A number of years ago I encountered a fellow wheelchair user on my commute to work. He was a young man, I'm guessing in his late teens or early 20s. I saw him a couple of times a week. He always had university textbooks on the tray table attached to the front of his chair and, based on their titles, I assumed he was studying something business-y. I say assumed, because he and I never actually spoke. We just did the silent smile and acknowledgement often shared by wheelchair users encountering each other in public spaces. I like to call it the crip-nod.
After a couple of years of traveling together, this man was suddenly gone. I assumed he had finished his degree and gone off to be an accountant somewhere. Not the job of my dreams, but I liked to think he was happy enough to join the 9 to 5 army with his business degree in a frame in his office. I was pleased for him.
Maybe a year or more after he vanished from my morning commute I saw this man again. This time he wasn't on a train with a chair full of textbooks. He was selling The Big Issue outside Parliament station. My heart skipped a beat when I saw him. Of all the hypothetical careers I'd dreamed up for him, this hadn't factored amongst them.
I must stress at this point that The Big Issue is a wonderful publication. I buy it often. It provides opportunities for many people who are disadvantaged by one circumstance or another. "Get your Big Issue! Help the homeless and long term unemployed" is the cry of the vendor I often purchase from. And I'm happy to. Big Issue vendors come from a variety of backgrounds and many of them are people with disabilities, like my former fellow commuter.
The day I first saw him again, his tray now covered with plastic wrapped magazines instead of textbooks, I wasn't surprised. I had imagined a life and a career for him, but I know how these things work. Having graduated from university myself and faced an enormous struggle to find work many years ago, I know how difficult it is. The battle to find a workplace that's wheelchair accessible is a feat in itself, let alone an employer who's going to be cool about employing someone with a disability in a job you actually want to do.
I really wish I'd counted the number of job interviews I attended during my six-month term of unemployment straight out of uni. I was on the DSP, and I certainly didn't want to be. I was willing and able to work. I hated the thought of not being financially independent, but I was grateful for the income support the pension provided while I was busy writing job applications and attending interview after interview.
My favourites were the ones where I couldn't even get into the building. I quickly learned that asking if an interview space was wheelchair accessible was a bad idea; it gave a potential employer an immediate bad impression. It was either a black mark against my name, or a straight up discussion of why I wouldn't be able to work there because they had no wheelchair access. Then again, not mentioning it sometimes meant that I had to be interviewed outside. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Whenever political discussions turn to pensions, I'm reminded that our leaders (whoever they may be at the time) do not understand the deeply entrenched discrimination faced by people with disabilities in Australia, especially when it comes to employment. Making the DSP harder to get isn't going to "entice" people with disabilities into the workforce. We're already enticed. Some of us are desperate for opportunities to contribute and to earn a living.
The problem for many people with disabilities is not that we are not able to work a certain number of hours a week. It's that no-one will let us.
You can re-assess people until the cows come home. It won't create jobs, it won't create access and it won't change the negative attitudes and low expectations faced by people with disabilities. Perhaps the National Disability Insurance Scheme can address those things in the long-term. But for now, taking some of the most disadvantaged people in our communities and subjecting them to assessments that don't take into account the very real discrimination they face, is pointless.
We need flexible employment, reasonable adjustments and for society to invest in us.
Sometimes, when I pass the entrance to Parliament station and my friend from the train is not there, I smile. I indulge in the fantasy that he's working in the job those textbooks equipped him for, paying off his HECS debt and being a corporate slave. I breathe a little easier when he's not there. But he always shows up again. He no longer bothers with the crip-nod. I go about my day, desperately hoping I never lay eyes on him again.
As we are all aware the International Day of People with Disability is about promoting an understanding of people with disability and encouraging support for their dignity, rights and well-being. Today I want to focus on employment as a means of achieving this goal. Everybody should have the right to access and participate in employment. Employment is one of the key elements in assisting somebody to live a happy, healthy and productive life. Employment not only provides the capacity to achieve greater financial independence but it promotes dignity and social and mental wellbeing for people. It enables people to actively contribute within their community.
Furthermore, increased workforce participation of people with disability underpins the long term financial viability of the NDIS. In order to meet this goal it is vital that a strong and efficient employment support system exists that will assist people to participate to their full potential. But do we have the right support systems in place?
The Commonwealth Government currently invests approximately $6.8 Billion per annum in specialist disability employment services (this includes Disability Employment Services and Australian Disability Enterprises), yet the labour force participation rate for people with disability 15-65 years remains at an unacceptably low rate of 54% compared to those without a disability (83%) – (ABS, SDAC, 2014). Additionally Australia is ranked 21st out of 29 OECD countries for employment participation of people with disability.
The 2011 Deloitte Access Economics report ‘The Economic Benefits of Increasing Employment for People with Disability’ concluded that Australia would increase its Gross Domestic Project (GDP) by $43 billion if employment rates for people with disability were increased only by one third. The report estimated that a 10% increase in the labour market would equate to an increase of between 191,000 and 203,000 jobs for people with disability.
To increase employment participation we need to effectively engage people with disability, employers, service providers and government. Current specialist employment related services/interventions (from school to retirement) have inflexible rules and regulations that impede the seamless transition from one phase to the next. These include rules and regulations around:
- eligibility and access to different types and levels of support
- the manner and the delivery of the support required; and
- what constitutes employment.
So I have a few questions I hope you can provide some answers to, and these questions really drill down to how we can better assist people who want to work access employment opportunities.
If the current rules and regulations did not exist, what would the suite of employment supports look like?
How can people obtain the support they need to access appropriate types of employment when they need it?
How do we engage more effectively with employers?
I hope you will all engage in this conversation with me.
International Day of People with Disability is a great opportunity to raise awareness of the many skills and talents of people with disability, and to breakdown some of the unhelpful stereotypes that persist in our community. While it is true that people with disability are overrepresented in our unemployment figures, and are far more likely to be living near the poverty line than people without disability, there are also over one million people with disability successfully employed in the Australian workforce. More than 1/3 of employed people with disability work in professional, managerial and administrator roles. People with disability are employed in a wide range of occupations and industries, and bring a diverse range of skills and abilities to the workplace.
Also contrary to common misconceptions, many people with disability have completed tertiary education or attained other qualifications. In fact, with advances in assistive technology, more and more people with disability are completing tertiary education than ever before – from 1995 to 2012 the number of people with disability graduating from university increased by over 400%.
Another persisting myth is that it costs a lot to employ a person with disability. This is simply not true; on average, employing a person with disability doesn’t cost any more than employing someone without disability. If there is a cost involved in making workplace adjustments, then these can be covered by the Australian Government funded Employment Assistance Fund. When workplace adjustments are required, often they are simple technological fixes that can break down barriers and improve workplace communication for everyone, not just the person with disability.
Which brings us to the theme for this year’s IDPwD: Sustainable development - the promise of technology.
Technology is a great enabler of human potential, and, for many people with disability, can help to break down barriers. When people have access to the right ‘tools’, opportunities are opened up and meaningful inclusion becomes a closer reality.
Every day, life-changing advances are being made in the field of assistive technology. It’s incredible the ways that simple (and not-so-simple) technology can enhance inclusion for people with disability, particularly when it comes to securing and maintaining employment.
People with impairments that affect their vision, hearing, movement, dexterity, cognition or communication may experience significant barriers in accessing information or participating in some aspects of daily life, and can find themselves excluded from many employment opportunities. Assistive devices, software and other technologies can negate the impact of a person’s impairment, opening up a range of opportunities and levelling the playing field.
One of the most significant areas that accessible technology has progressed is in the Smart Phone / Tablet market, and the development of assistive apps.
Mobile devices are leading the way in terms of accessibility; not only are the phones and tablets themselves embedded with a range of accessibility features, but new apps designed to improve accessibility for people with disability are launched every other week.
Apps can assist people with disability to communicate, to navigate, to travel, to purchase and to learn new skills. Apps can increase independence and enhance inclusion within the workplace, and make it easier for people with disability to do their jobs, and to fully participate in all aspects of life. The beauty of apps for accessibility is that they are cheap to develop, can be easily updated and improved without having to purchase new equipment, and are transferable to a range of devices.
There are apps to help people with vision impairments to read signs, reports, menus and other information when they’re out and about, and way-finding apps that use GPS and location-tracking technology to assist navigation. Speech to text apps can be of great assistance to people with hearing impairments. Apps can also integrate with other assistive devices like hearing aids, electric wheelchairs, or braille devices, and can even be used to control automated functions (eg. lights, television, alarm systems, temperature control) within the home or office.
Seeing the progress that has already been made in such a short timeframe, it’s exciting to imagine the future: a world where technology breaks down even more barriers and assists people with disability to be fully included in all aspects of life.
Remember that feeling when teams are being picked and you are the last one. It might be a sporting team, it might be a spelling bee, or it might be the handing out of invitations for the six year old birthday party. Most if not all of us, at some point in our lives, have been left on the bench.
It's a horrible feeling, right there in the pit of your stomach. It usually shows on your face, and sometimes even trickles out of your eyes. You want to be part of the in-crowd, but you don't get invited.
That's what happens to Australians with disabilities in the employment market. Despite it being the accepted wisdom in Sydney's Daily Telegraph, none of us want to survive (I wouldn't call it live) on the Disability Support Pension - less than $20,000 a year. All of us want to have an answer to that first barbecue question "what do you do?.
But 45% of Australians with disabilities live in poverty. We are employed at a rate 30% less than the general population. And in reality the statistics probably paint a more positive picture, because many of us have withdrawn from the labour market. In the game of employment, far too many of us are benched from Team Australia.
This is despite the fact that we stay in employment longer and are more committed employees, we take less sick leave and make fewer workers compensation claims, we have a better safety record, and we are excellent problem solvers - we would have to be to get through our lives.
So it's time we - the members of Team Australia - did something about it. Yes, I mean each one of us reading this blog. It's time we shirt fronted our local politician. Which I understand in polispeak means having a very robust conversation. And here's what we should say.
I propose that politicians take the lead on employment of people with disabilities. I suggest a government-established scheme which allows an extra member of staff for each politician who employs a person with a disability. If you don't think it works, just ask Senator the Hon Jan McLucas the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Minister Duncan Gay in the NSW coalition government, or Jan Barham in the NSW Upper House representing the Greens - they've already done it, and they speak publicly about the benefits. Or just ask Kelly Vincent, a woman with disabilities representing the Dignity For Disability party in the SA upper house. I'm sure other politicians around the country have done it as well - I just don't know who they are.
Let's count the positives-
- Each politician gets an extra member of staff. That gets a tick inside Parliament.
- Just doing the numbers - pun intended - at the federal level, around 250 more people with disabilities get a job. That gets a tick in the disability sector, and in the community.
- The additional cost to the budget is under $20 million assuming $80,000 for the cost of employing each extra Electorate Officer. That's probably the equivalent of the pilot's seat in one of our new Joint Strike Fighters.
- People come into electorate offices and see Australians with disabilities gainfully employed - a positive image.
- We make a small saving from the welfare budget if people move off the Disability Support Pension. Let's say that's $5 million - we saved the seat cushion.
- The percentage of employees with disabilities in the public service increases from its current shameful level of 2.9% when the number of people with disabilities of working age is 15%.
So how do we make this dream a reality?
It's up to all of us. I challenge every one of you who reads this to shirt front your federal member of parliament, in the House of Representatives or the Senate. Personal visits work best. Letters or phone calls next best. But emails are good as well. You can find their contact details at www.aph.gov.au It doesn't matter which party they represent - we just want to create a ground-swell of support.
I made three phone calls today. How many have you contacted?
Graeme Innes AM is a human rights advocate, Australia's former Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and a renowned shirt fronter - in polispeak of course.
To kick off of our week long blogging event to celebrate International Day of People with Disability we have turned on of my most popular blog posts 10 Facts About Disability Employment You Won't Believe into an infographic. Hope you find it eye opening. Make sure you share and lets try and get this information viral! Tune in tomorrow for our next blog post by Graeme Innes AM.