I was at a conference today. It was about disability and employment. It was a flash gig too. There were reputable key note speakers. There was live captioning. There were interpreters. No expense had been spared. No doubt the key note speakers received a fair remuneration for their time. Outside there was a flash lunch. Salmon wraps, finger food, fruit juices, brewed coffee. It was the bee’s knees.
The second session had a panel. On the panel were three people who had a disability. They were recounting their time as students and their journey into the workplace. They were providing valuable insights into the barriers that they had confronted. They were providing firsthand knowledge of the strategies that they used to disclose their disability. They described in detail how they went about getting the reasonable adjustments that they required. To my mind they provided information that the flash keynote speakers had not. At the end of the panel discussion they were all provided with a gift. Despite having provided the most valuable information of the morning they were not financially reimbursed – They got a gift! It seems to me that too often people with a disability are expected to give their time FOR FREE. They are not valued in the same way as others
Don’t get me wrong its not about money all the time. I happily give my time for free and often. As an example I offer my time and skills to Deaf Sport Recreation Victoria on a voluntary basis. I do so because I see DSRV as a very important organisation. They get just around $15 000 per year from the Government. They are supported by Vicdeaf very well too. DSRV not only coordinate deaf sport and recreation in Victoria but they are also constantly reminding the Victorian Government of the needs of people who are Deaf and hard of hearing in relation to sport and recreation. They carry out an important role on a shoe string. I recently became President by default, thus necessitating more of my time – Onwards and upwards I say.
In the area of disability there are many volunteers. There are a myriad of roles that volunteers take on ranging from manning cake stalls to sitting on Boards and committees. Volunteers are everywhere. Without volunteers many organisations that support disability would fall over. In fact Pro-Bono Australia claim that volunteers contribute more to the economy than the whole of the mining industry. It is estimated that volunteers contribute a staggering $200 billion to Australia’s economy.
I’m proud to be a contributor. I am not writing this to make myself look like Father Theresa, rather I write it to highlight the value of volunteers. In the deafness area I would estimate that volunteers contribute to over 75% of what happens in the Deaf community. There are people running sporting groups, sitting on boards, running cake stalls, selling sausages at Bunnings – Hell, the enormous job of organising the Australian Deaf Games is done almost solely on the backs of volunteers. It is fantastic.
BUT! There are times when volunteers are truly abused and undervalued. I have a good friend who is Deaf and who is immensely qualified and respected. This friend can earn a good buck on the public speaking circuit. I have used the friend in my work to run workshops. I always get mates rates. What might cost $1500 elsewhere I will get for $750. It is worth it because the said friend is highly professional and organised.
This friend is sometimes asked to support Deaf sector organisations. In the past the friend has given much of their time to many different causes. It got to a point where the demands on the friend’s time were great. Consequently my friend would sometimes ask for payment for services. This would only be from organisations that had the money to be able to pay. A smaller organisation like DSRV would never be charged.
But larger Deaf organisations hardly ever pay my friend. It’s possible that they never have. The said friend is asked to work with kids, set up training or lend their name to a cause– a whole host of things. But never is the friend offered payment. For some reason, perhaps because the said friend is deaf, my friend is expected to contribute totally selflessly to the cause. What is it about being deaf that makes a Deaf organisation assume the deaf person will always be happy to offer their time for free????
Another good friend is an incredibly talented artist and photographer. I cannot say too much about him without giving up his name. Suffice to say his work as a photographer is revered in the industry. As an Artist he OUT THERE and very creative. He bemoans the fact that whenever he works with Deaf organisations that they never offer to pay him. Rather they expect him to work for free. The most patronising thing that these organisations can do, said my friend, is give him a gift. He is a professional, and an immensely respected one, yet hardly ever do Deaf organisations or other organisations that service the Deaf sector offer payment for his services. It is almost like there is an unwritten rule in the Deaf sector that Deaf professionals who are not employees will work for nothing. My friend, in desperation, asked me of himself and his relationship with the Deaf sector – “What am I, a NOBODY?”
Last week there was a heated debate on Facebook. A person associated with a reputable Disability Peak bemoaned the fact that the $200 000 plus that the Peak received each year was not enough for the Peak to be able to do the job. This person said that people with a disability should be less critical of their Peaks and should offer time as volunteers to help the Peaks achieve their goals.
That didn’t go down too well with the professionals with a disability who were taking part in the debate. The person who made the statement received a barrage of criticism. It was pointed out that there were organisations that received absolutely no funding that were achieving the same things that were expected of the Peaks. It was pointed out that the said Peak did not satisfactorily engage with its members so why should its members offer their time for free. But mostly it was pointed out that people with a disability should not be expected to carry organisations that could not use their funding efficiently. Said one participant in the debate, “ There is a lot you can achieve for $200 000 that you don’t, so don’t expect us to carry you over the line.” Or words to that effect.
The bottom line is that Australia has one of the worst employment success rates for people with a disability in the Western world. This is shameful for such a rich country. Disability organisations and the Disability sector, rather than expecting people with a disability to work for free, should be leading the way. Expecting people with a disability to work for free, as they often do, simply shows how much they undervalue the contribution and skills that people with a disability can bring to the sector.
The age of the freebie is over. People with a disability are worth it and deserve to be paid for their knowledge and skills. As a good friend of mine with a disability said last week – “If one more disability organisation offers me a free movie ticket for my time I think I will scream.” If I were her I would prepare to scream a lot more in the future.