In Australia, one out of two people with a disability is unemployed.
It’s a statistic that worries two of the country’s most prominent disability advocates, writer and activist Carly Findlay and Greens senator Jordon Steele-John.
Senator Steele-John, 23, is the country’s youngest ever senator in the Australian parliament and the first member of the Federal Upper House to use a wheelchair.
The new senator, who has cerebral palsy, told the Senate in his inaugural speech last week that “I will be a tireless champion for a fundamental change in the way that society thinks about people with a disability.”
West Australian Greens senator, Steele-John cites workplace culture and practical issues like “the failings of the transport system” among the barriers that keep people with disabilities out of employment. The Western Australian says he has had to turn down a job in the past because the closest train station was inaccessible for people in wheelchairs. “I did the math, and realised in fuel and taxi costs I’d be out of pocket if I took this job,” he says. “That’s a common experience.”
“We often argue in the disability sector that if people were given the right support and assistance, we would be able to make more of a contribution to society, and my experience of working in this job so far is that is absolutely true.”
His tenure at Parliament House has so far been a lot more encouraging. “I’m lucky enough as a senator to be able to employ personal staff and the parliamentary team here at APH have been very good in recognising they hadn’t met their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act and acting really quickly to assist me to overcome them, and make long-term changes,” he says.
“We often argue in the disability sector that if people were given the right support and assistance, we would be able to make more of a contribution to society, and my experience of working in this job so far is that is absolutely true.” All people with disability should to be supported this way, he says. “I should be the norm and not the exception."
Disability does not equal inability
Findlay, who has a rare genetic skin condition called ichthyosis, has had to battle negative attitudes towards disability during her career. “I spent a lot of time feeling guilty about being sick while working a traditional job. I didn't want to let anyone down by being off work sick or attending hospital appointments.”
Employers often equate disability with inability, she says. There is a belief that “we'll have a lot of time off work [and] that it costs a lot to make modifications to workplaces.” Among the issues people with disabilities must contend with are a lack of access, low expectations, and entry level work. “Many friends tell me that as soon as an employer sees they're disabled, they don't get a chance. Often we can't help but disclose because our impairment is obvious.”
Now that she works as freelancer writer, her condition can be an asset. “I have lived experience, and can talk to all sorts of people about my experience and disability more widely,” she says. “Doing this activism work has been one of the best career decisions I've ever made - I travel a lot but get the option to work from bed when I'm sore. I haven't been in hospital since I've worked for myself.”
Both Findlay and Senator Steele-John are doing their bit to change workplace attitudes around disability. Findlay offers workplace training based on the social model of disability, “where society is seen to be more disabling than the body,” she explains. “We talk about language, stereotypes and accessibility. I love seeing the participants change their perceptions of disability by the end of the day.”
Findlay argues that disability employment programs should be open to opportunities beyond entry level roles. “If we have the qualifications and experiences we should be encouraged to go for any job.”
Senator Steele-John hopes to introduce policies such as public sector targets and an “innovation and adaptation” fund for employers to help more people with disabilities join the workforce. The challenge lies in “getting employers to first see the value of employing somebody with a disability at full wage, not anything less, and then making sure that if somebody with a disability flags a problem at work, the employer takes on the responsibility to resolve that issue.”
“We must now come to an understanding that disability is not created by people’s various medical conditions, but arises from society’s failure to adapt to everybody’s differing levels of ability and to embrace those differing levels,”
The senator opposes the “charitable model” that pays people with disabilities less-than-minimum wage for menial tasks like packing boxes. The outdated view that “anything to keep them busy is better than leaving them in a bedroom” is “what we are trying to desperately to move beyond,” he says.
Everyone should have the opportunity “to expend their time meaningfully in their life, and if they find that meaning through work, they should bloody well be paid the same as everybody else.”
What we need, says Senator Steele-John, is a fundamental shift in the way society views disability. “We must now come to an understanding that disability is not created by people’s various medical conditions, but arises from society’s failure to adapt to everybody’s differing levels of ability and to embrace those differing levels,” he says.