As people with disability have suffered, and continue to suffer discrimination and prejudice in society, and in the workplace, it is understandable to hear the frustration. Frustration about inequality, channelled positively, can lead to activism, which can take many forms. Social media has made activism, advocacy and awareness-raising much easier, but it is not always positive. Recent campaigns for issues such as the ‘naked selfie’ for cancer demonstrates that activism can be positive and that social media can be a force for real change. What can the community of people with disabilities do to emulate a positive use of social media?
Fund and Awareness Raising
The Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014 for ALS/MND is a superb example of raising awareness of a debilitating illness. Charity information, websites and campaigns can only go so far, and people must want to find out information in the first place about a particular issue, and information may often come off as ‘marketing speak’. That’s where a novelty action such as the ice bucket challenge can be far more engaging. The action of dousing oneself in icy water has been compared to the physical effects of ALS/MND on the body.
One of the greatest additions to internet culture in recent years has allowed anybody to become a writer. Free blog sites such as wordpress, blogger, live journal and blog.com have allowed unprecedented access for people to tell their story to the world. That’s what inspired Eva Markvoort (a young lady who suffered from Cystic Fibrosis until her death in 2010) to live her life to the full and encourage others to do the same. She pursued an acting career, not letting her disability or the persistent rejections of directors expressing concern about the impact of her illness on the role for which she was applying, get in the way. Her death led to a discussion on Cystic Fibrosis in the Canadian Parliament, the first time the subject had come up in six years. Those who do not or cannot write are turning to videos to share their experience. One of the most prolific vloggers (the term for a video blogger) on YouTube is Robyn Lambird, a person living with cerebral palsy she vlogs about her experiences of CP, fashion, education, social attitudes and any other subject that takes her fancy.
In a bid to make social media more accessible, and to provide a global support network for the widest range of people with disabilities, there is now a dedicated social network. DisabledCommunity.net links together people all over the world, not just those with disabilities, but also their carers. It aims to do for people with disability what Facebook has done for practically everyone, providing a positive platform for people to meet and stay in touch no matter where in the world they are.
What’s Your Message?
The key here is positivity. People respond to a positive spirit, the novelty, an engaging medium and attitude. Charities do a lot of great work in raising funds and awareness for causes but that is only half the story; the internet provides a great opportunity for people with disabilities to aid in breaking down the barriers, to show that the person is not the disability, to share real stories of real lives.
Let us know about your blog… We’re interested to see who amongst you has been blogging, and how you’ve approached thinking about how to change attitudes towards people with a disability, and how far your thoughts have reached. Have you stimulated a positive discussion about inclusion, and the expanding of ‘workplace diversity policy’ to include people with a disability? Contact us at email@example.com and let us know what you’re doing in the world of blogging, or v-logging.
There’s a lot of chatter on various different social media platforms today about ‘equality’. Generally, equality is defined as equal opportunity for women, LGBTI, cultural or religious groups. Strong advocacy and decades of organising have given these groups a voice, and raised awareness of the issues. People still rage against inequality, rightfully so, and talk of the glass ceiling, and lobby for better work opportunities.
But do a google search on the term ‘disability employment policy private sector Australia’, and for the first ten pages of results you’ll find two things; government diversity policies – necessitated by Australia’s signature on the United Nations Covenant on Human Rights, and supported employment providers in Australia.
Ironically, those with the strongest policies on disability employment – the public sector – seem to be losing the ability to employ people with disability, with Australian Government employment statistics showing a dismal participation rate, which has dropped alarmingly in the last decade.
But, back to the search engine - it’s not until the tenth Google results page or later that you’ll find some of our more progressive Australian private sector employers with specific inclusion strategies for people with disability.
While diversity policies exist in the private sector, the definition of ‘diversity’ is often vague, and acknowledges the minority groups with strong lobbying activists, LGBTI, multicultural and religious groups.
Disability is sometimes missing entirely.
Why is that?
The public sector and political approach to disability employment relies heavily on the not-for-profit ‘supported’ employment model. This model uses subsidies from the Australian Government to fill roles and ensure adaptive technology, workplace modifications and training are undertaken prior to placing a person with a disability in employment. This is a valuable, and necessary part, of disability employment in Australia’s public, private and community sectors.
But it’s only partly the answer. And it’s expensive, and relies on an employer being ready to ‘adapt’ to a person with disability working for them. With a lack of awareness in diversity policies, or no diversity policies at all, disability employment participation rates have little to no chance of improving from the current unemployment rate for people with disability. Seventy five per cent of people with disability in Australia don’t need supported employment, aren’t covered by the NDIS, and have skills ranging from post-graduate degrees through to Certificate IV’s, and many – who acquire disability in their lives, have a great deal of work experience prior to incurring disability.
What should we change?
There’s really only one thing that needs to change. We all do it. We all check our work emails from home, or finish off that proposal or tender from home, or work on our graphic design or publication from home to stay on track. We might keep it a secret, but we all do it. Most of us can log in from home, and we can’t help ourselves.
It’s called telework, and it’s the easiest adaptation anyone needs to make to improve disability employment participation rates.
Teleworking removes lots of barriers for people with disability.
Transport can be a major hassle if you don’t drive, and rely on public transport. It’s also exhausting for some people with disability, eating into their energy reserves and reducing their possible working hours.
Then there’s entering an office. You might have a fully disability access compliant office, but I guarantee there’ll be something that presents a barrier – mostly fire doors – which are heavy and not able to be modified to assist access for a person with disability.
Your systems may not be compatible with vision assistive technology. While access for service dogs is legislated, people still complain about animals in the workplace – including guide dogs for the vision impaired.
Then there’s the stereotypes people with disability need to contend with and challenge. Each disability presents it’s own difficulties, whether it’s social anxiety, physical disability, vision impairment, or a mental health issue. But the biggest difficulty by far is dealing with people’s reactions to it, when it’s disclosed. Some of us have no choice but to disclose – it’s obvious, but some people have ‘invisible’ disability, and have a choice about whether to disclose or not.
What’s the answer?
Let’s just admit it, our definition of diversity doesn’t automatically include disability when we write our policies, unless we’re in government or the community sector. And when it does, the focus is on adapting the person to the workplace, not the other way around. We need to review our definitions in light of the growing number of people with disability – which is set to grow with our ageing population.
Teleworking is an ideal way to provide employment opportunities to people with disability. People who also have years of work experience, qualifications and a great desperation and willingness to work. Telework opportunities mean people with disability have true flexibility in their working conditions. Working from home in an environment which is socially and physically comfortable ensures we are able to work at our own pace, at our own time, and with safety and comfort.
Think about people with disability next time you log on to work from home.
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.