VjobReady: Virtual Reality-Based Job Training in the Disability Sector Gets Real

Dean Askin, Communications Strategist
Filed under In the News, Inclusive Hiring
Close-up of man wearing VR headset, with blurred background of a tradeshow

Career Services of Brockville’s Cynthia Sparring and Chad Noonan talk about their vision, and why winning a grant and bringing VR technology to disability employment training is so important


Virtual reality (VR) is mostly known as the realm of gamers. But now — in Ontario, at least — it’s about to burst on the scene in the disability employment sector.

Initially, starting at the end of September (through to the middle of March 2022), VR technology called VjobReady is going to be used to help 160 Ontario job seekers who have a disability get a feel for what it’s like to work in the food and hospitality sector.

And it’s kind of neat that the employment service provider behind the development of this VR training application, is one of ODEN’s members.

Career Services of Brockville in Brockville, ON, spent the last three years building this first iteration of VjobReady. They knew they had something important, innovative and significant, right from the start.

On July 6, their efforts literally paid off big. The Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development awarded Career Services of Brockville a $380,000 grant.

ODEN talked with Career Services of Brockville Executive Director Cynthia Sparring, and Corporate Engagement Specialist Chad Noonan, about what this all means for job seekers, businesses, job training, and VjobReady future research and development.

ODEN: When you got the phone call that you’d received this government money, what was your initial reaction?

Cynthia Sparring: Well, I was extremely excited, because this was the culmination of a vision we had three years ago. It was just super-exciting to feel that all that time and effort and money that we had invested in this idea, this concept was finally coming to fruition. The real journey starts now, because we’re actually going to be able to help train individuals in this environment to help them become employed.

ODEN: VjobReady is food service and hospitality VR. How does it work?

Chad Noonan: The headsets are commercially readily available. You can buy the VR at any tech store. So you don’t need this huge system to run it. It’s a simple headset with controllers that are going to be as common as Xbox in a couple of years.

Cynthia Sparring: We put them into a very fun, very basic kind of kitchen environment that was based on the specs from a Kelsey’s kitchen.

Chad Noonan: We even took sound and audio, and use the tools that they would use in a Kelsey’s kitchen and mimicked it. There’s a few tasks somebody could do cutting tomatoes, making french fries, just like a couple tasks to see if we could if they could get the concept but more for us to see if this is a viable thing.

Cynthia Sparring: We ended up running 60 people through the [initial] study. We had our control group, we had people with disabilities, newcomers to the country, learning disabilities, the age range was from 18 to 65. And then a range of technology experience. What we ended up finding is that the people in the learning disability group fared better than any other group in the study. Knowledge of technology was more of a success indicator than disability.

ODEN: At what point did you say, “We’ve got something really good here, we need to apply for some government funding.”?

Cynthia Sparring: I really felt from the beginning, this was something that was very viable, but of course, you had to go through the process. So I don’t know what I would have done if the feasibility study came back saying, nope, this is the bus, you know, this doesn’t work at all. We were just really passionate about getting this. And so we applied, we looked all across Canada… lots of private sector employers were super excited about it…I think they saw this as a really good potential. But again, no one was willing to invest in it. We just kept applying. We were determined that somewhere else we’d find the money.

ODEN: What does this mean now, and what’s it going to mean?

Cynthia Sparring: I think this platform is a springboard. I think this is going to open up a whole new area of training for some folks that might need a bit more support; a bit more environment where they’re able to learn without the anxiety of working in real time. And so it’s critical that it’s successful. There’ll be lots of eyes watching. A lot of people are very interested in how this is going to turn out.

Chad Noonan: There’s definitely excitement around it. From a job-development side, it’s something different and cool that I can talk to employers about, but it’s also employers see the value of engaging people with training.

ODEN: Is the funding going to be used for just the training, or for R&D as well, to develop new modules for other sectors?

Chad Noonan: Currently there’s the kitchen one, which we’re redoing, but that has a lot of aspects in it. The customer-service portion of it is huge. It’s going to have a full, robust point-of-sale system, which obviously can transfer skills to other industry. The long-term plan is to create other modules. A retail setting one is definitely one we talked about.

Cynthia Sparring: Right now we kind of have the four fundamental builds that we would like to do. Over this next year, we’ll gather data into feedback, so we know what would be the best next build. With this build, we went out and talked to employers, and surveyed them about where jobs are happening; what training is needed. So I think that would drive it a little bit, too, is where employment is happening. And where training needs to happen.

ODEN: Do you think VjobReady is a cornerstone?

Cynthia Sparring: This really could be a cornerstone, especially in the research area, given that there hasn’t really been any new research about employment of people with disabilities since about the late 1990s or 2002. I think it’s really important. And I think that we owe it to do the research. We’re pioneers in this. For years and years, we talked about how there’s been no research, we have only anecdotal evidence. So I think one of our responsibilities is to push this research forward, and to make sure that the research happens and to be part of it.

ODEN: If you hadn’t received this funding, what would have happened?

Cynthia Sparring: We did this strategic plan that was really ambitious. We’ve just been very specific and strategic with everything we developed, but we’ve never lost sight of this piece that we wanted to develop. So we always had eyes on this. As long as I was in charge, I was determined to find it somewhere.

ODEN: What does being successful in this funding application mean to each of you on a personal level, with all the time and resources you’ve given to this? 

Chad Noonan: It’s rewarding just to even see where it’s at now. We had a guy who went and worked in the kitchen at a golf course after trying our VR. I definitely think that VR experience helped him understand a little more of the nuances, the ins and outs of working in a kitchen setting.

Cynthia Sparring: I think I’m most excited. It’s an evolution of how we can offer our training and broaden our business side of how we do things. What we’re doing when we develop this technology, I feel like it’s a bit of a legacy. We’re not losing what we’re really good at. We’re just bringing the two together to be more impactful.

ODEN:  And being awarded government funding is going to help you capitalize on all of that and take it to the next level?

Cynthia Sparring: Yes, absolutely.

ODEN: What’s your best advice for other agencies and employment service providers that might be looking at applying for funding, for something like this?

Cynthia Sparring:  If you believe in it, just stick with it and try different reach-out across the regions. Reach out to like-minded agencies. Seek them out, have conversations.  Keep at it. I think we just have to pour the passion of what we believe in what we’re doing, and just not be afraid go after funding anywhere.

ODEN: What if someone’s never applied for project funding before? What would you say to them?

Cynthia Sparring: Build the straw dog, and don’t be afraid of the process. The other thing I would say is, don’t try and fit in the box. Be broad; be expansive; be sky’s the limit idea. Don’t sell your dream to just fit a proposal. Don’t be afraid to pass one by if it’s too prescriptive.

ODEN: What’s the immediate plan for VjobReady training over the next few months?

Chad Noonan: The other organizations have the technology in their hands now. They’re working through how to use it. Once we get everything going, it’ll be definitely a hit-the-ground-running approach. Hopefully schools are rocking and rolling, and open. And we can get in there, start getting students through as well, and then getting people in the job.

Cynthia Sparring: The one thing I would say is, even though it’s leading-edge technology in the twenty-first century, and we talk about how all gamers use VR, we really did this build so that everybody could have access to it. We’ve just had a conversation with a group in Ottawa that specializes in autism, and they are just over the moon about this technology for their folks. And it’s not just for young people who are starting out. It’s across the board for everyone who wants to be exposed to a work environment in little more supportive setting that’s not so frightening.


This interview has been condensed and edited for this post. Listen to the full conversation with Cynthia and Chad on ODEN’s You Can’t Spell Inclusion Without a D podcast. You can also download the episode.