Big ideas for Disability employment

This is the full version of my speech, Big ideas for Disability employment, delivered to the Australian Network on Disability National Conference 2013 on 15 May 2013, in Sydney

In the House of Representatives this morning the Prime Minister introduced a bill to introduce an extension to the Medicare Levy to guarantee funding for DisabilityCare, so this is a good day for people with disability.

Yet Australia still has a bad record on jobs and disability.

I actually can’t improve on the way that Paralympic Gold Medallist Kurt Fearnley laid this out in his Australia Day address where he said that in Australia, 45 percent of people with a disability live in, or near, poverty; more than double the OECD average of 22 percent. We rank 21st out of 29 OECD countries in employment participation rates for those with a disability. We rank 27th of the 27 in terms of the correlation between disability and poverty.

What I would add is that the unemployment and poverty rates of people with disabilities are placing people with disabilities under conditions experienced by people in the great depression in the 1930’s.

The 2009 SDAC shows that a lower labour force participation rate, together with a higher unemployment rate, means that people with disability are less likely to be employed than people without disability (The numbers come out at 50.0 per cent, compared with 78.6 per cent).

In raw terms, 45.7 per cent of people with disability aged 15-64 years living in households were not in the labour force. That’s almost half.

At its height during the Great Depression around 1 in 3 Australians were unemployed with many more underemployed. In the US the rate was about 25%.

Faced with a problem of that magnitude the response of the US President during the Depression was to mandate continuous innovation in policy until things began to change:

“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something”

Likewise I believe that disability employment is an area where we haven’t tried enough and we haven’t innovated enough.

We have used the same tools and messages for too long. We have relied on the same suite of mechanisms – discrimination law, an old service model and tinkering with eligibility requirements for income support.

But they have not worked.

A few weeks ago I was part of a launch of the ACOSS poverty report which revealed that more than 620,000 people with disability are living in poverty. And that was using an internationally conservative measure.

In October last year the Centre for Independent Studies released an article which said the real solution to poverty was: J-O-B-S, J-O-B-S and J-O-B-S .

It ended by saying that anti-poverty campaigners miss the principal cause of poverty, which is joblessness, not low benefits.

Now it’s a long journey from ACOSS to the CIS, but the article was right to take aim at the focus that we’ve sometimes had on low benefits rather than jobs as the principal cause of poverty.

Where I depart from CIS is that I would go one further and ask if joblessness causes poverty, then do we know what causes and sustains joblessness amongst people with disability?

We can say this – it certainly isn’t income support. Earlier this year PWDA held a social media forum on employment that attracted hundreds of comments from people with disability and a common thread was how rotten it is living on a pension.

No one would choose to worry incessantly about the rent, light, gas, food, clothes and to have disability costs like taxi’s and equipment on top which, in the absence of insurance, no one covers. DSP is the lever we see pulled time and time again on jobs and yet:

• It does not create a single job
• It does not support employers to create jobs
• It does not make workplaces accessible or remove discrimination
• It does not give people more skills or resilience
• AND it certainly doesn’t create better employer attitudes; in fact talking about DSP like a broken record makes attitudes worse.

You’ve just labelled someone a “bludger” do we really think canny employers are going to leap up and give them a job?

Last month, I was embroiled in an argument on DSP following a Mission Australia article in the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

The debate wound up turning on whether the number of people on DSP had gone up or down and the Governments response was that it had declined from 831,908 in December 2011 to 824,868 in October 2012.

If you have seen that clip from the Daily Show can I say my response to that is a big Australian ‘’whoop-de-do’’.

It still means eight-hundred thousand Australians locked out of our economy; not spending, not consuming, not paying taxes, not having decent lives. If anything we need a better safety net for people on DSP and then to shift our conversation entirely.

It’s time we cut to the chase and talked about numbers of jobs and PWDA endorses a national goal to create 200,000 jobs for people with disabilities over the next decade.

Deloitte Access Economics in their report for the Australian Network for Disability The economic benefits of increasing employment for people with disability (2011), identify a $43 billion increase in GDP if Australia can increase the participation rate by one-third and refer to this target as achievable, perhaps even modest.

The economic modelling used in the report points to an increase of between 191,000 and 203,000 additional people with disability participating in the labour market should the participation rate increase by 10 per cent. It also implies an increase of around 20,000 people participating in the labour force each year over the next ten years.

We congratulate the Network for its leadership on this issue and you can consider us signed on.

To make that kind of breakthrough we need to start pulling more levers and trying new things.

The title of this session is big ideas for disability employment. Well, here you go:
I think the biggest – and hottest – idea for disability employment is the reality of disability as a personal identity capable of generating a retail customer backlash in its own right.

If you’d told me a fortnight ago that a statement on disability could cause the shareprice of an iconic retailer to plummet by 2%, I certainly wouldn’t have believed it. Australians have simply decided that our society doesn’t extend the fair go to people with disability. They have said that through the 70% support for the levy. They are saying that through social media and in the 24 hour opinion cycle.

If a fashion chain came out against same sex marriage rights, or misappropriated work from indigenous artists, they could reasonably expect to face a strong backlash from the relevant communities. With the increasing recognition of disability as an identity we too have the power to vote with our wallets.

Myer is a game-changer and the message is that it is no longer acceptable to talk a pile of spin and then do the opposite. If business and representatives want to come out and support cuts to income support or attack a small levy to fund the NDIS, they need to walk the talk regarding disability, training or jobs.
Secondly, we need to ask whether policy is still in the right place.

In the 1990’s – when the Commonwealth and the State and Territories put together arrangements for disability policy under what was then called the Commonwealth State Disability Agreement – they struck a deal that pushed disability support services to the States and income support and employment programs to the Australian Government.

The work of the Productivity Commission and the NDIS is dismantling this division – it will see the Commonwealth stepping back into the role of providing disability support services, albeit in a very different way.

I think it’s the moment to ask whether employment is still in the right place or whether there is more that States, Territories and Local Government might do.
I have worked in many areas of disability policy since 1995. Some of the most exciting and innovative work in disability has happened in the States on employment, which is an area where they have no mandate.

There are inclusion awards, there are project incubation hubs, there are cut through awareness campaigns (like don’t dis my ability) and there are social ventures and successful public sector campaigns.

State and local govt’s live where jobs are. They have leverage and they procure in the sorts of industries which provide many base level jobs.

Tying employment and income support together at the Federal level maintains the blinkered view that the only lever that Government has is to tinker with the Newstart/DSP interface in order to drive marginal shifts in the numbers of people on payments.

The other day we heard about workers in Australian Disability Enterprises whose incomes were so low they weren’t eligible for superannuation. Last Friday, the High Court of Australia dismissed the Commonwealth’s application to appeal the Federal Court decision which ruled that the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool (BSWAT) discriminated against people with intellectual disability.

That invites us to ask whether running Australian Disability Enterprises from one Commonwealth program is really likely to create the kinds of partnerships capable of getting the job done?

Attitudes are also important and Governments invest in awards, campaigns and work to build the business case. Yet we have surprisingly little hard evidence about what community attitudes towards people with disabilities are, what drives them and what might actually work to shift them.

In no other area of life or business would we blunder out and fund an advertising campaign without decent market research.

Government should invest in an internationally benchmarked National Survey on Community Attitudes towards people with disability to inform work on employment and to encourage access and inclusion in the public, private and community sectors.

Attitudes are also formed by modelling good behaviour and the record of government’s as an employer is parlous.

Things have gotten so bad that they need a kick start so PWDA also supports a public sector employment target in the APS.

I endorse the entry level traineeship programs which have been run by Depts like FaHCSIA, but in the spirit of big ideas we need more high profile signature measures to show that Government is serious along the lines of Federal internships, job shadow and mentoring programs.

In the US there have been programs which supports people with disabilities to serve as jobshadows and interns in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
I would like to see Senators and Members of the House of Representatives utilising the skills of people with disabilities in the work of our Parliament or in their electorate offices.

It’s only 226 jobs – 150 MP’s and 76 Senators – a drop in the ocean. But what an effective way to walk the talk – to raise profile and presence! To show every constituent, bureaucrat and lobbyist who deals with their representatives from the Prime Minister down, that this time we are serious and here is what employee’s with disabilities can do. Surely we could do that?

We should also recognise the growth of outsourcing and leverage spending to drive the adoption of targets by all businesses and consultancies which procure to Government.

To support this PWDA agrees with an option in the recent paper by the Federal Workplace Relations Minister to introduce mandatory annual reporting by medium –large private employers, including about senior positions. Work should be undertaken in tandem with this to ensure that disclosure remains voluntary and the rights of people who disclose are protected.

Yet – target, goals and funding changes still do not tackle the underlying question posed at the start of this – what causes and sustains joblessness?
Why are people not getting jobs? Why are people falling out of jobs? Why are people under-employed? Why do we get stuck at base level?

We need to look beyond simply ‘’parachuting people into jobs’’ to the heart of disconnection and how we set people up to fail.

It has been noted by Infrastructure Australia (2010) that there is a link between disability and social isolation. The 2010 GSS found that people with disability participate less across all life domains from being part of a sporting team, to spectating at a sporting event, from volunteering to the arts and to even visiting a library.

The evidence is that disconnection is ubiquitous but there is also evidence that reconnecting people in one area of our life can help to reconnect in others.
You really have to hunt for work on this, but it’s there.

In 2009 the U.S. Department of Labor, veterans organisations and disability sports organisations looked at the interface between participation in sports and employment.

The survey found that participants in sport are twice as likely to be employed as the general population of adults with disabilities (68% vs. 33%) . That’s not the sort of work that can be dismissed but I wish we had more work linking different kinds of participation in Australia.

What we do know from sources like the latest Hays Quarterly Report is that Australian employers want to hire people with ‘’soft skills’’ as much as hard technical skills.

We know that resilience in a job is often about more than just the technical side it’s about employers who can become part of workplace culture and who can have those water cooler conversations.

PWDA believes that Disability Employment Services should be given a broader brief to work across people’s lives to build friendship networks, involvement in recreation, sport, arts and strengthen community connection, personal capacity and independence. Their focus should be on resilience and capacity, outcomes not throughput.

We also believe that these services are in need of market reform and that principles of choice, control and personalised funding which are shaping the NDIS could apply to Disability Employment Services.

If the services don’t achieve job outcomes for individuals we should be able to take our funding to another provider, including employment services outside the network or unbundle to provide their money directly to an employer to provide a job opportunities with in house support. People should be able to buy participation outcomes.

We also believe that we need to make it worthwhile to work and address the working poverty trap. People with disabilities can add up. If we’re using taxis every day – people I know pay over $60 a day – we can work out that it is more expensive to travel to a base level job than to stay at home.

The Federal government does have some levers and there are some big things that they could do on the income support and tax side. The NDIS will not address the costs of disability and government should look at ways to address the additional (non-service) costs of disability and in the short term:

Instead of tinkering with DSP at the eligibility end, the Government should work the one area of income support that could help people sustain a job as they build assets and financial capacity by allowing people with disability entering the workforce in entry level positions to retain their DSP for a period of at least 6 months.

Lastly we should introduce more generous tax offsets for the costs of assistive equipment and transport.

It’s ridiculous that tourists leaving the country can claim a GST refund on goods carried as hand luggage , yet taxi fares used by people with disabilities to get to work everyday are GST inclusive.

I know there are many people with ideas and we need to hear all of them.
I commend the Australian Network on Disability and your member employers for starting the conversation at this conference.

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.