Andersons Solicitors 2016 Union Summit

Speech to Andersons Solicitors 2016 Union Summit
May 5, 2016

Hi everyone, thanks for inviting me along today.

I’m going to talk about disability in the workplace, and towards the end I will give you a peep into some of my constituent case files.  As you’re the lawyers, you’ll probably be the ones to tell me where discrimination does and does not occur.

A recent study showed that fewer people with disabilities are participating in the workforce than they were 20 years ago.  The indications are clear that there are still significant barriers to people with disabilities getting a job, and getting a position that provides them with a living wage.

Some of those barriers are physical – ramps, adjustable desks, screen readers and accessible toilets – the everyday practical kind of things.  But the bigger issue that can’t be seen, is the attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities face from potential employers and workmates.

In Australia, eighty two per cent of people without a disability are in the workforce, compared to only fifty three percent of those who have disabilities.

Now, I think it can be said that politically I don’t have much in common with George W. Bush, but he used a phrase to describe institutional discrimination and bias that, sadly, seems as apt today it was back in 2000.  He described the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.  And that is out there, right now, as I speak in 2016 and it is forming a barrier around people with disability every day and in all aspects of their lives.

So, when it comes to employment it seems that there exists this culture of low expectation, there is also fear, and there a view that it is absolutely fine to pay someone with a disability three dollars (or less) an hour when the rest of us are supported by laws that guarantee us a minimum wage.

Time and time again I hear about the resistance, ignorance and outright prejudice of employers when it comes to having a conversation around employing people with disabilities.

In early 2015, the South Australian public sector embarked on a special three month long campaign aimed at increasing the number of people with disabilities employed by the government.  You can see it on their website, they had a big push internally to find positions for people with disabilities.  I can report that this campaign resulted in just 4 new positions for people with disabilities four.  Now, with a public sector workforce of 103,000 I know we can do better than that, and to do that we must become part of creating the inclusive future we want to see in the world.

So, it’s important that we look at how to overcome the barriers to employment I mentioned earlier, especially the understanding the community has about people with disabilities.  We need to devise effective programs to increase the level of disability awareness and training in the community.  This needs to happen in schools and universities, in business and in government.  It is best if such training can be delivered by people with disabilities, as sharing our lived experience has a big impact – as well as providing quality employment.

Finding work that is meaningful makes such a difference to people’s overall health and wellbeing.  So it’s also important that we don’t seek short term runs on the board in terms of placing people with disabilities in employment.  It’s not enough to have a job for the sake of having a job.  We need to get individualised programs in place to properly prepare people for the job market, and raise their skill level and their expectations.

There are roles for people with disabilities on Boards and management committees and it is important that people feel empowered and supported to take on these roles – whether paid or voluntary.  The old disability activism saying of “Nothing About Us Without Us” comes to mind as a very important catch cry that describes why people with disabilities must always be involved in decision making processes at every level.

Getting people with disabilities onto boards and into leadership positions is important, however we also need to create a culture in which people with disabilities are also free to take on more ‘ordinary positions’ as well, after all it takes all sorts to make a world.

As someone who has written and performed in plays, one parallel that comes to mind is the push to have more disabled actors.  I encourage this, and I think it is a noble goal, however there is more to a great production than a leading lady or man, and wouldn’t it be fantastic to have more people with disabilities working in the theatre behind the scenes, doing the technical work of set construction, lighting, music, costume, graphic design and so on, and especially taking on the creative work of writing and directing plays and films which portray us well.

I think there is a role to legislate for quotas to get some serious job creation for people with disabilities happening, and this may be necessary if government and corporate sectors don’t increase their level of employment of people with disabilities, but I would see that as a short-term, kick-start policy.

Legislation, policy and obligations are, however just a small part of the puzzle.  I just cannot emphasise enough that it is the shift in attitudes leading to broader cultural change that is vital.  I believe that both the Government and media in Australia have a role to play.  I see that they can work to demystify disability and promote an alternative narrative.

In Australia, there are some businesses that specifically employ people with disabilities, called Australian Disability Enterprises, or ADEs.  The main industries are packaging, landscaping, recycling, cleaning and manufacturing.  These usually offer part time employment, and currently they employ twenty thousand people.  In 2014, one hundred and sixty people moved out of an ADE job to work in open employment.  I am confident that many, many more people currently employed in ADE jobs could also transition to the open employment market, and feel that paying them the pittance of an hourly rate they get in an ADE is cruel and insulting.  It is my fervent hope that this type of employment is phased out.

More needs to be done to encourage employers to employ staff with disabilities.  There are already some wage subsidy incentives in place, but this needs to be adjusted to encourage longer-term employment.  There is strong evidence that people with disabilities are loyal employees, taking fewer sick days than their colleagues and overall having lower absenteeism rates.  Employing people with disabilities works on both a social and economic level, because it has been shown that increased diversity in the workplace leads to measurable bottom line business benefits.

The Australian Network on Disability states:

“The benefits of employing people with disability are immediate and measurable. An Australian Government review of research found that workers with disability are no more likely to be injured at work than other employees.  Similarly, studies conducted in Australia and overseas have found no differences in performance and productivity, and found that employees with disability actually have fewer scheduled absences as well as increased tenure.  On average, employing people with disability does not cost any more than employing people without disability.  Assistance with the cost of making workplace adjustments is available through the Australian Government funded Workplace Modifications Scheme.”

So if an employer is looking at two potential employees, and one has a disability, statistically they will be more loyal, and take less leave than the other candidate.  These statistics need to be widely available, it is a story we need to be promoting more.

In Australia we have an ageing community; it is estimated that four in ten workers will be aged 45 or over by 2020.   We know that disability increases with age, so clearly there are some significant workplace implications with this ageing workforce that will increasingly include more people with disabilities.

Australia is also facing skills shortages, and economically, our employers and service providers simply cannot afford to ignore this substantial market segment of the community.  The most significant barrier for people with disability, however, continues to be stereotypical assumptions and attitudes of employers about what people with disability can and cannot do.

It is clear that people with disabilities must have equal work opportunities and equal pay when they perform work of equal value.

We also need systems in place to provide technical and vocational guidance, ongoing access to vocational training, support through adequate and appropriate placement services, work experience through the open labour market as well as ‘on-the-job’ support and training.

But not all of what needs to change is centred around the person with disabilities, because we need to overcome these barriers of ignorance in the community, we need to identify the thoughts that are preventing some employers from taking on staff with disabilities.

The education system at school and university level needs to be including modules on understanding people with disabilities.

We need to de-mystify disability and ensure ongoing disability awareness training in both the public and private sector.  And can I add there, disability awareness training needs to be more than box ticking, and if I may be frank: arse covering, and cut and pasting disability access and inclusion plans.  Valid, respectful disability awareness training is what’s needed.

Before I finish, I just want to share with you a couple of examples from my constituent case files.

The first concerns a young man, university qualified who couldn’t find work in his chosen field and was sent by a job network provider to work at a smallgoods company.  His role involved 4am starts, working in minus centigrade conditions, pushing 220 kilogram trolleys loaded with meats.  He ended up getting repeated chest infections, and his Dr provided him with a sickness certificate.  Despite being totally unsuited to the job, he persevered and worked there for 7 months.  With a uni degree, he understandably wants to work in an office environment.  He chooses not to be identified as a person with a disability.

Another constituent (a wheelchair user) reports:

“I was left in the building on my own for over 45 minutes while hydrochloric acid was pumped through the air conditioning after a maintenance mistake. The rest of the building was evacuated.

A senior manager told me that I shouldn’t have a job due to my disability, and she forced me to print and deliver documents while my able bodied colleagues could email the same reports.

I was required to perform the same tasks, with the same level of responsibility as my teammates while being classified at a much lower level, at least half their classification and then was refused any promotional opportunities all while having higher qualifications than anyone else in my team.

I was responsible for allocating approximately $1.8 billion. I had been working there for approximately 7 years and entered the team as a graduate. I was classified as an ASO2 for the entire time.  Until my equal opportunity commission complaint when I was increased to an ASO3.  My colleague was an ASO5 with no qualifications.  Everyone else within finance with a university degree was a minimum ASO6.

I took my dispute to the equal opportunity commission and attempted conciliation. Throughout this time the department threatened to withhold my severance package unless I withdrew my complaint.

Because I made the complaint I’ve lost my career.  I’m having to start again in a new area, retraining and then starting from the bottom.  I’m hoping you may be able to warn others and tell them to reconsider when thinking of making a discrimination complaint.

The commission withdrew funding because the Department made an offer to settle out of court. I wanted a ruling, so it would be publicly known that what happened is not acceptable.  If I accepted the settlement there would have been no record that what they did was wrong.  I couldn’t let it happen to someone else as well, therefore because I rejected the settlement offer the legal funding was withdrawn.  I cannot afford to pay the lawyer myself and the case will now be dropped.”

Every day, I am contacted by people in crisis – often due in part to the disproportionate chunk of their lives people with disabilities spend battling bureaucracy just to gain fair access to the world.

It may surprise some of you that, as a politician, my primary goal is to make myself redundant.  And this goal will be reached when having a disability in South Australia no longer constitutes a full-time job.  In every sense, I exist in my current position as a member of parliament to ensure that we get a paradigm shift within our society which results in a deep understanding of what it does, and does not, mean to live with a disability.  It is about breaking down those attitudinal barriers.

So, today I have taken the opportunity to talk about the barriers to engaging in the workplace for people with disabilities.

In closing, it seems that even with the best will in the world, many people – do not respect the rights of people with disabilities.

The personal is political.  I will leave you with my three keys to getting it right.

They are: “fairness, innovation, and respect”.

Fairness, because everyone deserves a fair go.

Innovation, because one important way forward is to work together to discover the synergy of creative solutions, and

Respect, because it doesn’t matter whether or not you can help someone, showing them respect means we can all hold our heads high.

We are all in this together, and as leaders in our community, I hope we can lead the way by setting ourselves the highest standards.