It’s time we became better at employing people with disability

Hey Australia, isn't it time we started to be better at employing people with disability? For 30 years nothing seems to have moved the dial. It's time for some smart new thinking, because otherwise it's just a waste of human talent. When you think about it, most of us have a friend or family member who has a disability, and many of them want to work. So why don't we stand up and make a change?

The Australian Human Rights Commission has an initiative called IncludeAbility, a program my colleague, the Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, is closely engaged with.

IncludeAbility's aim is to increase meaningful employment opportunities for people with disability, and to close the gap in workforce participation between people with disability and people without disability.

The AHRC's definition of meaningful employment includes such factors as the job being: a source of economic independence; ongoing or with a significant prospect of becoming ongoing; fulfilling; and inclusive.

Hard to believe that it has to be stated. And yet, people with disability have consistently had to demand jobs meet these expectations.

Now, it's true that some people with profound disability will not be able to participate in work but many of the one-in-five Australians with disability come up against barriers when choosing to look for employment. Mostly it is due to ignorance rather than malice, but the effect is the same.

According to statistics from the AHRC, the labour force participation rate for the 4.4 million Australians with disability is only 53 per cent compared with 84 per cent for Australians the same age without a disability.

We want to change that. We want people with disability who want a job - a career - to have a level playing field.

It's why the Albanese Government was proud to play a part in bringing innovative disability employment service, The Field, to fruition. It is the brainchild of former Australian of the Year, Paralympic gold medallist and disability activist, Dylan Alcott. He and his team have created a unique job site - built by people with disability, for people with disability.

The Field helps dispel some outdated community attitudes by giving people with disability the opportunity to challenge perceptions. Critically, it puts the power back in the hands of Australians with disability.

One of the first things I spoke about when I entered Parliament in 2008 was the need for people with disability to receive equal treatment, including by employers. It is the reason I fought hard to get a national insurance scheme for people with disability. I'd seen too many living like second-class citizens.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme has changed the lives of participants and their families and carers by seeing the whole person, not just the disability. But there is so much more we need to do. That includes creating better and more employment opportunities.

More than 37 per cent of NDIS participants have an employment goal, and many receive NDIS employment supports in their NDIS plan. My goal as minister for the NDIS is to continuously improve that figure.

Having a job not only opens up the chances of financial independence and then enables the rewards of making social connections, but helps improve health, wellbeing and our sense of identity.

Last year, I hosted an NDIS Jobs and Skills Forum for participants and their families and carers, providers, disability organisations, unions and governments, to hear their ideas on improving employment for people with disability.

The input from people with lived experience is invaluable because, in order for the NDIS to thrive, we need to listen to people with disability.

The NDIS has a number of pathways to employment for participants including funding, school leaver supports, and programs to prepare participants to find, keep or change jobs.

It has seen people like Will, a 24-year-old Perth man with autism and obsessive compulsive disorder, find a job where he can use his digital marketing and video editing skills. Because of an employment project funded by the NDIS, Will works two jobs that allow him to save for a car, travel overseas and move into his own place.

Then there is 18-year-old Isaiah who has an intellectual disability and autism. Isaiah's NDIS support worker linked him to a disability employment support planner and he now works at a cafe in Hervey Bay in Queensland. The cafe owners speak of the initiative, his work ethic and his reliability - he has never missed a shift.

NDIS participant, Krystal, 37, was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and said employers overlooked her social work degree and were reluctant to take her on. With support from the NDIS, both at work and at home, Krystal balances parenting with her full-time job as South Australia State manager for a not-for-profit specialist disability accommodation provider. What a mistake to underestimate this woman based on her disability rather than her ability.

This year I am urging Australian employers to actively seek ways to employ people with disabilities. They're a highly capable but often overlooked workforce. A workforce whose members, because of their circumstance of living with disability, are adept at problem solving, and have acquired bountiful reserves of resilience and perseverance.

Given the right support and having employers with the right attitude, people with disability can thrive.

For every one of the employment success stories there are hundreds more waiting to be written.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 12 April 2023.