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  • Writer's pictureFuture Shakers Insights

NDEAM we've got a long way to go!

National (well, pragmatically International) Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is now upon us and broadly, it’s an incredibly challenging and triggering time to be a disabled person on the internet
Image of old magdalen workers, unmarried indentured slave workers labouring in a magdalen laundry. These old unmarried catholic women labourers with their incredibly low pay and slavery style working conditions are comparable to many modern disability employment enterprises.
Image - House of the Good Shepherd, New York City, Magdalens in the Laundry – artist unknown

Every man and his dog and their sponsors are trotting out NDEAM pitched stories of inclusivity across their PR machines, while what goes on in the sausage factory is often the sort of thing even a dog would turn up his nose at (and I have a Labrador, they sure aren’t fussy!).

While there are some genuinely laudable good actors out there, there are also so many “good news” messages, case studies and shiny policies being trotted out there in an exploitative fashion to improve a company’s external social capital, where disabled people behind the scenes mostly aren’t getting the real-life accommodations and equal opportunity settings they sorely need.

At worst, we’re seeing huge numbers of disabled people in Australia working in old school Magdalen laundry style “disability employment programs”, paid as little as $2 an hour or less which absolutely equates to modern slavery. Not only are these programs currently legal, they’re mainly heavily subsidised by taxpayers through direct government funding.

I’ve been a lot luckier than many other autistic people out there, but some of my more horrific direct personal experiences around raising awareness of disability related issues in the workforce, mostly as a highly skilled and experienced B2B event designer and content creator, have included:

- Raising awareness of my autism in the workplace bringing about a dramatic shift from relating to me like any other peer to relating to me like a toddler with a poor comprehension of the English language, including slowing their words right down and speaking a little louder. This is a fun one to mirror right back for lols, but it’s broadly pretty hampering of the business of actually working.

- Honest disclosure about physical musculoskeletal disabilities resulting in no compassionate direct response but triggering nervous conversations with the company’s law firm – “What is the potential risk of this walking talking liability?...”

- Being pressured to work through serious pain spikes at times by organisations with no alternative agile contingencies to buffer against reductions to employee capacity and being flippantly dismissed when I don’t.

- Probably the biggest harm has been the exclusion, the work arounds, avoiding me vs including me, because the accommodations I need – which are pretty much just reasonable compassion around brief periods of pain spikes that occasionally arise, and clear, simple, direct and assertive communication as an autistic person, are often considered “too hard” in a largely ableist and neurotypical conformist business world.

I’ve had such bad experiences I’ve often opted out of disclosure of my disabilities at work as it’s made my work life easier to fly under the radar in environments where equal opportunity is a lip service measure, but I found I couldn’t continue on this track.

One of the big catalysts for me aiming a bit higher and going a bit larger in setting up Stronger Ground as a more fully fledged self-produced event company instead of only subcontracting has been the opportunity to create a disability led enterprise that does proper justice to disability employment awareness, making more of the change I’d like to see, such as:

- Genuinely equal opportunity at work, less focus on policy development and PR, more focus on ensuring policies are actually implemented on the ground

- Reasonable accommodations and support to maintain stability and security of work despite variation in work capacity that can occur from time to time – there’s a huge ad hoc freelancer market out there to pick up brief periods of slack who are actively choosing to work in this way

- More equal valuation of the labour of disabled people on par with the labour of any other human. So many disability employment programs out there are so dramatically in breach of minimum wage laws in Australia and many other countries. This is modern slavery, this is exploitation, pure and simple, and must be abolished.

I’m really pleased to be contributing this month to a research program Lyndal Hamwood from Ideate Studio is carrying out informing recruitment agencies to design more inclusive hiring strategies. It’s great to see more initiatives like this emerging, and more disability led enterprises like mine just standing up, walking down the road, and doing things differently.


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