Barriers people living with disability face finding work under microscope at royal commission, as Olivia finds purpose in employment

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For Olivia Sidhu, having a job that pays a proper wage is the “greatest achievement” of her life.

The 22-year-old Sydney woman lives with Down syndrome and has begun working part-time for an inner-city architecture firm.

“Having a job gives me independence and a sense of purpose,” Ms Sidhu said.

“I wasn’t nervous on my first day, I felt very confident.”

While Ms Sidhu is settling into her administration job, many other people with disability remain unemployed.

The disability royal commission has heard 53.4 per cent of people with disability of working age were unemployed in 2018.

Former disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes, who is blind, told the hearing on Monday there’d been no improvement in employment figures for decades.

“I’ve described the performance of employers, in terms of employing people with disabilities, as abysmal,” Dr Innes said.

“We’ve been employed at a rate of approximately 30 per cent less than the general population during the last 30 years.”

Dr Innes reflected on his own experience of trying to find work after graduating from law school.

He applied for 30 jobs without success before settling on a role reading out Lotto numbers.

“I used to joke in that job that I was the only clerical assistant in the NSW public service with a law degree,” Dr Innes said.

On the issue of introducing targets for employers to hire people with disability, Dr Innes said while he initially opposed them, he had changed his mind.

“If we don’t set targets and develop strategies to deliver on those targets, the situation [we’ve had] over the last 30 years will continue.”

One of the strategies Dr Innes recommended to the commission was targets for the employment of people with disability to be included in key performance indicators (KPIs) for chief executive officers, and their direct reports.

During the five-day inquiry, the commission will hear from 12 of Australia’s biggest employers, including Australia Post, Woolworths, Telstra and Kmart about their recruitment programs to attract and retain staff with disability.

System ‘isn’t working’

Ms Sidhu completed a preparing-for-work program with Jigsaw Australia, a social enterprise providing training for people with disability to find jobs.

After completing a course, participants are paired with job coaches who provide tailored support from the interview process through to job placement.

Michael Summers was teamed with Ms Sidhu for the program and assisted during her first days at the architecture firm, SJB.

“Having worked with her for some time now, we know she’s going to do a great job,” Mr Summers said.

“I’ll be in contact with her manager to talk through any feedback or challenges.”

Established in 2014, Jigsaw Australia has supported 610 trainees and transitioned 44 people with disability into mainstream employment.

Chief executive Paul Brown said the current system of employment for people with disability wasn’t working in Australia.

“We need a reworked pathway to mainstream employment for people with disability that empowers them with real world training, skill-building, work experience and a placement into mainstream employment,” Mr Brown said.

Since it was established, Jigsaw has opened hubs in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, and is expanding to Canberra and Perth.

Mr Brown said that, over the next five years, Jigsaw aimed to train more than 1,000 people with disability and transition 600 into award wage jobs.

Using ‘lived experience’

Usually Jigsaw approaches employers to hire people but architecture firm SJB was the first company to go to them looking for an employee with disability.

SJB director Adam Haddow said staff had welcomed Ms Sidhu into their already diverse workplace.

“I think having someone with a disability is just another angle of diversity, which everyone has just kind of accepted as part of what we do,” Mr Haddow said.

Ms Sidhu is working on the front desk at SJB but Mr Haddow said that, in future, they hoped to use her lived experience to influence their designs.

“What Olivia brought to the table, that no one else did, was a knowledge of disabilities,” Mr Haddow said.

“We probably get more out of having Olivia in the office than she gets out of being in the office.”

By disability affairs reporter Nas Campanella and the Specialist Reporting Team’s Celina Edmonds (Original ABC Article)