plant I have to a friend that taught me a lot about the nodes in propagating plants. And she helped me bring it back to life too. With the proper care, with supplies and everything, you can actually make new plants, which I find so fascinating.

Tell us more about the people who helped you build your greenhouse and gardens by sharing supplies and tools.

Well, it just goes without saying, but this part was incredible. I have to shout out to Cormier Landscaping and Property Management. They came and put down patio stones and laid out concrete blocks to put on my greenhouse. And the crew was fantastic. And my dad and uncle helped me build a pergola for it. And I put a bunch of hanging baskets around my greenhouse, and it's just so pretty and comforts me so much.

What would you like to learn about next?

I'm very interested in little seedlings, planting from seed. And I already tested it out in my own greenhouse. But I'm just so fascinated by watering the little seedlings, starting them in the corrugated trays. We actually have a germination room at Farmer Brown's and I really would like to, down the road, get some one-on-one experience in there. I'm so fascinated by that.

Do you have any final words of advice for others who might want to explore a career in landscaping or horticulture, but think that they can't handle the physical challenges?

I just say if you really like this sector, I know I do. Like I said to my coworkers today when I was transplanting, I wasn't even keeping track of time and was like, ‘Whoa! It's noon already? It feels like I just started!’ I just get lost in it. I love it. It's so therapeutic. And anybody who wants to start it, if you have nerves, that's totally natural. Even I was a nervous wreck my first day, but I tried to spin it positively. And I really thought in my head, I'm there to learn. And if you're worried about not understanding it right away, just go after it because it's a great sector. And I've already learned so much, and I absolutely love it.
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This interview was adapted from an episode of the Landscape Ontario Podcast. To listen to the podcast, visit landscapeontario.com/podcast, or search for it on your favourite podcast app.