We would like to tell you the story of our friend Matt.
But, before we do, we need to set the scene:
Australia has a woeful record on employing people with disabilities.
We rank 21 out of 29 major countries – behind New Zealand, Germany, France and the UK. There are over a million disabled people in Australia who could work - but don’t have the opportunity.
The number of young people with a disability surviving on below the poverty line benefits has ‘exploded’ by more than 30% in the past decade. (2)
The situation has been a disgrace for years.
Disability Australia reacted to the recent Federal budget saying:
"Budget 2021 is not for people with disability. The government has missed an opportunity to level the playing field. Disabled people are facing heightened anxiety and significant disadvantage."(3)
We have a friend in Sydney – his name is Matt.
Matt works for a bank - in marketing. He is good at his job. He is popular and respected.
Matt is from England and came to Australia in 2009. He supports Manchester United – and never missed a game (home or away) for ten seasons when he lived in London. His (signed) number seven ‘David Beckham’ shirt is a collector’s item.
We have been friends for a very long time.
Matt last came to visit Adelaide in November 2018. As well as soccer, he loves cricket – we take some leave and go to the Adelaide Oval to watch the test match. Matt has seen Australia win six test matches in a row. He finds it ironic that he’s Australia’s lucky mascot.
We were concerned about Matt on his last visit. He hadn’t felt well – tired and short of breath with a niggling cough. Matt put it down to stress at work – he shrugged it off and said he would see the doctor after his break.
Back home in Sydney, Matt parked his car the station and got the train to work. It was a Friday in March 2019. Matt went for breakfast at the café as usual. He arrived at the office and joined the weekly marketing meeting.
At the end of the meeting Matt felt unwell. He had a throbbing headache and his vision suddenly went dark. He stumbled back to his desk and asked his colleague James if he could find his spectacles for him – they were on the desk right in front of Matt.
Realizing this was serious, James walked Matt to the hospital which was a few minutes away. Matt was seen by doctors immediately – and after scans and tests was told that he’d suffered a stroke.
Matt remained in intensive care for four nights before he was allowed home – his vision had hardly improved. Matt received regular hospital treatment and was told not to return to work for six months.
By August 2019, Matt became impatient. He needed to get back to work for his sanity – even though he could barely see to read - or do routine things like use his phone and laptop. Perhaps he could attend meetings and add value.
By now another issue had arisen.
Matt (the same guy who’d travelled by himself to Moscow, Warsaw, Istanbul and Belgrade to watch soccer) had become incredibly anxious – particularly about travelling, in fear that things might go wrong. How would he be able to cope with ‘out of the ordinary’ events given his recent vision impairment?
On the night before returning to work, Matt hardly slept. He plucked up all his courage and boarded the train. He was met by his colleague, Martha, at his Sydney destination. They walked the 20-minutes to the office. After work, Martha took Matt back to the station and made sure he got the right train home.
Over the next month, Matt set himself small goals to try and overcome his anxiety. He got a bus to his station (not a taxi) and finally completed the journeys himself, without Martha’s help. He ventured further from his house at the weekend and took some longer journeys on the train.
Remote working has been a ‘mixed blessing.’ On the one hand, Matt doesn’t feel embarrassed when he lifts his laptop to under his nose to read an email – on the other it means he hasn’t been able to get fully back to his old routine.
Matt has contacted other disabled people and support groups. He has discovered a number of things:
Many disabled people have ‘hidden disabilities’ – they’re not in a wheelchair
There is a direct link between age and disability – a high proportion of disabled people become disabled during their working years
Companies treat disabled people in vastly different ways. Some are incredibly supportive - others give no support at all except the absolute minimum
Some people, who become disabled during their working years, lose their jobs and have no savings. They are left to live off benefits.
Matt is thankful. He has a job and he has been able to continue.
Why are people with disabilities overlooked?
The barriers they have to overcome are never ending:
Environmental - where premises are physically inaccessible, or there are inadequate facilities
Organizational - where there’s little help or adjustment to transition to work smoothly
Structural – for example, income support programs that are poorly integrated with the labor market for people with a disability
Cost - employers fear disabled people present more costs than benefits and are reluctant to invest in them.
Add to this, the common myths about people with disabilities:
They can’t work;
They have a higher absentee rate
They can only do basic, unskilled work
They’re not as productive as their co-workers
They cost more to recruit, train and employ
They reduce their co-workers’ productivity
They don’t fit in. (4)
These are wrong - research shows companies that employ people with a disability enjoy multiple benefits, such as:
Improved financial performance (profits and cost-effectiveness, lower turnover and higher retention, reliability and punctuality)
Competitive advantage (loyalty, productivity, work ethic)
Inclusive work culture – (diversity, company image)
Disability awareness. (5)
Talent is hard to find. By overlooking the disabled population, companies are harming themselves.
How many of us when we hear ‘disability’ – think ‘nothing to do with me?’ But the unfairness and disadvantages it brings is about all of us.
We have to stop making assumptions on the basis of labels – replace this with a focus on individual contribution and potential.
Matt is coping better now – we hope to see him in the not too distant future for the cricket.
If we bump into you at the Adelaide Oval we look forward to introducing you - so you can see for yourself what a great guy Matt is.
HRD, 10th February 2021
The Guardian, 21st February 2021
An untapped talent resource: people with disabilities, Forbes 25th February 2021
A systematic review of the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, National Library of Medicine, 28th December 2018