Employment rates and wages have been a popular topic in the lead up to the Federal Election, but people with disability feel they are left out of the conversation.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) today released the Labour Force Participation figures for April, showing the unemployment rate remains at the low of 3.9 percent and the underemployment rate has dropped further since March, to 6.1 percent.
However, these figures don’t show the employment rates of people with disability.
It is predicted the unemployment and underemployment rates of people with disability are much higher than the national figures, but there hasn’t been a national data collection for this issue since the ABS Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers in 2018.
That survey found the unemployment rate of people with disability was 10.3 percent, more than twice the rate at the time for people without disability, which at the time was 4.6 percent.
Only 28.3 percent of people with disability who were of working age in 2018 were employed full time, compared to 54.8 percent of people without disability in that age group.
JFA Purple Orange, a social profit organisation for people with disability, is calling on political parties and candidates in the Federal Election to address this specific side of employment by committing to:
- Establishing national annual targets for improving mainstream employment outcomes for people with disability, with the ultimate goal of achieving parity with people without disability by the end of Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021-2031
- Funding the ABS to undertake regular data collection regarding labour force participation, the pay gap, and the unemployment and underemployment rates for Australians with disability at least once per year
Belle Owen, who is a project lead at JFA Purple Orange, says in her mixed experience of employment Australia has a long way to go.
Ms Owen lives with physical disability and uses a powered wheelchair for mobility.
She says when she moved to Canada several years ago the amount of access she had to employment and opportunities in her field of marketing and communications was more than what she had in Australia.
But moving back to Australia showed her that her home country had not progressed since she moved away.
“I came back to Adelaide and just hit a brick wall in terms of my personal opportunities so I just could not find anywhere that would really give me a shot even though I had such good experiences elsewhere,” says Ms Owen.
“At that time I had some personal experience of going through a DES [Disability Employment Services] provider and it was not good.
“It really highlighted to me things I already knew - that we have this burden of low expectations that we place on people with disability in general as a society and this idea of taking whatever is available, so there were [jobs] that were not really within my skill set or were really entry level that you get pushed towards.
“We know that a lot of these opportunities that even arise through DES providers don’t last, they’re not meaningful, they’re not aligned with people’s actual goals and that was definitely my experience while I was there.”
The situation in Canada, Ms Owens says, is the “product of having different laws, stronger laws, for a long period of time” and more training for those working with people with disability, to create more respect and understanding in the community.
The first step to fixing the issues in Australia is having the statistics to show what’s happening and monitor progress, says Ms Owens.
“If we’re not even really measuring disability employment or disability unemployment, how can we even say it’s a priority or that we’ve even tried to fix it,” she says.
“It’s a big hill to climb but actually knowing where you’re starting from is definitely the first step.”
Ms Owens eventually found her own employment through networking and says the DES system needs a significant overhaul, with co-design from people with disability.
To drive change in community attitudes, Ms Owens says Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs) also need to be overhauled.
“One really big thing that needs to be addressed in disability employment, in particular, is ADEs, or disability enterprises,” she says.
“This idea of sub minimum wage is a huge thing to me, I think that is part of what perpetuates this low value of people with disability because we can be paid, legally, less than what we consider minimum wage - so it entrenches that people are living below the poverty line and entrenches those ideas of people with disability not having the same value as everybody else.
“So I think that while not everybody in the disability community works in them, everybody in the disability community is impacted by the attitudes that they perpetuate.”
JFA Purple Orange Policy and Research Leader, Ellen Fraser-Barbour, has also had mixed experiences of employment.
While working as a qualified developmental educator with children, she experienced barriers such as not being able to get access to transport between appointments with clients and her value as an employee being based on the number of billable hours she could do, which was impacted by the amount of time it took her to catch public transport for appointments.
“It was really tricky to navigate some of the barriers there in terms of attitudes as well, there was a pressure to perform to the standards of your colleagues who don’t have disability and that can be really hard,” says Ms Fraser-Barbour.
“There were definitely barriers in terms of applying for jobs.
“It was a very strange feeling because I was actually qualified in disability and I had a degree and then I thought that disability services would be an open and welcoming environment to work in.
“I actually found a lot of services are about billable hours and making sure they can get the most out of their employees in terms of finances and I could not meet those standards in the same way so I think I got overlooked for quite a few jobs before I finally got one.”
To fix the issue of community and employer attitudes, Ms Fraser-Barbour says leadership within organisations needs to focus more on the qualities that people with disability bring to employment, such as empathy, in-depth knowledge and cultural background, rather than just focusing on finances.
“Part of that is ensuring mainstream workplaces are encouraged to employ people with disability and that there are certain outcomes ensuring they have incentives around hiring people with disability,” she says.
“It’s something I think the Federal Government really needs to look at - they’re talking a lot about the low rates of unemployment and how successful we’ve been in terms of reducing unemployment and those sorts of things but it’s really silent when you’re talking about disability.”
Aside from collecting data to form a picture of the current situation, Ms Fraser-Barbour would also like to see the Government leading by example.
She says, “There’s been so much push in terms of ensuring people with disability are recognised as leaders and experts, and yet the NDIA [National Disability Insurance Agency] is notorious for not employing people with disability and doing very little in the sense of co-design.
“If we can’t do that in the NDIA, what expectations can we have for the rest of the community?
“If we can get it right in terms of Government taking ownership and ensuring people with disability are leaders in the public sector then I think people will start to see the value.” While JFA Purple Orange has sent its ideas for improving the employment of people with disability, including its other election requests, to candidates it is yet to receive a response from the Liberal Party or Labor Party.