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Time to step up workplace efforts for intellectually disabled people

By Phil O'Reilly, September 2016

Our Paralympic team arrived home from Rio last week with 21 well-earned medals and no doubt a sense of achievement like no other. For many of us sporting fans, the impact that these individuals, their physically disabilities aside, have had on our own lives recently has been nothing but positive.

But how do we feel when it comes to thinking about the impact that people with intellectual disabilities have? Quite possibly we don’t know – because this group is somewhat less visible in society.

The truth is that people with intellectual disabilities are less likely than any other group to be employed. And yet it is precisely this – employment – that will enrich their lives as well as the lives of others.

Whether you are disabled or not, working brings with it huge benefits – and not just financial. When you work you have a purpose, you gain self-esteem and confidence, you engage with others, you have a sense of achievement, you feel good – and it’s social and enjoyable. On a wider scale, employment helps promote social equality, wellbeing and cohesion and helps reduce crime.

So, the challenge then is how do we improve employment opportunities for our intellectually disabled people?

This is the main topic of the Workability International ‘Make it Work’ conference currently running at Auckland’s SkyCity. Hosted by New Zealand charity IHC, the conference is a think tank charged with developing the conservation around making sure that as many people with a disability as possible can enjoy the fruits of a good job.

In New Zealand we’ve made steady progress over the years with government, businesses, disability organisations and potential employees all gaining ground.

For example, government agencies seem to have shifted from the mindset of moving someone off social welfare to understanding the need for the individual to be engaged in a fulfilling job. Through initiatives like the Mainstream Employment Programme, Government now supports and actively seeks companies and organisations who are keen to employ people with a disability.

There’s evidence too that New Zealand businesses are moving away from worrying about the potential liabilities of employing an intellectually impaired person, or the costs of modifying a building, to considering the all-round benefits.

And disability advocacy groups who have traditionally concentrated on the issue of the disability itself now see employment as a real option. Intellectually disabled people also, often with support, are being shown the possibility of a different, brighter and more enriching future that involves joining the world of work.

Altus Enterprises, a South Auckland packing company, is a great example of this. This company, which describes itself as ‘a business with a heart’, has a mission to ‘support people with diverse needs’. This translates into a happy workforce that mostly comprises of people with a disability. Altus’ commitment to employing people with disabilities is both admirable and heart warming.

Importantly, though, Altus has demonstrated that workplace diversity isn’t an action it’s an attitude – which we can all adopt. This company has shown that we can normalise the engagement of people with a disability in the workplace.

And now it’s time for us all to push forward.

Firstly, we need government to absolutely commit to investing in people with a disability. It needs to go beyond the current programmes it offers and truly see these people as part of the future workforce. It needs to develop more training and preparation programmes and it needs to be at the forefront of helping broker relationships with employers and business communities. Critically, government needs to stay involved. Once a person has a job, they need on-going support to help them remain in employment – which, of course, is in everyone’s best interest.

Secondly, employers must step up. Far too many still think disability employment is a politically correct add-on to their diversity policies. Instead, employers need to orientate their business planning from the outset to include people with disabilities. They need to think about integration at every turn -  training, job design, employment branding, HR, recruitment and staff retention. Small businesses too need to understand that this is also their domain. While larger companies tend to take the lead here, small businesses have an equal social responsibility.

Thirdly, disability organisations, and those with a disability themselves, need to be increasingly ready to engage in the world of work. They need to be prepared and have a positive view about what they can do and what benefits they can bring.

Importantly, they need to engage more with potential employers and address any concerns that they have. Good and open communication will be key here.

If we can increase our efforts in-line with the above, the best outcome will be that people with a disability find great jobs and keep them. Not because of sympathy or a woolly sense of social justice and inclusion, but because they are the best person for that job and are willing and capable of being held to account on that basis.

And if we can achieve this, we can create real acceptance within society, strengthen our connectedness and, at the same time, expand our workforce to include a group of people who might otherwise remain on the fringe.