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People with intellectual disability can thrive in open employment, but first they must be given a chance


24 August 2021 at 6:09 pm
Luke Michael
The open employment rate for people with intellectual disability is low in Australia, despite advocates pushing to get more of this cohort into mainstream work. We take a look at why this is and how we can turn things around.


Luke Michael | 24 August 2021 at 6:09 pm


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People with intellectual disability can thrive in open employment, but first they must be given a chance
24 August 2021 at 6:09 pm

The open employment rate for people with intellectual disability is low in Australia, despite advocates pushing to get more of this cohort into mainstream work. We take a look at why this is and how we can turn things around.

Everyone wants to feel respected and valued when they’re at work. But for 26-year-old Ella Darling, who has a mild intellectual disability, this has not always been the case. 

During her time working as a hairdresser, she faced discrimination from customers who did not want to be served by someone with an intellectual disability. 

Ella had the skills to match her enthusiasm, having undergone a TAFE course in hairdressing and beauty, but some customers did not think she was up to the job.  

“When I was working at the hairdressing salon, people didn’t treat me respectfully. They’d go ‘oh well, she’s got a mild intellectual disability, she can’t do that’,” Ella told Pro Bono News.

“And I could do it, because I’ve always loved doing hair… but the customers didn’t treat me very well.

“People assume that if you have an intellectual disability, you can’t do the job.”    

Over her life, Ella has had several mainstream employment roles including at a pet shop, a café and an RSL club. In these jobs, she has had to deal with discrimination and exploitation.

But for many people with intellectual disability, just landing a role in open employment – where people with and without disability work together – can be a struggle. 

Research has shown that only around 39 per cent of people with intellectual disability are in the labour force, compared with 55 per cent for those with other types of disability and 83 per cent for the able-bodied population.

Australian Disability Enterprise (ADEs) have been put forward as one possible solution. They offer a segregated workplace for people with disability to do streamlined work for a reduced wage, with one of the goals ostensibly being to help move people into open employment.

But a recent hearing on employment issues as part of the ongoing disability royal commission heard that only around 0.8 per cent of people actually move from ADEs into the mainstream workforce.

National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) data published in 2019 found that for participants with intellectual disability aged over 25 in the workforce, 72 per cent were employed in ADEs.

Ella also shared her experiences with the inquiry.

She told the commission that she refused to accept work with an ADE that would have paid her $2.50 per hour.

Disability advocates have long pushed to get more people with intellectual disability into mainstream employment, given the better wages and greater sense of community involvement.

But to turn things around, it’s important to first understand why it’s so difficult for people with intellectual disability to land a job. 

Why are so few people with intellectual disability in open employment? 

Dr Katherine Moore from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) completed research in 2017 examining employment opportunities for people with intellectual disability.

She told Pro Bono News that the main barrier was preconceived stereotypes of people with intellectual disability, mainly focused on their capabilities and support requirements.

“People are quite surprised to hear that someone with an intellectual disability can function extremely well within an open employment context, and there are ways to support people with intellectual disability without major disruptions to workflow,” Moore said. 

The research also identified other barriers such as organisations streamlining their recruitment processes using web-based platforms, which can be difficult for people with intellectual disability to navigate.

Advances in technology to make work systems more efficient has also led many employers to prioritise productivity over workplace diversity.

Moore noted that while people with intellectual disability often needed a work role that was tailored to their strengths, needs and abilities, employers often were only interested in filling a specific role.

Lizzie Spasich from the Council for Intellectual Disability (CID) believes the answer to why so few of this cohort find – and thrive in – mainstream work is multifaceted.  

She told Pro Bono News that most mainstream employers had little understanding of how to provide the support people with intellectual disability need in the workplace.

Spasich said the red tape inherent in many organisational recruiting processes held people with intellectual disability back.

“Recruitment is not very inclusive, because there’s a lot of red tape and a lot of steps typically when someone needs to apply for a role,” Spasich said.

“And what a lot of people don’t take into account is that people may get the job, but if there [are] not good support structures [in place], sometimes that job doesn’t last very long.

“So retention strategies are sometimes an issue.”

How can we get more people with intellectual disabilities into mainstream work?

Turning things around will take time, but experts say there are several ways to improve open employment opportunities for people with intellectual disability.

CID runs a program – More Than a Job – which provides training to help businesses and staff create an inclusive workplace that caters for people with intellectual disability.

Spasich said CID’s training with businesses focuses on getting employers to recognise what reasonable adjustments they can make in the workplace.

This could include things like providing more intense training, or translating information into an easy read format.

“A lot of studies have shown that the support needed to help a person with intellectual disability find and retain employment is not vastly different to the kinds of support [for able-bodied people], but the absolute key thing is that intensity of support,” she said.

“It just takes more time. It’s more about getting to know someone really well and working out what reasonable adjustments are needed.”

Spasich said fixing the issue was a two-way street, meaning people with intellectual disability had a role to play as well.

The More Than a Job program works with people with intellectual disability to help them decide what kind of work they like, while also connecting them with services to find a job.

“Because what sometimes happens is that people may think they can only go to an ADE. And they don’t realise that they can have other opportunities,” Spasich said.

“And so we talk with the person directly and find out what their passions are, what their strengths are, and provide a bit of a plan. Because without one, not much can happen and things can be rushed.”

Spasich said people with intellectual disability also had the opportunity to start their own microenterprise – a small, low-cost business that is simple to start up – with NDIS funding.

“CID truly believes that someone should be able to pursue what they want to based on their passions and interests, and having a small business or setting up your own microenterprise with the help of the NDIS is really possible,” she said.

For Moore, things can improve if HR and management in organisations adopt a more contemporary view of disability, focusing on the individual and their abilities rather than on stereotypes to inform their decisions.

She encouraged organisations to create a talent management system that truly supports diversity in recruitment, while also developing inclusive workplace practices that make everyone feel part of the team.

But most importantly, she urged employers to just give people with intellectual disability a go.

“They’ll be surprised how absolutely capable people with intellectual disability are when in a job that suits their abilities, when they work in a supportive work environment and they just love coming to work,” she said.

It isn’t just advocates pushing to get more people with intellectual disability into work, with the Australian government currently developing a National Disability Employment Strategy to increase employment opportunities for people with disability.

The NDIS Participant Employment Strategy 2019-2022 also aims to get 30 per cent of working age participants in paid work by mid-2023.

The value of open employment

While Ella had some negative early experiences in open employment, she was eventually able to land her dream role working for CID. 

Ella has been there almost three years now, helping others like her stand up for their rights and find meaningful work.

She wants to see more people with intellectual disability in well-paid, secure work that allows them to contribute to the community.

“Everyone should have the same right to work in a job that [able-bodied] people have,” she said.

“I think open employment is great for people with intellectual disability, so we can enjoy the same things that other people get in their job, like having friends and making your community a better place.”


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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