I recently made some widely reported comments about helping more disabled people – particularly disability support pensioners – into jobs. In response, I received two death threats and about 50 emails, phone calls and letters, many from people who wished me in fairly graphic terms – how do I say this politely? – to refrain from making any further comment on the subject.
The reaction I received, far from making me pull up the drawbridge, has confirmed – more than ever – that we need to talk about this issue. And now that the national disability insurance scheme is becoming a reality, it’s the perfect time to tackle the barriers that prevent disabled people from moving into the workforce in greater numbers.
So what did I say that drew such fire? Apparently it was that the hundreds of thousands of people on the disability support pension who have some capacity to work should be given the support and incentives they need to enter or re-enter the workforce.
And why? Because cutting people off from work – those who have the capacity to work – and not engaging them in any level of community participation, as is the case for DSP recipients, delivers nothing but isolation and misery.
There’s plenty of research about the devastating effects long-term unemployment has on a person’s health. And from Aboriginal townships in remote Australia to suburbs on the fringes of our major cities, there is abundant evidence of how welfare dependency eats away at whole families and communities.
The irony is that I seldom meet an unemployed disabled person who doesn’t want to work. If only they received the support they needed. And let’s be clear, we each have a role to play – governments, businesses and community organisations – in providing that assistance.
Australia has a miserable track record in this area. We rank 21 out of 29 OECD countries for our employment rate of people with disabilities. The federal government must give greater consideration to the support needed to encourage more DSP recipients into the workforce.
It has made some initial steps, with recipients able to work up to 30 hours a week without losing their benefit.
But it must go further. It should also put greater pressure on the Australian Public Service to lift its game. Only about 2.9 per cent of people working for the federal government have disabilities, down from 6.6 per cent in 1986.
And it should establish a national centre on disability employment to bring together the best research and practitioner experience to support employers in hiring, retaining and advancing the employment of people with disabilities.
Employers often have limited exposure to people with disabilities and may perceive the costs of employing a disabled person to be too high, or have an unfounded belief that an employee with a disability will mean higher workers’ compensation or more sick leave.
Employers may also mistakenly believe that people with disabilities will not be sufficiently trained or have the required qualifications to do the job. Or, often, it is just fear about how other employees may react and that they may say or do the wrong thing. But examples abound of how businesses have developed their capacity to employ people with disabilities. The common ingredient is the leadership needed at senior levels to commit to the task.
The experience of US drug store giant Walgreens is particularly instructive. An initiative to have 30 per cent of new hires at a recently built distribution centre be disabled people became so successful the campaign soon spread to achieving the same across Walgreens’ other 14 centres and is now an ambition across its network of 8000 stores.
Walgreens found that employing disabled people made sound business sense. It wasn’t empty charity.
The turnover rate for people with disabilities was half that of non-disabled co-workers. Productivity remained the same and disabled employees were much safer.
And community organisations? We have contributions to make, too – both as employers and as those that provide employment services; we must become more sensitive to employer needs in this area.
Mission Australia is determined to do its bit and has invited Deb Russell, Walgreens’ former corporate manager of diversity and inclusion, to visit Australia and meet with business leaders.
DSP recipients who are able to work have genuine barriers to employment that they need help in overcoming. But it appears too many Australians have neither the stomach to commit ourselves to the task nor the willingness to provide the proper incentives and programs needed. Let’s start doing something about it.
Toby Hall is CEO of Mission Australia.Read the full story... (off-site)
- Toby Hall
- The Age
- Date published:
- Sat 22nd Jun, 2013