An Open Letter to Mitch Fifield – Minister for Disability

mitchDear Mr Fifield

I noted with interest your speech to The Committee for Economic Development where you touched on the issue of disability employment. You published this with pride on your parliamentary website. I am not sure who was present at the meeting but I trust there was a good balance between people with disabilities and those without. After all the issue of employment for people with a disability is about people with a disability. One would hope that a fair few of them were present in the upper echelons of decision making where crucial decisions are being made about their future.

I also want to thank you for championing the cause of people with a disability in employment. I would rather it was a person with a disability doing it but seeing as so few of us seem to be present a meetings discussing our future, who better to do it than your good self. I mean with only around 53% of us employed, 45% of us living at and below the poverty line and only 2.9% of the Commonwealth Public Service being made up of people with a disability we need all the champions that we can get.

You will note the underlying sarcasm in my tone. Perhaps you may even sense that I am being entirely caustic. You would not be wrong. Frankly, your speech was the most appalling piece of government policy intention that I have read in a long time. They do say that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit so I will hereon seek to moderate my tone and challenge some of the assumptions that you have made in your speech.

I note very early on in your speech that you did not want to patronise people who have a disability. Said you, “What I don’t want is for people with disability to be patronised through the handing out of a token number of jobs as some form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or worse, as a form of charity. Nothing could be more patronising for someone with disability.”

Although you did not say it, this was clearly an attack on the idea of quotas as a solution for unemployment of people with a disability. Of course quotas is that idea of affirmative action that suggests that employers should seek to employ people with a disability as a certain percentage of their workforce. Quotas are something that many people with a disability want the Government to consider. But in one fell swoop you have rejected this idea.

Let me say now that quotas are not patronising. Nor are they charity. Affirmative Action is not patronising either. In fact over the years affirmative action has been used successfully to create opportunities for women, particularly for management jobs. People say that affirmative action for women made it look like they did not really have the ability to get management jobs off their own bat.  They say these jobs for women were tokenism. This is rubbish. All affirmative action did was recognise that women had what it takes. It recognised that in the male dominated domain of management that women were disadvantaged. Affirmative action sought to level the playing field, so to speak.

People who think affirmative action policies such as quotas are patronising live in a fantasy world. There is severe disadvantage for many groups. Aboriginal groups and disability among them. In the case of women, particularly in the 70’s and 80’s, they had to overcome the fact that they were the primary care giver when children were born. This hindered career development and still does. When women were at home looking after children men were foraging their way up the management ladder.

Affirmative action simply recognised this and sought to create opportunities for women. I accept it has not been a perfect policy and many women are still, strangely, paid less than their male counterparts; but it did create opportunities for women to be appointed to and succeed in management positions.

Strachan, 2010, notes that, ” A policy discussion paper issued in 1984 proclaimed that ‘anti‑discrimination policies, important as they are, cannot by themselves improve women’s position in the labour market, totally open up a greater range of jobs to women, nor ensure that women can compete on equal terms with men for promotion’  In recognition of this the Government of the day developed the The federal Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Act 1986. As is the case for women, the same applies for people with a disability, albeit with a different set of circumstances.;jsessionid=9B55DD7046991B60EAF416D19A0A0CFA?sequence=1 

If our society really is serious about getting people with a disability into employment, that is both sustainable and well paid, our society must consider all the disadvantage. The disadvantages are many. This is particularly so the case of education. The lack of support at primary school and secondary school means that many people with a disability finish school much later and with lower marks. Consequently the opportunity to get into courses at university or even TAFE is impacted. Not only that, any number of factors can mean that many people with a disability take longer to complete their course or training.

The implication of this is that when people with a disability are struggling through university or TAFE people without a disability are graduating and completing courses. A person without a disability will finish their course earlier. They will have the opportunity to seek work earlier. This means that while the person with a disability is still navigating their course people without a disability are entering the workforce and building their experience.

So what happens here? Finally the person with a disability completes their course or training. It has taken them six years. They are older and applying for work at the same time as fresh faced graduates. The fresh faced graduates took three years. The person with a disability 6 years. The employer looks at the resume of each prospective applicant. One took three years one took six. Who are they most likely to pick? Most likely the person without a disability, because the person has not had to struggle to obtain access to their course, will have a higher mark too. Against this backdrop people with a disability are expected to compete!

For a person with a disability wanting to obtain employment this disadvantage is right at the start of their career. Even if they do manage to get employment they are often overlooked for promotion. Often they are prevented from participating in professional development because their access needs are not considered. It is not for nothing people with a disability are chronically underemployed and are often in base grade jobs for the whole of their career. No wonder 45% of them are living in poverty.

Not only that, people with a disability have to deal with prejudice. Many employers, whether you or they want to admit it or not, are prejudiced. Many have their own preconceived idea about what a person with a disability can and cannot do. They put up barriers and make excuses. Communication will be too hard. Safety will be an issues. Workplace modifications too time consuming and so on and so on.

Employers, by and large, do not recognise the diversity of disability. They do not recognise the diversity of skills. Some do but many do not. Make no mistake people with a disability are severely disadvantaged in their ability to compete because our world is not accessible and many employers simply do not understand nor care for the depth of disadvantage that people with a disability experience.

Just last week a deaf friend of mine missed out on an executive job. He was asked in his interview how much it would cost to cover his communication support for a year. You can bet your bottom dollar that no other applicant had to face that same question. You can bet your bottom dollar that because of this cost the people making the decisions are already considering this as a reason for not employing my friend. That is prejudice personified.

And you say we need to leave it to the employers. You say Governments do not create jobs employers do. Well I am here to tell you that you are are being totally unrealistic. Sure we have equal opportunity legislation but it does not work. The government recognised in 1986 that equal opportunity legislation alone was not enough to level the playing field for women and introduced affirmative action legislation.

Mr Fifield, people with a disability are in the same boat. Employers and equal opportunity legislation alone will not increase employment opportunities for people with a disability. Something extra needs to happen and affirmative action is it. Quotas are not charity, nor are they patronising; they simply recognise that the playing field is not even.  As you point out $1 billion a year spent on disability employment programs has not changed things much – It’s time to think outside the box and affirmative action through quotas is part of the answer.

Oh and by the way, as you go out there consulting with industry, you wont forget to speak to us will you? Now about those people with a disability being paid $1.50 an hour …. Patronising much?



2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Mitch Fifield – Minister for Disability

  1. Seems to me dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t. I wonder why the previous government didn’t do anything about this while they were in the previous 7 years, this government has only been in 1 year and seems they are cleaning up previous issues only half done. I found that article to be very negative and certainly didn’t do any favors for PWD. It actually embarrassed me being one with a disability. I don’t think sarcasm and being hostile will get our need for jobs anywhere, all it does is make people and employers very nervous about employing PWD in case this kind of sarcasm rears its ugly head in the work place and gets them sued for being discriminating or some other picky reason from over sensitive people or someone who likes to stir the pot. Btw, I have a disability, I also see both sides of the story.

    • We all have our views … Mitch and his employment policy get mine and many other people who have a disabilities goat …. For the record Howard made some great improvements in regard to JobAccess … Labor built on them ..Mitch has no clue … We have all been wallflowers for far too long and look where it has got us … One of the worst poverty and employment outcomes of all OECD countries .. sucking up has got us no where … Satire is a valid way to make a political statement .. it is what it is … Deal with it.

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