Creating poverty-busting opportunites that work for people with disabilities

By Danielle van Dalen May 21, 2019

By Alex Penk and Danielle van Dalen

This week there’s been a lot of coverage about employment opportunities for people with disabilities, but most of it has focused on minimum wage exemptions and sheltered employment. This is an important conversation, but there’s also a much wider picture affecting many more people with disabilities. For starters, consider this: the median income for New Zealanders with disabilities is only half what other New Zealanders receive.  This is a massive challenge faced by a specific group of people, one we must face up to.

People with disabilities face a specific risk for poverty which stems from the twin factors of  higher living costs that often result from their disability and the tangible (and intangible) barriers to employment that they face. Despite this, the public discussion of poverty that stirs our national passions and engages so much of our policy-makers’ time tends to exclude people with disabilities.

The median income for New Zealanders with disabilities is only half what other New Zealanders receive.

Employment is the main source of income for most of us, and it’s worth examining how much harder it is for people with disabilities to seek and secure a full time working role, even when they have the qualifications and ability to do the work. Those of us without a disability might reflect on how it would feel to be labelled rather than treated as an individual. We should also consider how unjust it would be to be denied opportunity for an impairment that may raise fear or prejudice in others but doesn’t prevent us from actually doing the job.

It’s time for that to change; that’s why we’re releasing recommendations for Government and employers to help break down some of those barriers to employment. We think it’s important that people with disabilities aren’t the only ones who have to do the hard yards raising these issues and thinking about how to improve the system, so we’ve come up with some practical solutions that could help us all to do better.

We acknowledge that this is a complex issue. Every jobseeker, and every employer, has different capacities and different needs, and there can be genuine mismatch between the needs of a particular role and a person’s capacity. For example, someone with a physical disability may not be able to perform a physical role at a construction company (assuming there is no suitable assistive technology), but that same person may be a great employee as a manager or administrator in that company’s office or at another firm.

We acknowledge that this is a complex issue.

In fact, this complexity requires us to think more broadly and creatively, and when we do we find that it’s possible to break down many of the barriers to employment faced by people with disabilities. We’ve proposed four major recommendations for Government, employers, and society to create opportunity.

First, it’s important to have a good strategy; a road-map that tells you where you are now, shows your destination, and allows you to plot a course between those two points. It’s easier to navigate when you have assistance, especially from others with more experience, and a good start would be to establish a cross-party working group in Parliament, as they have in Scotland. It would also be good to gain insight from other countries that are further down the track by having our Government’s Office for Disability Issues host an international conference to compare strategies. As the OECD has pointed out, “all OECD countries face much of the same problems, despite using different schemes and approaches; there is much to learn from what is done elsewhere.”

Although the Government already has a Disability Strategy, the discussion of employment is brief and gatherings like the ones we’ve suggested will challenge and strengthen our best practice. The current process to renew the Disability Action Plan that supports the Strategy is an opportunity to begin this kind of dialogue.

It’s important to have a good strategy; a road-map that tells you where you are now, shows your destination, and allows you to plot a course between those two points.

We can’t just stay at the level of strategy though. We also have to imagine how we can make a difference for individuals, like a university student whose disability is currently well catered for with accessible lecture theatres and bathrooms, and campus support staff. But what happens when that student graduates and looks for a job? If similar supports aren’t available in the workplace, he or she could be left high and dry. That’s why our second recommendation is to provide wrap-around support to help people with disabilities through transitions into a new job, or between jobs. Disability Support Services at Victoria University has already shown how this can be done, partnering with Workbridge to help students in their transition into employment. Workbridge provides supported employment opportunities across the country, and their partnership with Victoria is one that could be copied and extended elsewhere.

Of course the offer of support by itself doesn’t guarantee that a prospective employee will be the right person for the role, and there can be genuine barriers to employment for any potential candidate. However, when it comes to employing someone with a disability, some of the perceived barriers simply may not exist in reality. For example, there’s a common expectation that employing someone with a disability will be costly, but the US Department of Labour found that 57 percent of accommodations for disability don’t cost anything, and those that do cost averaged only US$500. The most common accommodation is simply to offer flexible working hours.

That’s why our third recommendation is to bridge the perception divide, for example by employers sharing success stories about hiring someone with a disability. This could be in the form of a short video series similar to the Think Differently campaign  run by the Ministry of Social Development, although more widely promoted. We also believe that Government departments should lead by example in employing people with disabilities, and in fact the most recent Disability Action Plan requires Government to do this. Feedback we received suggests that the Government needs to do more in its leadership role.

When it comes to employing someone with a disability, some of the perceived barriers simply may not exist in reality.

Lastly, we need to consider funding, and the Government’s Enabling Good Lives initiative is a good place to start thinking about flexible employment support. While it’s true that the costs to employers are often lower than expected, it’s also true that there are real costs, many of which will be borne by the employee themselves. Enabling Good Lives gives funding to recipients with disabilities who can choose how they spend the money to best meet their individual needs. This approach could be extended to supporting an employee with a disability, allocating funding for workplace support that they could spend as they need.

The Government should also consider creating an “employment support passport”; an entitlement to take any existing employment supports into a new position or workplace. As well as providing potential employers with an assurance of the support available, this would provide the kind of flexibility and freedom to move between jobs that most of us are able to take for granted, but that is all too rare for an employee with a disability who may feel unable to change roles because of uncertainty about whether supports will be available in a different organisation.

The Disability Survey 2013 reveals that 24 percent of us have some kind of disability, and these are just some of the ideas that could make a real difference for the 1.1 million New Zealanders represented by that number. If we’re willing to respond practically and flexibly to the barriers facing people with disabilities and employees, we can do so much more to create opportunity.

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