Our statistics for the employment of disabled people are terrible. Disabled people are three times less likely to have paid work than non-disabled people, have fewer paid hours and earn less. Forty three percent of young disabled adults under 25 are not in employment, education or training.
Lack of employment for disabled people is a complex problem. Many have not had the education and training opportunities available to others. Employers and managers often do not understand issues around specific impairments or how to mitigate them. Few are prepared to have a go at mentoring a disabled person even though they are likely to become one of their most loyal workers. Then there is the underlying prejudice left over from decades of eugenic public policy which regarded and feared disability and disabled people as dangerous and shameful.
Getting a job seems to come down to intangible factors such as parental networks or just luck. Sustainable employment is even more elusive.
In her speech at the Labour Party conference Jacinda Ardern revealed that people write to her on almost every topic and she shares many of the letters with her Caucus and Cabinet. So, as she is the most powerful person in New Zealand, I wrote to her about the lack of employment opportunities for disabled people.
I asked her to ask her Cabinet ministers to take a lead, such as by instructing their heads of departments to make an effort to employ workers with disabilities. They could start close to home - Parliamentary Services must have numerous appropriate job opportunities and could model an inclusive approach.
In addition, many ministers have direct influence on disability employment opportunities. For example:
- The Minister of Employment’s ‘Mana in Mahi’ programme could be extended for young people with impairments.
- The State Sector Act review and its stated intention to have more inclusion and diversity (which could incorporate disability quotas), and extending the Mainstream [Supported] Employment Programme for government agencies are issues for the Minister of State Services
- Disability employment training is an issue for the Minister of Education
- Lack of human rights and obligations for disability employment under Article 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities should concern the Minister of Justice.
- The Minister of Employment Relations regulates Minimum Wage Exemptions (a leftover from the era of sheltered workshops by which disabled workers are paid less – sometimes a lot less - than the minimum wage). While they remain considered not worthy of the minimum wage, regular employment will be elusive.
- The Minister of Finance wants to incorporate ‘wellbeing’, of which employment is an indicator, into GDP.
The problem is that if something has the word ‘disability’ in it, it becomes niche. It becomes a problem for disabled people and the disability sector to solve, and it sometimes seems that no one else cares. We have a great Minister for Disability Issues in Carmel Sepuloni, but lack of employment for disabled people cannot be solved by disabled people or by a minister for disability issues.
The social model of disability sees a distinction between disability and impairment. People have their individual impairments or chronic conditions but disability is a political process of oppression. I wrote to Jacinda to see if she would ask her government ministers to remove some of those disabling political barriers.
There are helpful people in Jacinda’s office and within a couple of days I got a letter:
“You raise issues around disabled adults and the problems they have accessing employment, education and/or training, and suggest ways in which the Government could address this. … I’ve passed your email to the Minister of Social Development, Hon Carmel Sepuloni, as this is something which falls into her area of responsibility.”
So it’s back to niche.
Now I might misunderstand the processes that go on high up and it could be that there is some process whereby the Minister for Disability Issues asks her Cabinet colleagues to help with big urgent issues like the lack of paid jobs for disabled people, and they take the request seriously.
We will see.