Being the Change She Wants to See
Monday, 5th October 2015 at 10:16 am
After experiencing discrimination at the hands of her employer because of her disability, Jessica May decided to do something to create cultural change. May is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.
According to the Australian Network on Disability, 2.2 million Australians of working age have disability. Jessica May is one of those people.
As she tells Pro Bono Australia News in this week’s Changemaker column, when her employer found out about her condition she faced discrimination that led her down a path of mental anguish.
May decided to use that experience as inspiration, founding Enabled Employment, a startup labour hire company for people with disability.
Just last week the company announced that it had partnered with car hire giant Uber to create employment opportunities for people with disability.
Tell me a bit about your background. How did you come up with the idea for Enabled Employment?
I’d been working as an executive in the government sector for many, many years and I’d never told them that I had anxiety. It actually made me a much better worker because I was a bit of a workaholic because I preferred to be working instead of being anxious.
But when I had my daughter I ended up with a thyroid condition which made the anxiety 10 times worse and medication could no longer manage it. I had to do a graduated return to work program, so I had to tell them that I had a disability for the first time. Pretty much overnight all of my work was taken away. It wasn’t really because they were trying to be mean, it’s just they didn’t know what to do with someone with anxiety so they thought that the best thing to do would be not to stress me out, which actually was the worst thing to do and I ended up getting worse and worse with my mental health.
I started looking around and realised this happens to quite a lot of people when they say that they have a disability and I started looking at what supports there were for people who were really highly skilled at the other end of the spectrum of disability and I couldn’t find anything. I went looking for a recruitment agency, couldn’t find it, so I decided to do it myself.
I understand that everyone in a management position at Enabled Employment has a disability. Why is that important to you?
Every single person who works for Enabled Employment has a disability. It’s very important. We’re being the change that we want to see in the world.
We’ve been through that discrimination, we've faced those same things and we’re out there fighting for the rights of people with disability because we understand exactly what it’s like.
When we go and meet with our employers, one of the biggest questions we get asked is how did they treat you when you met with the employer because we always go in and share our stories and say we’re people with a disability so we know straight up whether they’re going to be an employer who’s welcoming to people with disabilities. Because we’re so open about the fact that we have a disability we can generally walk into a room and know straight away exactly what that company is like and how they treat people with a disability.
What are some of the benefits you see when a person with disability finds employment?
It’s really meaningful. For me, I was spiralling downwards and if I hadn’t have found a job I just would’ve got worse and worse and worse. Lot’s of research shows how important having something to do and get out of bed in the morning and having something to work for is. That’s why most people with disabilities who can’t find a job volunteer. It’s really, really important in every aspect of your life; financially, socially and mentally.
But it has to be meaningful employment doesn’t it? Because as you said, you still had a job but they took all the main tasks away from you. So it’s not just about having a job, it needs to be meaningful employment doesn’t it?
Yes, meaningful employment, which is what we very much work towards. We work on the proviso that you’re the master of your own destiny – if you want to do a job you apply for that job. We don’t allocate people jobs just because we think that they should do them. It’s what they want to do and that’s why we work in the area of highly skilled people, getting people who have a disability the jobs that they deserve for their qualifications and experience.
If you were making an appeal to employers to hire someone with a disability, what would you say are the benefits of doing that.
People with disability are amazingly resilient. They've been through the ringer and back again and so they know what their limitations are. They’re more loyal, they’ll stay in a job longer, they work just as hard or harder as a person without a disability. Plus they bring that really big cultural shift to companies.
We’ve got some amazing stories where employing with a disability has changed the entire culture of a company and has made people who work there already start disclosing their own issues and also people who were starting to have mental health crises are talking to their bosses to get the help that they need straight away.
It can make wonderful changes to your business. Diversity is key and it is definitely a way forward. We’ve got an ageing population and 60 per cent of disabilities are acquired after the age of 60 so we definitely need to embrace it if we want to keep people in employment.
How scary was it to take the plunge and start your own business?
It was pretty terrifying. The startup world is a very wonderful beast. I put myself financially at risk, we spent all of my savings, I gave up my job in the public service so I lost my superannuation. It was a really challenging time and it still is. We’re constantly struggling to find investment because we chose the path of for-profit to try and instigate social change. We didn’t want to go down the Not for Profit route because we don’t think we’re a charity. We’re finding an employer the best person for that job and they should be paying for that service. It’s meant that we’ve had to fight for investment because people often still don’t want to invest in anything that is really different.
We’ve got six employees working for the company. We’re expanding rapidly and we’ve opened up our sister site which is one for returned service men and women to find employment. We’re growing at a cracking pace. We’ve got about 180 employers that we’re working with and about 4,000 candidates. It’s growing by about 600 to 1,000 candidates every month at the moment.
And you just recently partnered with Uber to improve employment opportunities for people with disability. How did that relationship come about?
That was definitely a big step. We worked a lot with Uber. They’ve done some amazing things in the US for people with disabilities and also people who work in the military. They’ve embraced diversity and they know that there’s people that need an opportunity to earn an income and that will definitely stay with them for a long time. They’ve made some amazing changes in people’s lives and we wanted to bring that to Australia.
You mentioned the stresses of running your own startup, but how have you enjoyed it?
It’s been amazingly satisfying having my own business but also doing something that’s for the social good. I worked on government startups, things that the government had never done before, so I had a lot of experience at creating new things and I brought all of those skills into my own business but it’s definitely very satisfying. Every time we put a person into work we are very, very happy.