Rethinking career support for workers with disability

The route to paid employment can start with working for a not-for-profit organisation. Image sourced from

Australia’s record for employing people with a disability is disappointing and has been going backwards in recent years.

In this country a little over half – 53% – of working-age disabled people are employed, compared to 81% of people without disability. We rank 21st out of 29 developed nations on employment rates for people with disability.

Worse, 45% of Australians with disability live in or near poverty – the worst result among the 27 nations of the OECD.

The most recent Council of Australian Governments report in this area found economic participation of people with disability is now at its lowest in the past three years. All of these findings beg the question “why?”.

Most people receive support in their working careers, from family, teachers, mentors and managers. But what of the careers of people with disability?

Instead of taking the traditional route of looking at the obstacles to employment for people with disability, a study by UTS Business School sought a different perspective by talking to 30 people with disability who are successfully pursuing a career. The aim was to see what, if anything, they had in common.

The study participants ranged in age from the mid-20s to mid-60s. Their impairments included mobility, vision, hearing, communication, mental illness and chronic illness. The participants came from around Australia. They worked in a range of occupations, including law, journalism, politics, IT, academia and management, in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.

The study found the most common experience shared by the 27 participants was their work with not-for-profit disability organisations (NPDO) – paid and unpaid. These organisations weren’t employment services but, in the main, user-led services with briefs ranging from advocacy and research to arts and direct services.

Just under half of the study’s participants gained their first paid job – or their first paid job since their impairment – with such an organisation. Many had been unable to secure work elsewhere, even with appropriate qualifications.

As Susan, a journalist, said:

I was really passionate about it but I could not, for the life of me, find somebody who would give me a job as a secondary teacher.

In addition to paid employment, the study participants were also strategic about taking unpaid work with NPDOs as part of their career building. In this way they built skills, knowledge, confidence and networks, found role models and mentors, formed friendships and gained valuable work experience.

Most were involved in paid and unpaid work simultaneously, allowing them to maintain a continuous employment history even though they sometimes found themselves in between paid jobs.

Helen, a lawyer who is now in full-time paid employment, described how she began as a volunteer with one group and ended up being president.

I took a lead representative role at the United Nations when they developed the Disability Convention. I played a key role in the Australian Council Of Social Service … [I was] approached by AusAID and Australian Council for International Development to be involved in a reference group to set up the Australian Disability and Development Consortium … [I did] all these amazing things when I was involved in the voluntary role.

Self sufficiency matters

It became clear from the study that people with disability are instrumental in creating career opportunities and pathways for themselves – that they are their own career supports.

Yet this role of NPDOs goes largely unnoticed and unacknowledged. Too often these organisations are seen as service providers only, rather than hubs of opportunity and activity that can launch and support careers.

Part of the problem is that organisations don’t measure this sort of activity or promote these employment outcomes among their achievements.

In a political climate where measurable impact is the focus, this study suggests it’s time NPDOs worked together to measure their collective impact on the employment of people with disability.

It is a role that needs to be explicit, to underscore the value of these organisations not only to the disability community but also to the nation as a whole.