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As I was going through the checkout at my local Coles today, I noticed a sign taped to the register. ‘I am a hearing-impaired person. Thanks for your understanding when I am serving you‘.

It reminded me that this Friday, 3 December, is International Day for Persons with a Disability.

Recruiters might be interested to know how the Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) assists disabled people and their communities, in the areas of education and employment.

One of my South Australian InSight subscribers, Monica Leahy, who works in the field, recently enlightened me:

The National Disability Coordination Officer Program is funded by DEEWR to improve transitions for people with disabilities from school through higher education and training and ultimately into employment.  It also provides a service for people with disabilities who live in the community and want to join the workforce.  There are 31 of us around the country, so we’re stretched pretty thin.

We don’t case manage clients, but instead are funded to improve connections between service providers and to help them do their jobs better.  Using my Region as an example, I work with 89 high schools, 9 campuses of TAFE, 3 public and 1 private universities, 18 Disability Employment Service Providers, more than 200 RTOs (mostly through their peak body ACPET) and 4 School, Community, Business Partnership Brokers as well as a huge number of disability-specific organisations such as Autism SA and the like.

Our main focus is on people who can or have achieved a qualification at Certificate 3 or above, as the rationale is that people who cannot achieve that level of education or training are serviced by Australian Disability Enterprises or other programs.  The rationale for the NDCO Program is based on the fact that about 50% of people on Disability Support pensions could be (and want to be) working in some capacity.  Their work would not only bring economic and health benefits to them directly but benefit the economy by freeing up carers in some instances and at the very least by turning the person with a disability into a taxpayer rather than a tax consumer.

The other group we try to engage is recruiters and employers, who are the biggest barrier to this cultural change.  It is really hard to get the message across that statistics show, on average, people with disabilities take no more sick leave than anyone else and in fact have fewer OHSW reportable incidences and generally stay in the same position for longer, saving on recruitment and training costs.  Also, any costs associated with modification of a workplace are met by the Australian Government.

I won’t even go into some of the financial incentives available to employers who employ a person with a disability.

It’s all about flexibility of thinking.  I often tell the story of my brother-in-law, who owns and operates a really successful turf management and landscaping service.  He has only ever known my mother as someone with a disability (spinal injury) and as a young married man often reaped the benefits of her being in paid employment.

He has always known me as someone with a hearing impairment but has seen me gain my masters degree and speak at international conferences.  And yet when I put the idea to him that he should make one of the 2 apprentices he took on the next year a young person with a disability, he said that he wasn’t sure he could because he needed someone who could drive – or be trained to drive – heavy machinery.

I looked at him in amazement and replied that his 9-year-old daughter was deaf and I had seen her drive a bobcat.  Not only that, but his receptionist had dyslexia!  If he was that unaware, it is a real uphill battle with other recruiters and employers.

My experience this morning at Coles was not an accident. Coles was a winner in the 2010 National Disability Awards (NBA) category of Business Award – Large Business focus.

Here’s an extract from the Coles citation on the NBA website:

Coles has developed a partnership with Disability Works Australia and over the last six years has employed almost 2500  people with a disability across its stores nationally. This partnership helps Coles to develop and implement long-term systemic and cultural change to maximise the employment prospects of people with disability.

Coles is an equal opportunity employer, ensuring that all employees are treated fairly, including receiving the same flexible employment conditions and entitlements.

Coles has also developed several initiatives to assist employees with disability, including an alternative recruitment process.

I’ll leave the (second to) last word to Monica Leahy:

I think it is an untapped resource for recruiters where recruitment of skilled employees are involved and lack of progress is not about prejudice, it’s about lack of knowledge.  Because when you say the word ‘disability’, people’s first thought is a wheelchair or an intellectual disability.

Whereas Microsoft understands that it is so mainstream that they have built disability features like screen reading software and zoom text into its mainstream products like Word.

Twenty per cent of Australians have some form of disability (about 17% between the ages of 16 and 65).  A bit more than half of those should be working in open employment.  About 70% of those are capable of achieving Certificate 3 or above.

That’s a big – untapped – talent pool that could be paying tax instead of consuming it.  I’m not an altruist.  I’m like every other Australian who doesn’t enjoy supporting people who could be (and want to be) paying their own way.

The recruiters who know how to effectively bring supply and demand together in these markets, using this ‘hidden’ workforce are going to have a big advantage over their competitors.

What are your plans in this area?

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