In 1976, I graduated with an Arts Degree (double major in history and literature) from the University of Queensland. It was a time of full employment and so, despite being deaf, I immediately secured a job as a recruitment officer, Clerk Class 2/3, in the Australian Public Service Inspector’s Office in Brisbane.
One of my early tasks was to support managers in the Brisbane offices of the Australian Taxation Office and the Department of Security to take on new recruits at the Clerical Assistant and Clerk Class 2/3 and Clerk Class 4 levels who had a disability. This was not an act of benevolence by my supervisor or an act of advocacy by me. We were just doing our job.
Our job was to give meaning to one of the recommendations of the Coombs Report arising from the 1976 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration. Nuggett Coombs had proposed the then radical view of equal opportunity in the public service. For women. For people with disabilities.
All these years later, I cannot remember my success rate. I do remember this though. Every manager I approached was interested. They were keen to do their bit. Anxious too — what do I have to do?—but keen all the same.
Something of that reforming keenness in the Australian Public Service was lost in the following years. I experienced this at a personal level when I graduated in 1981 from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Social Work degree. I put my name down at the Chermside office of the Commonwealth Employment Service. I am still waiting to hear from them…
I can still remember the look on the CES officer’s face when he heard my “deaf” voice. I saw his faux-interest played out as he cocked his head on a certain angle and murmured soothingly to me. I walked out of that office on Gympie Road, Chermside, knowing that the CES was not in my court. I would have to get a job under my own steam. Not long after that interview, I was taken on board as the Social Worker for the Visually Handicapped by the Queensland Department of Family Services.
Thirty-two years later, little seems to have changed in the Commonwealth Government. Certainly, it’s very nice that the Gillard Government has passed legislation to establish DisabilityCare Australia (formerly known as the NDIS). But how much do we really know about this? And what does it really say about the Gillard Government’s understanding of the needs and aspirations of people with disability?
When I wrote an article about DisabilityCare Australia for The Conversation on 28 March 2013, entitled ‘We have an NDIS but what does this mean for disability care?’ I was surprised by the interest in what was just a summary of what we already know about the legislation.
My article was retweeted by a Greg Jericho who tweets as @GrogsGamut and has 17,100 followers. It was also reprinted at PS News online.
I received messages from LinkedIn contacts and comments on The Conversation’s website. What I learnt from this interest is that the “general public” has a genuine interest in, and concern about, the lives of people with disabilities.
So why, then, does the Gillard Government persist with the habits of earlier governments—in particular, the Howard Government—of demonising people with disability in their adversarial drive to push people off disability support pensions as if people with disability want to be pensioners? No-one in their right minds chooses penury (the honest word for “pension”) over useful work and a reasonable wage.
Trust me, people with disabilities have “right minds”. We want to be useful, and we want to be paid at least a reasonable wage for a reasonable day’s work (if we can be paid more than what is “reasonable”, so much the better of course).
Last week, Disability Reform Minister Jenny Macklin released data and analysis that showed the number of people on the disability support pension has dropped by 0.8 per cent on an annual basis. Call me dense, but why is this piddling little statistical drop a cause for celebration?
We all know that people with disability are less likely to be working than other Australians. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that the labour force participation rate for those aged 15-64 years with disability in 2009 was 54%, much lower than that for those without disability (83%). One of the priority outcomes of the National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 is to ‘increase access to employment opportunities as a key to improving economic security and personal wellbeing for people with disability…’. (Australian Social Trends. March Quarter, 2012).
But the Gillard Government’s attention is like that of the distracted driver going past a car crash where police cars, ambulances, fire engines and tow trucks have gathered with all their sirens ablaze.
Instead of attending to the road in front and the far horizon of the destination, the focus is, ADHD-like, on the immediate catastrophe. The Gillard Government pays far too much attention to disability income support schemes—demonising people with disability while they are about it, making spurious threats about “cracking down” on people with disability “to get off” the pension—and far too little attention to the broader political economy of disability.
Most people work for an employer. That employer might be in the government, private or community sector. Or they might be entrepreneurial self-employees. Thus, the employment prospects of people with disability will not improve until the government turns its attention to the employment sector. Not the income support sector; not the training sector. A penurious income subsidy and irrelevant training as a barista or a welder is not going to make a jot of difference for the employment prospects of people with disability until the Government pays greater heed to supporting employers to increase the recruitment and retention of people with disability.
And the Gillard Government could do worse than to look to its own house. The Australian Public Service has a deplorable track record in its employment of people with disability. The number of people with disability employed by the Australian Public Service has been consistently declining. In 2003-2004, people with disabilities made up 3.8 per cent of Australian Public Service (APS) employees, down from 5.8 per cent in the mid 1990s (http://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/national-inquiry-employment-and-disability-issues-paper-1. A more recent accounting of numbers is not available).
One of the most ludicrous claims by Minister Macklin last week was this: “Wherever possible, we want to support and encourage people with disability to participate in the workforce. […] We know it’s early days and we will continue to do all we can to ensure we are supporting people with capacity to work to do so.”
Early days? Nugget Coombs would roll in his grave.