The Missing Ingredient of the NDIA's Employment Strategy
Unemployment levels for people with disability are disproportionately high, this is no secret. Only 53 percent of Australians with a disability are currently in paid or unpaid employment, compared to 83 percent of Australians without disability. Furthermore, only 24 percent of NDIS Participants are employed, when 31 percent have a work related goal in their plan. This means that the unemployment rate for Participants when seeking work is 23 percent, when it is only 5 percent for the rest of Australia. Wowza, no bueno. Action is clearly required.
To address this issue, the NDIA recently released their first ever NDIS Participant Employment Strategy for 2019 to 2022. This outlines how the NDIA will take action to ensure that more Participants are able to attain meaningful employment. Their overarching aim is to have 30% of NDIS Participants of working age employed by June 2023. This really does not seem overly ambitious, especially when you consider their hope is to increase Participants’ including employment goals into their Plans to 40 percent in the same timeframe. So, the bar is low, let’s temper our hopes and see how the strategy aims to achieve this goal.
To begin, the strategy outlines some of the barriers that people with disability face when thinking about or seeking employment that are creating this problem. These include a lack of accessible infrastructure (transport and buildings), overly complex policy frameworks, poor customisation of jobs to match abilities and a lack of access to inclusive education and training. These are just a few of the barriers listed, and all present major legitimate hurdles. However, the socially ingrained discrimination and stigma against people with disability is not listed nor directly addressed as part of their strategy. What’s more, the strategy puts significant responsibility onto Participants to resolve this discrepancy by reaching out for the ‘right supports’. This frames the issue in completely the wrong way because under the social model of disability the barriers to employment are created by society, not the physical/mental differences between people with and without disability. This strategy could be more sensitive to this crucial nuance if they didn’t put the responsibility on Participants first and employers second. So, without further ado let’s look at the strategy’s 5 key areas of focus:
1.PARTICIPANT EMPLOYMENT GOALS AND ASPIRATIONS IN NDIS PLANS
According to the strategy, “change and transformation starts by increasing demand” and to do this, the first step is to push for more Participants to include employment as a goal in their Plans. This is being done in part by running information campaigns targeted at Participants, families and carers promoting how the NDIS can help Participants to achieve their employment related goals. They aim to achieve this goal by ensuring every Participant that has this aspiration has the right supports in place, as detailed in key area 2.
2. PARTICIPANT CHOICE AND CONTROL OVER PATHWAYS TO EMPLOYMENT
As you will begin to see, many of the strategy’s goals have significant overlap. For example, the NDIA is aiming to increase the choice and control that Participants have when job seeking by first providing information for Participants, and their families and carers. Once again, it looks as though the unemployment problem is being explained largely by Participants and their support systems’ lack of awareness of employment related supports. This doesn’t bode well but let’s continue. More practically, the strategy states that Support Coordination, where needed, will be included. However, there is little information as to how this will be extended or promoted beyond what is already available.
3. MARKET DEVELOPMENTS THAT IMPROVE THE PATH TO PAID WORK AND SUPPORT THE CAREER DEVELOPMENT OF NDIS PARTICIPANTS
Finally, a goal that doesn’t put direct responsibility onto Participants to fix the unemployment gap. The strategy aims to “drive improved provider practice through market engagement”. Your guess is probably as good as mine when it comes to understanding what this means. They state that it will include the release of detailed demand data and involve the convening of industry specific events…. Okay…. That’s vague, but let’s move on.
4. THE CONFIDENCE OF EMPLOYERS TO EMPLOY NDIS PARTICIPANTS
Building employers confidence to employ people with disability is essential to overcome the discrimination that has created such a tough market for NDIS Participants to enter. So let’s see how the strategy is tackling this issue. Once again, the publishing of information is a central step. This time, targeted at small to medium businesses and will also include the encouragement for other employers to meet their seven per cent target of employees with disability.
Another step in this key area of focus is to deliver targeted strategies promoting education-to employment pathways for Participants. Whilst education is undoubtedly an important area to focus on in order to gain employment, it does not necessarily secure more confidence of employers for people with disability. If we look at rates of graduates with paid or unpaid employment, we see similar rates of unemployment. There is still a 26 percent gap in employment between Australian graduates with and without a disability. Graduate Careers Australia has found that graduates with a disability take 61.5 percent longer to gain full-time employment than other graduates. These numbers clearly demonstrate the attainment of education is not enough to overcome the lack of confidence that employers present when considering hiring Participants. So it seems perhaps misguided to put this step under the banner of improving employers confidence.
5. NDIA LEADING BY EXAMPLE AS A GOVERNMENT EMPLOYER
Last but not least, the NDIA is seeking to overcome the unemployment gap by promoting themselves as a leading example. This is one area that the NDIA excels in. The strategy outlines the establishment of leadership development and career advancement programs for NDIA employees who are also NDIS Participants. If we look at Australia’s national average, people with disability make up less than 1 percent of people serving on public entity boards and committees. Yikes. So whilst the promotion of influential and higher up jobs for Participants could have definitely been emphasised more heavily in the strategy, their internal programs are commendable. If Participants are placed in positions of power, particularly hiring power, then we are more likely to see a growing (and perhaps more natural) job market for people with disability.
Another way that the strategy plans to further this last key area of focus is by delivering awareness and capability training to all NDIA managers and leaders to help them identify barriers and create solutions by putting in adjustment provisions for employees with disabilities.
It must be said, there is a lot that the strategy is doing right. In particular, it is great to see the NDIA collaborating with people with disability in the development of their plans. It is difficult to tell the degree to which these individuals inform the strategy but including them as decision-makers is essential. The strategy also pushes for individualised and meaningful employment for Participants. As we probably all personally know, having a job regardless of its interest to the worker is not sustainable nor all that beneficial. So pushing for meaningful employment is key to the success of the strategy. The NDIA also acknowledge that the strategy is not set in stone, things change quickly and they have committed to reviewing their progress and updating plans before the end of each year.
So whilst the strategy is undoubtedly a big step in the promotion of equal working rights for Participants, is still sweeps the issue of discrimination under the rug. There may not be a lot we can do to address discrimination by broader society by we can certainly acknowledge it, and call it for what it is!