OPINIONSocietyAugust 17, 2022

Christopher Luxon wants disabled people working – but it will take more than threats


We have normalised the invisibility of disabled people in New Zealand. Massive disabled unemployment is the result, writes Jonathan Mosen.

For the first time that I can recall, the disability employment crisis headlined the TV news, when Newshub led with it last Saturday evening. I celebrate that, and thank Christopher Luxon. His comments — about disabled being subject to benefit sanctions if they were capable of working but refused to work with a job coach — have started a long overdue conversation.

For disabled people, things are grim. Almost half — 48% of us — are not in employment, education or training. This is an invisible epidemic, largely ignored by all of our country’s decision-makers, which deserves time and attention. Over a million New Zealanders (24% of the population) identify as disabled, this means that almost 500,000 people are not currently employed, being trained or educated.

Disabled people seek the mana, economic independence and sense of participation that comes from having a job, just like everyone else, but there is also a powerful economic argument for addressing this crisis. If we assume a median income of $40,000 and if disabled people had the same unemployment rate as non-disabled people, there would be half a billion dollars in additional tax revenue.

So why aren’t we hearing about this unacceptable statistic in our news bulletins regularly, until every political party has a clear action plan to address it?

I believe it is because we have normalised the invisibility of disabled people. 

New Zealand does not have high hopes or expectations for us. Systemic barriers, medicalised models and negative stereotypes about disability have all contributed to a belief that disabled people have nothing to offer or are a burden on a non-disabled society; you don’t imagine us as your bus drivers, butchers or lawyers, because you’re taught to minimise us. Because of this you’re not surprised when you don’t see us in your offices, lunchrooms or next to you at the meeting room table. Nobody asks where we are. 

As chief executive of Aotearoa’s largest disability employment agency, Workbridge, I understand and am fully connected with the need to get more people into work. I’m disabled myself, so this isn’t just what I do for a living, it’s my passion and my calling.

Workbridge already offers the kind of job coaching it appears National has in mind. We would be delighted to have more flexible funding arrangements, where we can work with disabled people to provide the programmes they need, not the highly prescriptive arrangements the government thinks are best.

There is so much room for National to offer something truly thoughtful and helpful. The government has diluted the self-determination of disabled people by being very specific about what it will and won’t purchase from agencies like Workbridge. Training, for example, is not a valid outcome for our current government contract for disability employment services, despite training being the start of the pipeline and the statistics showing that training is very much needed. 

I believe that everyone who can be should be empowered with the opportunity to meaningfully contribute, which appears to be what National is saying. I agree with Mr Luxon that this doesn’t always look like paid employment; sometimes it looks like studying, training or having your lived experience recognised as part of your qualifications.  

Sadly, the opportunity to have a thoughtful, inclusive conversation about positive social investment has been squandered by the offering up of red (or is it blue?) meat to the base with his comments about benefit sanctions. Are there people who haven’t made any effort to contribute? I doubt there are many. Are there disabled people who are refusing to contribute when they could? Probably, but context is key.

In my work, I regularly hear of people who have applied for literally hundreds of jobs before an employer will give them a break. My team often reminds disabled people that there’s only one thing that’s certain, the job you won’t get is the job you don’t apply for. But even the most resilient of people have their limits. If you’re keen, you’re capable, but you’re still finding it hard to get a fair go, you still get to the point where you just can’t stomach one more rejection. We must address those fundamentals and we must do it urgently.

So looking at this through a right-of-centre lens, where should the priority be for investment? It should be investing in a breaking down of barriers. The first set of these barriers is attitudinal. They can be substantially reduced through a concentrated public education campaign for the country in general, and targeted programmes for hiring managers. Workbridge has sought to be a part of the solution, setting up a new business talking the language of business to business called “Just Say Yes,” which seeks to debunk the myths many employers have about disabled people. I want to be clear that I don’t blame those employers for feeling cautious. Most businesses are small businesses, and their operators have put their heart and soul into their sustainability. It’s going to take patience and education to help many to realise that hiring disabled people isn’t the risk they think it is, in fact there may be advantages.

The next set of barriers is physical and technological. Disabled people face numerous accessibility challenges that are completely fixable, ranging from transportation to poorly designed buildings to inaccessible technology.

It’s little wonder that, faced with these real frustrations while desperate for work, many disabled people are not impressed with the superficial comments on the issue coming from National. How did National score such an avoidable own-goal when they could have made a serious play for the disability vote? We are a quarter of the population after all. It’s in no small part because they, along with every other political party in this country, haven’t done the internal investment necessary. National has been talking a lot lately about the need to diversify their MPs. That must include disabled people. If disabled people aren’t in the caucus room and around the cabinet table, all political parties will remain out of touch, leaving a large constituency feeling alienated and ignored. Our House of Representatives can hardly be said to be representative when it comes to disabled people.

Now that this critical conversation has started, let’s not have it stop. The election is a year away. There is still time for a suite of measures that, in the spirit of social investment, recognises the underlying causes of our disability employment crisis and makes bold plans to fix them. We should expect no less, morally and politically. Acknowledging our ability to work is a great start, but punishing people who may have had one rejection too many and have given up is not a compassionate or fair solution.

Listen to Jonathan Mosen on Business is Boring with Simon Pound:

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