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BusinessAugust 21, 2020

Breaking down the barriers keeping disabled people from work

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With Covid-19 making employment more elusive than ever for disabled people, those in the sector are pushing for sweeping and overdue changes.

The official statistics may paint a mild picture of New Zealand’s unemployment, but for many people, the reality is as cold and as disappointing as a job application rejection letter. As the economy continues to fumble along a dark and potholed road, stories abound of hundreds of people fruitlessly applying for the same job or pitching to wary employers unwilling to take a risk. One story by RNZ revealed that a woman had applied for over 200 entry-level administration jobs without success.

Yet while many of these people will be facing employment difficulties for the first time in their lives, there is one group of people for whom finding a job has always been difficult. The current pandemic has only enlarged the already sizeable obstacles facing this community, which finds itself marginalised by an increasingly restrictive market and stringent health and safety requirements. They are, of course, people with disabilities.

Jonathan Mosen is CEO of Workbridge, New Zealand’s largest employment service for disabled people or those with health conditions. With a 30-year career in the sector, Mosen, who is congenitally blind, knows how difficult it is for disabled people to find employment and overcome workplace stigma. As in any economic shock, those with disabilities are the worst affected, and this one is no exception.

“We’re in the business of placing disabled people into work, and there are challenges at the best of times, mainly because of public education or a lack thereof and employers’ perception of a health and safety risk,” he says.

“But obviously with Covid we’ve got a lot of people enrolling for service with us but people ain’t hiring, so it’s a really challenging environment.”

The barriers to employment

Irrespective of the pandemic, employment barriers have always loomed over the disability sector. In 2019, the unemployment rate for disabled people was more than double the rate for non-disabled people. Not only are there preconceptions of would-be employers to overcome, but disabled people must also navigate a complex funding system that makes it harder for them to access the critical assistive technology they need for work.

According to Mosen, the government will fund certain software technology through Workbridge, such as a screen reader for those who are blind, but it will not fund a computer on the basis that it’s usually an employer’s responsibility.

“The trouble is that some of the computers required to run this technology are a lot more powerful and a lot more expensive,” he says. “So it acts as a disincentive for the employer to hire a disabled person.”

“Disability is perceived as a risk in terms of hiring. Many employers would say, ‘Well, why do I need to choose a disabled person when I’ve got so many other easier, less risky options?’”

Finding and applying for the right funding in a labyrinth of government departments is also a major obstacle. Mosen says the fragmented system means applicants must seek different funding depending on the nuanced use of the technology they need, rather than having a single and accessible resource.

“If you are hearing impaired, for example, you need some special technology that sits in the middle of the table at a meeting so you can hear correctly. But because it could also be used when you’re out and about at a restaurant, the government will not fund it through the scheme that’s available for employees. You have to get it through another bucket of money.”

“So, essentially disabled people are being shunted from pillar to post. And rather than focus holistically on the individual, there’s just a whole lot of hoops you have to jump through to try and get funding for the technology you need.”

One unexpectedly positive outcome of the Covid-19 lockdowns was businesses’ rapid embrace of remote working and flexible hours. Mosen says it makes work easier and prospects better for disabled workers, who have been pushing for these developments for years. Again, however, whether the changes fully include disabled people depends on whether they have access to the technology.

Access to assistive technology remains a major impediment for disabled workers (Photo: Getty Images)

The disabled perspective

Perhaps one of the most imposing hurdles is also the most entrenched. Earlier this year, former health minister David Clark announced a wide-ranging review of New Zealand’s health and disability system. Known as the Simpson Review, the report made recommendations to the government to make the system stronger, more equitable and sustainable. However, Mosen argues the review was not well-received in the disabled community, as no disabled people were actually included on the panel.

He says the lack of disabled representation in government agencies and in decision-making positions is one of the greatest impediments to progress of the sector and to new opportunities within it. It’s a problem that Workbridge, as a disability advocacy organisation, has made a point of rectifying.

“Workbridge has been around in some form or another since 1931 and we’ve evolved over time to match changing perceptions of disability,” he says. “We’re certainly the largest national provider that has a council president, its board chair and its chief executive all being disabled people.”

“It would be preposterous in this day and age for a non-Māori to be a CEO of an iwi organisation, or a man to be CEO of Women’s Refuge, and quite rightly so. And yet, it’s quite acceptable still for a lot of non-disabled people to be running disabled organisations, which I actually think is quite offensive.”

Policy that works

Despite the disruption of Covid-19, Mosen says the disabled sector was galvanised after the release of the Simpson Review, so much so that there is now a consensus building around a potential ministry for disabilities with its own funding and mandate.

“I think there’s this kind of an awakening; there’s a renaissance going on,” he says.

“We’ve actually got an opportunity to rethink public policy in a key number of neglected areas. And disability is certainly one of those. I mean, we’ve got no disabled people in parliament and very few chief executives like me with a disability. In fact, I believe I’m the only chief executive in New Zealand with a dual sensory impairment. We are marginalised, we are underrepresented and effectively, we’ve had enough.”

“So rather than wait for government to come out with another policy document that really wasn’t written by disabled people, we decided that we would publish this document called Policy That Works that sets out a pretty progressive agenda for what we think needs to be done to give disabled people a fair go in the job market.”

Jonathan Mosen with Dame Patsy Reddy, the governor-general of New Zealand (Photo: NZ Govt)

Released today, Policy That Works is written from the perspective of disabled people, and proposes systemic changes that would rework the system and allow those with disabilities to truly flourish, rather than just being seen as employed or unemployed statistics.

It comes a week after the Ministry of Social Development released its own Disability Employment Action Plan draft report. While Mosen welcome the aims of the MSD report, he says it’s more strategic, while Policy That Works could complement it as its operational counterpart.

“Our concern with that consultation document is that it’s just not radical enough. It’s kind of tinkering around the edges,” he says.

“We’ve consulted quite widely with the disability sector. We reached out to Business New Zealand for their views. And that’s a role that we can play because we have strong networks with employers and the disability community. We’d like to think we could be a constructive facilitator and find a consensus to improve things.”

Alongside recommending more cooperation across government departments, and a nationwide, multimedia, public education campaign to dispel myths about disabled people in employment, the report seeks to address the underrepresentation of disabled people in tertiary education and advocates for an extension of the Fees Free scheme for a disabled person’s entire course of study.

It also argues that chief executives of all Crown entities should have disability employment as a KPI, and that funding for technology and other accommodations should be simplified so there’s only one place to apply.

Starting young

One of the main tenets of the report is that education and support is a lifelong process, beginning in school and continuing throughout a person’s working life. The report therefore emphasises the need for mentorship for disabled high school students from counsellors who have lived experience with a disability. Through working with older people who have a similar impairment but are nonetheless successful, the students could be encouraged to realise and act upon their own potential.

“When you’re a teenager, and you’re disabled, you really start to feel it,” says Mosen.

“It’s so critical in those formative teenage years that disabled kids have access to adult disabled mentors to basically say, ‘yes, you can achieve things.’ It’s about being put in touch with people who are doing the things that they would like to do and get practical advice from other disabled people.”

Mentorship is critical for younger disabled people (Photo: Getty Images)

So what about Mosen himself? As one of the few disabled CEOs in New Zealand and the very first congenitally blind person to stand for parliament, what encouraged him to set the bar high?

“I was very lucky to have access to a lot of adult blind mentors,” he says. “There was this lobby group, which is now called Blind Citizens New Zealand, and an older blind guy basically dragged me along to a branch meeting when I was 16, and said, ‘You’ve got a lot of potential and you have a lot of obligation to give something back.’ And I’ve never forgotten that advice.”

As a member of New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to the blind community, it’s clear that such advice has had a profound influence on Mosen’s journey and career. Now he says, it’s time for other young disabled people to continue along the path.

“It should be cyclical. Obviously, I could be considered part of the establishment by some younger people. So I would expect more radical, younger disabled people with a vision to move forward and step up and challenge us. That’s the way it ought to work.”

With Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick’s Election Access Fund Bill – which funds disabled candidates in local and general elections – having passed earlier this year, Mosen hopes more disabled people will be seeking political office where they can exact meaningful change – even if it comes slowly and with great effort.

“It’s easy to camp on the side lines, but somebody’s got to step up,” he says.

“Probably 90% of the time, you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall, but the other 10% of the time, the wall moves. And that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

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