Photo: Getty Images

Ableism pervades the job market while good talent goes to waste

Yesterday, a report was released calling for sweeping, systemic changes to disability employment. Here, Robyn Hunt writes from her own experience seeking work, and calls on employers and recruiters to do better.

When I began my career many years ago, I applied for more than 40 jobs before I got my first one – unsuitable for a severely vision impaired person, it turned out. A few years later I was given no alternative but to work on an under-rate agreement to keep a job I loved.

This was in a time of full employment, when my fellow university graduates walked into the first job they applied for, or chose the most favoured of several interesting options closely suited to their skills and qualifications. But that was a long time ago. Surely the working world has changed, with better technology, accommodations and more human rights protections?

It seems not.

A month ago, RNZ interviewed a Hamilton woman who says she was told by a recruitment agent she’d only find work if someone took pity on her. She is a qualified graphic artist.

Not only is this downright rude and unprofessional, it may be unlawful discrimination under the Human Rights Act. The recruitment company has denied the allegation.

But this kind of behaviour is not uncommon, and is indicative of a deep problem. Disabled people have twice the unemployment rate of non-disabled people, despite increasing numbers completing tertiary education. Complaints of work-related disability discrimination are consistently among the highest numbers of complaints received by the Human Rights Commission.

Over the years, much public effort has gone into creating a level playing field for employing disabled people. Workbridge is a specialist disability employment agency partnering with tertiary institutions, and employment support is available. The State Services Commission provides guidance for employers.

But around 900 people still work while being paid less than the minimum wage. Equal employment opportunity in the public sector has not been as successful for disabled people as for others, despite direct provisions in the 1988 State Sector Act.

Recruitment agencies have a significant gatekeeping role to play. They can hold the key to a young person’s career and economic future, but they can also destroy that same young person’s sense of self-worth over time, by constant rejection of the type described in the RNZ article. The behaviour described is not unusual. The resulting unemployment and mental distress add cost to the health and disability support systems.

The current working-from-home trend because of Covid-19 is interesting from a disability perspective. As a practical workplace disability accommodation it has been rejected in the past, but as a solution for non-disabled staff and employers, it has suddenly become desirable.

Accommodating a worker with a disability is not expensive, and often involves simply doing things differently (Photo: Getty Images)

Disabled people know what they need. They may not know in a particular workplace situation, but they will be the employer’s partner in identifying and accommodating their needs. Cost should not be an excuse any more with out-of-the-box accessible tech, and the not-huge costs of things like screen readers. Most accommodations are not expensive, and many may simply involve doing things differently, like working from home, or flexible hours.

Good building design and access should be the norm in the 21st century. Accessibility benefits everyone. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive accessibility act, and more guidance and accountability.

Much of what happens is a failure of imagination by those who have the power in the unequal recruitment situation. The existence of disability nearly always colours the process in a negative light. (There are always one or two enlightened exceptions, but they’re very hard to find.)

Employers and recruiters are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. They constantly talk about things like number-eight wire, being problem solvers, innovative, nimble and agile, yet seem to be stuck with a pre-industrial-revolution mindset in relation to some candidates.

When they look at a disabled person, they can’t see the hard work the applicant has done to get to this point. They see a problem; they see weakness, inability, sickness, disruption, absenteeism, despite all the research to the contrary over many years. They can’t see beyond their own fear of the unknown, their low expectations and negativity. They frequently ignore the well-documented evidence presented to them in curriculum vitae and other evidence.

The disabled candidate has probably learned that they must minimise their impairment/s, especially if they are hidden, if they want the job. I frequently lied in my early career, which of course is dangerous and unhelpful – definitely not recommended. Denying the existence of what can be a critical part of who you are is ultimately destructive to all parties.

Disability is not a sign of weakness or a lack of competence, but a teacher of some particularly transferable life skills.

But let’s dream a little. Why shouldn’t we try something new when nothing else seems to have worked well?

It seems we can regulate, plan, offer incentives and say things like “see my ability, not my disability” until the cows come home, but nothing changes. We could turn things around and promote the positives the experience of impairment and disability bring. We could make change by promoting that valuable life experience.

It’s time to change the mindset, on both sides. This is easier said than done, of course. To take the initiative and address head-on the subject usually seen as a barrier to be avoided and prove they are better than the next candidate is extremely high-risk for any disabled person, never mind one who is just setting out on their career. Yet proactively choosing the time to take control of the disability discussion can take back some of the power in a positive, even enabling and dignified way. It means that the wholeness of the person, and what that means, is acknowledged.

For most disabled people our life experience teaches us much about how to live in a world that is not built or made for us, a world that can be deeply unwelcoming and unfriendly in all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

On top of the usual range of human skills and talents we bring, we learn to live, and maybe even thrive in the non-disabled world. We do that by developing skills to successfully navigate and manage interactions with this world. Some of us learn to manage change – change in our fluctuating condition, for example. We have to develop skills to work around things, to find creative solutions to problems, usually not of our making. Many people have to be super-organised so that they can have a life at all. We may have to manage our own condition/s, our environments and sometimes others supporting us as well, not to mention managing interactions with random people encountered as we go about our daily lives. 

Disability is not a sign of weakness or a lack of competence, but a teacher of some particularly transferable life skills. It is a sign of resilience and strength when we own it fully.

What endurance, focus, tenacity, resilience and sheer determination that candidate in the RNZ story has, as well as the qualifications she studied hard to gain. Are these not skills employers and recruiters might find useful? Or are they so stuck in their negative head space that they can’t see beyond the ableism that infests the job market. She does not need pity. She commands respect.

The lack of a “fair go” for so long simply isn’t good enough nor is watching good talent go to waste when the skills and talents of all the rich diversity of New Zealanders are greatly needed.




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