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 And in reality the statistics probably paint a more positive picture, because many of us have withdrawn from the labour market.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.
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.