Last week I was interviewed by ABC TV. The subject was disability employment. The interviewer asked me whether I thought employment for people with a disability needed to move more to an equity model. Equity is not to be confused with equality because in our society equality does not exist. Because equality does not exist we really need to be thinking about how we can level the playing field.
For people with a disability the disadvantages that they face often means that it takes a little longer for them to get their first job. Moving up the management ladder then becomes another challenge as they face prejudice from employers who often think that just by employing a person with a disability that they have done enough. Consequently not only is unemployment among people with a disability high, but underemployment is chronic. Equity in the form of strong Affirmative Action needs to be implemented to level the playing field for people with a disability.
Skilled and experienced people with a disability are often overlooked for jobs. Particularly the management roles with the higher pay. In the disability sector we all have our stories of the person that applied for 100 or so disability management positions only to be overlooked for the role and a non-disabled person be appointed. If it is a disability job, usually this non-disabled person has no experience in disability but might have had ten years in management, have a PHD and several hundred other letters after their name.
It sounds logical that such a highly qualified person should win the role. BUT it really isn’t . Chances are that this person didn’t struggle through school with little support. Chances are that because this person had little disadvantage they were able to get in the university course of their choice. Chances are that once in university they did not have fight for support to be included and access information. Chances are that when they applied for their first job they did not have to face prejudice and stereotypical employers. Chances are are that they finished their course in the required time frame and did not have to study part-time because support for them at university was not adequate.
This accumulated disadvantage is why disability employment needs an equity focus. Expecting people with a disadvantage, such as people with a disability, to be able to compete equally in the employment market with people who have not faced disadvantage is unfair. To assist people with a disability to be able to compete we need to have a structure that supports equity. It is not just about a job, it is about allowing people to reach their full potential, valuing this potential and providing people with a disability with an opportunity to compete fairly. Merit and equal opportunity principles just do not hack it.
In my last job I promoted a philosophy that disability was a vibrant market that requires investment. . As the community becomes more accessible more people with a disability begin to spend their money. They spend it at the shops, the restaurants, movies, tourist attractions and the like. It’s simple really, the more access that people with a disability have the more they contribute to the economy. The economic contribution from people with a disability is then multiplied by the contribution of their family and friends who take part in the activities with them. This combined contribution more than covers any investment towards disability access.
I pushed this idea very hard for 18 months and got nowhere. Then one day, on Facebook, I noticed a consultant that was pushing the very same idea. I contacted the consultant and asked him if he would come and talk to my manager about possibilities. I arranged the meeting and my manager reluctantly agreed to it.
Now the consultant was not visibly disabled. Knowledgeable in disability, yes, but not visibly disabled. He met my manager and ran off the very same philosophy that I had been pushing for 18 months without luck. My managers eyes lit up. After the meeting she spoke to me. She spoke as if the information that she had just heard was ground breaking. She suggested that she had never thought of it like that (YEAH RIGHT LIKE I NEVER MENTIONED IT!). She waxed lyrical about the opportunities that might happen if the organisation “Invested” more in disability access. She had become a convert!
What she did not know is that the consultant and I basically were an item. What she did not know was that the consultant and I had developed a strategy to sell the idea of “Accessible Markets” We were virtually in cohorts. Not to worry, she bought it, whatever works I guess.
And the consultant did very well out of it all. He was contracted to assist in the organisations disability action plan. He ran training workshops for staff. Planning sessions and the like. He was even contracted to help develop a report on developing an accessible festival event. In a few short months he got things on the agenda that I had not been able to in 18 months prior. It would have cost the organisation a pretty packet too.
Why did it take this consultant to get the organisation to buy into this philosophy? Sure his knowledge and resources were outstanding, but his message was not really any different to what I had been pushing for 18 months. And all through it he I worked together. He would email me when he was getting frustrated with a certain person and I would then go sort it out. I would email him and ask him to push a certain message and together we would push the strategy. That’s not to say that he and I agreed with everything, we didn’t, but with this guy I achieved more in 6 months than I had 18 months previously.
What is it about my nearly 30 years of knowledge that my manager did not value? What was it about the consultants knowledge and message that convinced her? Well my theory is that she simply did not see a person with a disability as her equal. She saw the not visibly disabled consultant as someone with expertise on par with her own. I was just a mere pleb.
All over Australia I am betting that prejudices such as those I experienced with my manager exist. All over Australia I am betting that there are people and managers that simply can not consolidate the idea that a person with a disability might be their equal or superior.
And that is large part of the reason why people with a disability are among the lowest paid in Australia. That is a large part of the reason why 45% of people with a disability live in poverty in Australia. These attitudes and prejudices have to be addressed. Its not going to happen through our current equal opportunity approach. It certainly isn’t going to happen with Australia’s weak disability discrimination laws. It is time to look seriously at a model of equity to support disability employment in Australia. If we do not, the serious disadvantage that people with a disability face to obtain employment in this country is unlikely to change.
But then and again – What would I know?