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.