Removing the barriers
I was 12 when my grandfather lost his eye and was declared officially blind. In the following months and years life changed a lot, as our family altered the way we did things to help Opa do things in new ways. My Mum, in particular, was able to spend a lot of time helping him negotiate the often-confusing medical system and doctor’s appointments, regularly played the role of taxi driver and cook, and ensured that he still felt connected to what was happening in the world by organising his books and newspapers on tape from the Blind Foundation.
Our family was fortunate: we lived close and Mum had time she could devote to helping him. Many people living with disabilities don’t have the same kind of support close to hand, meaning exclusion and isolation from society is a daily reality.
As Shawn Fremstad of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research states: “disability is both a fundamental cause and consequence of income poverty.” With the need to pay for extra support, medical bills, and specialty equipment, the cost of living for people with disabilities can be incredibly high. Place this alongside a low income as a result of “job loss and reduced earnings, [as well as] barriers to education and skills development” and the result for many people with disabilities is poverty and isolation from society.
In our previous research into the causes and consequences of poverty, Maxim Institute researcher Kieran Madden identified employment and education as two significant pathways out of poverty. For people with disabilities in particular, employment and education have the ability to increase income, increase social networks and encourage a sense of participating in society.
Over the past few months we have begun to look at this relationship between poverty and employment for people with disabilities. In what has become a general practice for research projects, we began with a series of roundtable conversations in both Auckland and Wellington with leaders in this field.
Conversations covered everything from the barriers faced in entering sustainable employment – such as the perception of employers toward employing people with disability and the extra costs and flexibility of the workplace that might be involved – to the strengths and weaknesses of the different support structures and funding currently in place. We also discussed the different roles government, business, and the wider public play in removing the persistent exclusion from society experienced by many people with disabilities. We all have a part to play.
While our research into employment and disability will continue apace in 2017, my grandfather’s experience taught me that each one of us has a role in removing the barriers that prevent people from fully participating in the life of our communities. This Christmas, as our colleagues, friends, and families gather to celebrate together, keep an eye out for those that find it hard to join in, and make an effort to make it easier for them to be included.