Monday, December 12, 2011

Reality At Work

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Last week Purple Orange participated in an ABC television story about people living with disability moving into open employment (i.e. employment with mainstream employers). The story, which focused on some examples of success in mainstream work, was relatively brief, and our appearance more so. 

The ABC's interest in this topic prompted us to update our understanding of the world of employment. To place the ABC story into context, here is our story.

As highlighted in the recent Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) report Disability Expectations, people living with disability in Australia are 50% less likely than non-disabled people to find employment (with Australia ranked 21 of 27 OECD countries), and carry 2.7 times greater risk of poverty than non-disabled people (ranked last of 27 OECD countries).  45% of Australians living with disability are in poverty right now (double the OECD average).

These unsettling statistics suggest that there is much still to be done to support people living with disability to enter proper employment.  Many disability employment agencies around Australia are giving effort to get people into sustainable employment. This work is important because, just like other citizens, people living with disability have inherent value and potential, and therefore have a contribution to make to our economy; this can be made through ordinary workplaces for a fair wage.

While there are plenty of individual successes, the overall results are not encouraging. According to Australian government data to June this year, of the 145,867 people referred to Disability Employment Services only around 15% were making it into sustained employment (we understand this translates to holding on to a job for at least 26 weeks).  This means a massive 85% of people referred to these services (that's over 120,000 people) were not finding sustained employment.  

This must be so disappointing for the people concerned.  Also it must surely discourage employers who are involved. 

There are a number of possible explanations for the disappointing performance. It's not for me to speculate in this blog whether specific agencies are struggling in particular ways.  However, in general across disability support, we know there are a number of key areas where agencies can have issues. If we apply that to employment, these might include:
  • Degree of insight to the person's character, strengths, capacity and aspirations;
  • Degree of the agency's own imagination of what might be possible;
  • Methods of searching for mainstream employment opportunities;
  • The nature of the proposition marketed to potential employers;
  • Whether the person arrives 'job-ready', or is trained on-the-job with the employer as collaborator;
  • Quality of on-the-job capacity-building;
  • Quality and extent of post-placement follow-up;
  • Concerns about perceived impact on eligibility for disability related pensions.
It is really important that outcomes are improved.  Participation and opportunity are key expectations within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  Good outcomes are a clear expectation within the National Disability Standards.  Also, when a person is in waged employment there are the obvious benefits for the person, in terms of having receiving a fair wage for meaningful, valued work.  importantly, there are also critical benefits for society, because the person is contributing to the Common Good, not just in terms of their work contribution, but also in terms of their financial contributions – the person is paying taxes, saving through superannuation, and paying GST when spending disposable income. This represents a genuine return on investment for society, and makes so much more sense than having people living with disability languishing in non-work day services or in nominal-pay sheltered employment mainly alongside other people living with disability.

If designed and implemented effectively, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the reformed Disability Support Pension arrangements could really help.  The Productivity Commission estimates an extra 320,000 people living with disability could enter employment, and by 2050 produce an additional $31 billion to Australia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Such predicted gains are impressive and inspiring.  However, their arrival cannot be assumed without a number of other challenges also being met. These include:
  • how people living with disability are supported to imagine the possibility of an ordinary valued life, including fare paid work with a mainstream employer;
  • how people are supported to access the right information to make an informed choice;
  • how people are supported to access material resources that can increase the chances of sustained employment;
  • how people are supported to build social capital in support of sustained employment;
  • the nature of the relationship between disability employment services and the people they serve, so that the above elements are upheld and advance;
  • how mainstream employers are supported to deepen their understanding of the potential of employees living with disability, as contributors to the employers social capital (through workforce diversity) and to the employers profitability (through productivity)
  • how disability employment services develop their understanding of the relative costs and effectiveness of agency efforts so that they may evolve those practices that demonstrably help deliver sustained employment and discard those that don't (for example, we hear of an agency achieving a 75% success rate working with people living with significant disability, with job retention at 60% over five years.  If this is true, it is important to understand the practice underlying the success and to replicate it, so that a greater number of people living with disability may benefit).
For the sake of over 120,000 frustrated people, and counting, I hope the two lists of bullets in this blog posting provide a helpful framework for agencies and communities to reflect on current practice and future intent. 

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