Chris Ford examines the human tragedy behind the employment statistics of New Zealand’s disabled population, questioning the myths around work and disability 

Statistics New Zealand brought out some very gloomy employment statistics last week showing that a significant population group had an appallingly high unemployment rate of 10 percent. These numbers would be markers of a deep recession if they were replicated in the wider economy. Indeed, in this scenario, there would be mass despair in many communities across the country.

That’s the case for disabled people in New Zealand today. According to Statistics New Zealand’s disability labour force count, the unemployment rate for disabled people stands at 10.6 percent, just over double that of non-disabled people at 4.3 percent. What’s worse (given that unemployment is an averaged-out measure) is the difference in the labour force participation rate between disabled and non-disabled people. This measure is more important given it focuses on the actual numbers of people within both population groups who are actually working and shows a jaw-dropping participation gap of 47 percent with only 22 percent of disabled people in any form of paid employment versus 70 percent for non-disabled people.

Another key measure, the under-utilisation rate, shows there are many more disabled people wanting to work greater hours than they currently do or be more extended in the roles they are in with 25.4 percent of disabled people in this category versus 11.5 percent of non-disabled people. Currently, I count myself as one of the many under-utilised disabled people out there given that I work only part-time for a non-government organisation and am working on getting my writing and research business up and running again.

I can also tell you that I see and hear the human tragedy behind these figures every day. Most commonly, many disabled people are denied work by employers on very flimsy grounds, for example, on the basis of us presenting as a ‘potential health and safety risk’. Or as is the case when disabled workers are made redundant, especially when a business changes hands. In this regard, I heard on talkback radio last week a former service station attendant with mobility issues calling in saying that after many years of working for his previous employer and despite performing well, he was not wanted by the new owner. Or as is the case when disabled people with significant tertiary qualifications are rejected by employer after employer despite the need for more highly qualified people in our workforce.

Yet, people like me and others in the disability community keep repeating the extensive research evidence which refutes the many myths around disability and employment. This evidence includes that disabled people like me are more productive employees than non-disabled people and take fewer sick days; that only 10 percent of disabled people like me need additional workplace accommodations and that, if required, these can often be done with government assistance to the employer; that disabled people like make very loyal employees as even the Statistics New Zealand figures verified that disabled workers, on average, stay longer in jobs than our non-disabled counterparts do.

I and many other disabled people continually recite these figures until we’re blue in the face but they still don’t change the bleak realities which face us employment-wise, even in a resurgent economy like ours. I can also say that disability joblessness is not just a New Zealand phenomenon but a global one. In my view, this points to do it being deep-seated and this has its roots in the institutional and structural biases which have affected disabled people throughout history.

This is the type of world I dream of where disabled people like me are no longer discriminated against if we want to work and while in work.

I say this because during certain historical periods, disabled people have been found to be valuable workers – as was the case during the Middle Ages when, for example, much agricultural work was undertaken by learning/intellectually disabled people. But the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century began to change all that as disabled people became increasingly excluded from the workforce as mass production techniques began to take hold. Only during times of extreme labour shortages, such as during the First and Second World Wars, were an increasing number of disabled people brought into fill roles temporarily vacated by service personnel. After the wars, though, many disabled people became economically marginalised once again in the same way that many women were. However, there was one difference in that with the rise of the feminist movement, more non-disabled women re-entered the workforce and successfully began challenging longstanding discriminatory practices against them and still continue to do so to this day. For disabled people (including disabled women), though – and despite the rise of the disability rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s – the rate of unemployment and underemployment has remained higher than that for non-disabled people all the way into the 21st century. This despite the disability movement’s continuous calls for employment equity.

So, what can be done to arrest the tide of high disability unemployment in New Zealand? Ultimately, I believe that we need an economy running at genuine full employment, i.e. less than 2 percent with disabled people who can and want to work being increasingly hired to work alongside non-disabled people in the clean, green, high-tech industries of the future.

And how can we achieve this? What we need is a good government-led disability employment strategy developed in full partnership with disabled people like me as well as with employers and unions. As part of any such strategy, we need a commitment from government to support good employers who hire disabled people and punish employers who systemically discriminate through more robust anti-discrimination laws. What we need is for government and the community to support disabled people-led and worker-led initiatives such as the Independence Collective brewing start-up (run by people with learning disabilities) on the Kapiti Coast. What we need is employment equity legislation which establishes robust disability employment targets (not quotas) applicable across the public, private and voluntary sectors. What we need is a government-funded, disabled people’s led and developed nationwide, multi-media disability responsiveness campaign which aims to positively shift public attitudes (including those of employers) towards us. And in the meantime we need a genuinely responsive and humane welfare system which will support those of us who either cannot work altogether or whom find it difficult looking for work instead of punishing us as National’s 2013 welfare reforms have done (and with minimal impact on the unemployment and underemployment figures for us after all this time).

These initiatives and an economy run for the benefit of both people and planet and not just profit would begin to build a society where every person, regardless of disability, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality or any other factor had access to genuine, well-paid employment opportunities on an equitable basis.

This is the type of world I dream of where disabled people like me are no longer discriminated against if we want to work and while in work. I hope the Labour-New Zealand First-Green Government is listening as we can be world leaders in promoting progressive economic and social change which lifts disabled people – alongside everybody else – upwards.

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