Last week, Enabled Employment competed in the 1776 World Cup Challenge, a global competition in 16 cities around the world to identify and celebrate the most promising startups tackling the biggest challenges in four categories: education, energy, health, and cities. We were up against some amazing competitors and it got me thinking about other businesses that are instigating change in the disability sector.
One of the main reasons that Enabled Employment chose to be a for profit business was to try and disrupt the disability sector and encourage other businesses to do the same and instigate social change. Along the way we are hearing of many innovative businesses in the sector doing some fantastic things with technology so thought I would share some information on these amazing ideas.
Technology is big business – it drives us and this is as true in the disability sector as it is anywhere else. Whether the latest advances in building modification, IT developments, mobile apps or anything else – here are some of the most important developments in the last few years that are or can improve the employability of people with disability.
Hear and Say
The 2014 Queensland Technology and Innovation Award went to the Hear and Say Centre, an organisation dedicated to paediatric care of children with severe hearing difficulties, and those who are completely deaf. The organisation has been operating for 21 years and presently has six centres; it helps families all over the country develop language and communication skills, both for the children, and for the families to communicate with their hearing-impaired children. In the last few years it has branched out into partnerships all over the globe, such is the success of its model. You can read more about Hear and Say at their website http://www.hearandsay.com.au/
Mobility is one of those issues restricting the mobility of some wheelchair users. Many wheelchair users do drive and enjoy the freedom of having a car. For others, simply getting in and out of a car is difficult. Introduced in early 2014, the Kenguru Electric Car addresses this problem. With a hatch at the back large enough for a wheelchair to roll in and roll out, it has the complete frame of a typical electric car and even looks like a car, but the mechanics of steering and mobility on the inside is more like a motorcycle. Its weight and design means it is classified as a light motorcycle for license purposes. Read about thie success at http://www.kenguru.com/
Smartphone Technology for the Blind
Most people are able to enjoy the convenience of a smartphone, all except those who are completely blind. That is why in 2013 several designers conceptualised and developed Braille Smartphones and the first models went on sale in early 2014. Previous phones for the blind relied on audio technology, vibrations and voice command – not one had been able to incorporate the technology allowing blind users to read messages. There are now many options to choose from; it is not clear whether the devices will take off in the long term considering Apple iPhones come with VoiceOver (a gesture based technology), ideal for blind users. The first braille phone to be released in Australia was the OwnFone https://www.ownfone.com.au/
People with disability struggle in a working environment and arguably those who struggle most in an office environment are people with very limited or no use of their hands. Lucy-4 tries to solve this problem using lasers. With a small laser mounted onto head ware – it fits easily onto a pair of glasses and on a headband – simply point the laser at the desired key on the light-sensitive keyboard (ideally placed next to a monitor) and the keyboard will do the rest. Its designer came up with the concept in 1980 and it has gone through several design upgrades since. More information on Lucy Keyboard is at http://lucykeyboard.com/
Enable Development is one of our partners and is headed up by Huy Nguyen who was the ACT Young Australian of the Year for 2013. Enable Development is working in collaboration with the Australian National University to develop low cost solutions to assistive technology such as mobility aids, computer accessibility software and sporting equipment. Through enabling technologies people can invest their money into more fulfilling activities such as traveling the world, gaining higher education. Instead of activities that most people take for granted. You can read all about the great work that Enable Development is doing in this space at http://enabledevelopment.com/enabletechnology/
Do you know of any other innovations in the disability sector? I would love to hear about them. Leave me a comment below and we can keep the conversation going.
Last week, I was privileged to attend a panel discussion on disability employment hosted by the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis as part of the Parliamentary Triangle Seminar Series.
The discussion centred on the ‘tiers’ of the NDIS, and the need for a ‘jobs plan’ from the Federal Government.
But, a huge percentage of Australians living with a disability are not eligible for support under the NDIS. The majority of them are living in poverty, and in the demoralising and depressing reality of attempting to find work as a person with disability. Or they are being supported financially by their family, suffering from episodic illness or ‘invisible’ disability. Some have given up on the chance of ever having a career or using their qualifications – a hopeless and helpless situation which increases the likelihood of mental health issues such as depression.
The suggestions raised by the panel discussion on how to move forward on disability employment were closely focussed on ‘supported employment’.
Supported employment is a necessary and valuable strategy used by the not-for-profit sector to find employment for people with disability. At the end of the day, the government will pay a not-for-profit a considerable sum to place a person with disability in ‘supported employment’, which means the employer is paid to take the person on as an employee, and the not-for-profit organisation provides training to the employer and their staff on disability in the workplace, and mentoring for the person employed. I am not criticising the supported employment model, it is a valuable and necessary process for those people with disability who need the support.
But what about people who cannot, and do not, access supported employment?
Generally, they are highly skilled, having gained their academic qualifications, and then seeking work, finding no opening available. Often they return to studying, and become highly qualified, perpetual students with bright minds and a great eagerness to enter the workforce. And yet, the unemployment rate for people with disability in Australia is running at a fairly constant 45.7 per cent. Studies have shown university graduates with disability take longer to gain full-time work than other graduates.
The panel discussion raised the pertinent point that employers hold an ‘expectation of underperformance’ when it comes to employees with disability. Flexible working options for people with disability are also frowned on as too easily ‘rorted’. In the current employment climate, any person with disability given employment will need to put in 150 per cent effort and work twice as hard as non-disabled employees to gain credibility and prove they are not underperforming because of their disability. Busting the stereotype demands an enormous amount of dedication and twice the effort.
I was somewhat disappointed that the discussions at the seminar did not include people with disability taking their financial futures into their own hands, running their own companies, or using home-based work as a genuine career option.
People with disability, I would argue, have the same right as any other Australian to expect that they can have a career, and use their qualifications, and earn a living. But that’s not our reality. As Stella Young said at the launch of Enabled Employment in September 2014, “nobody with two degrees wants to work in a ‘sheltered workshop’ doing photocopying.” Australia ranks 21 out of 27 in the OECD for disability employment participation, prompting the development and implementation of the NDIS.
In ‘The New Leviathan: A National Disability Insurance Scheme’ by Andrew Baker, he notes ‘that a substantial number of people of working age with disability will miss out on funded supports because their disability is likely to be assessed as not severe enough to warrant NDIS-funded support. This group will likely believe they should receive funded supports, but in reality will not.’
Unfortunately, the NDIS is not the cure-all for people with disability that the general public thinks it is, and in terms of disability employment – it relies heavily on supported employment from not-for-profit organisations, with no mention of private or public sector involvement or dedication to the employment of people with disability who do not qualify for NDIS support.
For the majority of people with disability in Australia, there is no option but to rely on the government for an income, and to live below the poverty line. The barriers to employment for people with disability include access, reluctance by employers to embrace flexible working arrangements, and the stereotypical expectation that an employee with disability will automatically underperform.
Flexibility for people with disability in employment is the key to raising the disability employment participation rate. Private sector employers with open minds are embracing the idea of telework for people with disability, while both state and federal governments lag behind with ever decreasing disability employment statistics in the public service.
And, it is time for people with disability to demand the right to work, and to use their qualifications and skills in their chosen field of study. While we remain silent and continue to rely on pensions and social security payments, we are disempowered and lost in the dark reality of stereotypes and myths about employing people with disability.
So how do we solve the problem?
We need to reassess how we employ people with disability. Employing a skilled worker who happens to have a disability does not necessarily mean spending a great deal of money adapting a workplace and training staff and management in how to ‘cope’ with a person who has a disability. Neither does it mean an increase in insurance premiums or excessive sick leave. Studies have proven that people with disability take less time off, make less workers compensation claims, and are just as productive in comparison to non-disabled people.
Flexible working arrangements, such as teleworking, provide a viable and effective means to ensure people with skills and qualifications can participate in the workforce. I urge all employers – public, private and community sectors - to re-think their disability employment strategies – and their flexible working options – to ensure that people with disability who do not access supported employment can expect the same career opportunities as everyone else.
I welcome your feedback, please leave me a comment below.
My blog post on 10 Facts about Disability Employment you won't Believe has been getting a lot of traffic, so I thought I would go into a bit more detail on these and other facts and what Australia is doing to try and change these shocking statistics.
In 2008, the United Nations launched the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Designed to ensure that people with disabilities were considered equal in the eyes of the law in each participating nation, it covers a multitude of things, including rights regarding employment. Many countries still have low participation rates in the employment sector and in some ways Australia is falling behind many of its developed world counterparts. The country is taking steps to address this imbalance but first we need to look at the current state of affairs.
In recent years, two separate studies have demonstrated low workforce participation for people with a disability. The first recorded 54.3% participation and around 84% for people without a disability. A separate study demonstrated an even greater disparity with the figures at 39.8% and 79.4%.
In 2009, following the worst period of the economic crisis, the national average unemployment rate rose to 5.1%. However, amongst people with disabilities that figure was 7.9%. The situation for people with mental illness is even worse: participation rate in 2003 was just 28.2% and the unemployment rate in the same year was 19.5%, nearly four times that of the general population.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an organisation dedicated to promoting democracy and the market economy, listed 29 countries for employment rates of people with disability. Australia was ranked 21st, this was the lowest of all developed nations. In 2011, Pricewaterhouse Coopers listed quality of life for people with disability in 27 countries. Unfortunately, Australia came 27th in that list too.
When it comes to poverty, the global average of people with disability living at or below the poverty line is 22%. Australia’s is over double that at 45%. It’s hardly surprising when around two thirds of people living with a disability is earning a weekly wage under $320 when the equivalent amongst the general population is one third. Unfortunately, in Australia, people with disabilities are more likely than any other group to be living day to day in poverty.
So What is Australia Doing about This?
Shocked by some of the findings above, the national government took steps to improve the situation and adhere to disability employment laws as well as international conventions on human rights. The National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 aims to significantly improve a number of factors related to disability employment including awareness, to allow the individual control over their working lives and to actively encourage businesses to more actively consider people with disabilities’ applications.
Part of this strategy included the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a plan to permit people with disability and mental illness to control their own employability and employment. It replaces a number of grants and schemes for individuals for greater workplace participation. It includes (but is not limited to) training and care provisions for those who are ineligible for Job Services Australia and Disability Employment Services, assistive technology and a number of other services.
By 2020, Australia expects to be amongst the highest rated nations for workforce participation of people with disabilities and mental illness. We will be watching and waiting to see when the NDIS turns its thoughts to employment which is the logical and very talked about next step. We, like I'm sure you do, have a lot of suggestions on how this may work in the future.
A lot of people with disabilities have identifiable physical signs and the potential employer may already be aware of their disability. People with mental health issues on the other hand often find themselves in a grey area and feeling anxious about what they can be open about, when and if they should tell someone, and to whom.
Mental Health and Work
The Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia (MIFA) reported in 2010 that 60% of respondents felt that employment and support for seeking employment was a key concern, second only to housing. Many stated that employment was not only feasible but also key to their recovery. A 2003 analysis showed that workforce participation rate for people with mental illness was 28.2% with the unemployment rate at 19.5%; this compares to people with physical disabilities at 48% participation and 7.7% unemployment. Furthermore, MIFA also reports that people with mental illnesses are the largest group to access disability employment services and have the lowest rate of positive outcomes for securing and remaining in employment – the report cited employer reluctance, based on misunderstanding, to recruit people with mental illness.
Though there are no legal obligations to do so, there are pros and cons to informing or not informing an employer.
Reasons to inform your employer:
- Permits your employer to investigate any potential adjustments to your working pattern – an example might be necessary time off for therapy or counselling or company support programmes
- As with any other employee with a disability, employers are legally obliged to take reasonable steps to accommodate you
- Protects your rights as a person with a disability and where necessary, your right to bring a Disability Discrimination Complaint should disciplinary action ever require such an action
Reasons not to inform your employer:
- When the mental health condition does not and will not impact the job and cannot see that you will ever require reasonable adjustment
- Your right to privacy and trusting your own judgement about your condition
- Concern that being open about your condition may lead to discrimination, harassment or might affect promotion prospects
What an Employer Can Do
Employers are legally obliged to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Workplace adjustments for people with mental illness might reasonably include some of the following:
- Flexible working conditions
- The option of the employee with a mental illness to work with a mentor
- Modifying the job role to reduce stress and anxiety if the job role proves stressful
- Mental health awareness training for staff and management
- Any required physical modifications
- The offer of counselling or any other help that might assist the employee to be fully productive in the work place
Support Services and Assistance
The National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy (NMHDES) released in September 2009 aims to assist people with mental illness and disabilities obtain and retain employment. There is an annual fund of $1.2b that started in financial year 2009-10.
The Disability Employment Service is applicable to people with mental illness. It provides flexible assistance for those seeking work and for those who require help as part of employment they are already engaged in.
The Employee Assistance Fund (EAF) provides assistance and access to necessary resources for employees and employers including advice on relevant workplace modifications. The EAF is the major source of funding for workplace assistance for people with mental illness and helps with education for employers regarding mental health issues; for employees it offers special support and training packages.
JobAccess provides advice and workplace solutions for people with mental illness and their employers. The service is free and has professional psychologists as part of its team. The professional services include information on the full range of government funded services, practical working solutions and how to create and maintain a productive and healthy working environment for people with disabilities or mental illness. It can also advise on the full range of legal obligations and offers information on financial assistance.
The Workplace Adjustment Tool is an online database that gives advice on potential workplace adjustments that you might make for an employee with a mental illness – and key indicators that the staff member might be experiencing an issue. A wide range of issues are covered: depression and anxiety, eating disorders, dementia and personality disorders.
Mindfulemployer.org offers a wide range of advice for employers, especially in the realms of education and awareness. They provide regular workshops with employers in mind.
Similarly, Beyondblue.org.au covers the spectrum of mental health awareness and offers advice on making a workplace a healthy place to be for people with mental illness.
Most of the developed world is now entering economic recovery. But Australia is not doing quite as well as some other countries, and there is a looming issue with something all too common during economic growth: a skills shortage. Skills shortages also occur during economic decline but it can be more pronounced during periods of growth.
Each one of Australia’s states and territories is presently reporting skills shortages in multiple areas and the problem can come in many forms:
- Not enough qualified people to fill vacant roles
- Lack of experience of qualified people applying for those roles
- Disparity between employment package and employee expectations
- Jobs that regularly attract no applicants
- Unwillingness to relocate.
Tackling the Problem
One way to address the skills shortage is for businesses to offer better conditions and higher wages, but this is not always going to have the desired effect, especially if you are looking for people with niche skills who may not be looking for work. The newly-qualified aren't always going to have the experience you desire. There is another answer and it means changing your business practice and outlook to focus in on expanding the talent pool.
Considering the disability employment participation rate in Australia and the high unemployment rate (which means they are willing and able to work), it is apparent that there is large untapped resource available to address some of the problems that Australian businesses face.
The Advantages of Employing People With Disabilities
I have discussed on this blog numerous times the impressive statistics regarding employees with disabilities:
- They take less sick time and are just as productive as any other worker
- They stay in jobs longer (are less likely to move on which is critical in jobs that require a lot of training)
- Are willing and motivated, largely because of the low participation rate of their demographic.
A company called Gitanjali Gems of India came up against a skills shortage in the latter part of the last decade. They faced two problems:
- Jewellery manufacturing is a niche skill requiring a lot of training; and
- the industry has a high dropout rate.
Their directors decided to actively pursue potential new employees from a new demographic – a group with just 8% workforce participation and a devastating 0.1% full time employment rate. Thanks to this programme, 10% of Gitanjali Gems’ employees are now people with disabilities. There has been a noticeable effect on the company, including greater productivity and lower turnover.
Actively encouraging people with disabilities into your business has clear and measurable benefits whether you have a skills shortage or not. When you expand your talent pool as far as possible, you will see only benefits.
We have 150 highly qualified and skilled employees ready to start working for your business now, so if you're finding it difficult to recruit because of a skills shortage, think outside the square.
How many people with disabilities does your business employ?
We want to hear your examples of people with disabilities improving your business outcomes. Leave a comment below and keep the conversation going. And if you want to increase your productivity, address the skills shortage and have a more reliable and stable workforce, call us at Enabled Employment. We can help.