Part 5 The Asquith Group Case Study: Eleven Themes
While maximising the choice and opportunities of people with a disability regarding their lifestyle and community participation is increasingly at the centre of both State and Federal policies, employment levels continue to fall well behind in this area. Recent figures illustrated Australia’s comparatively lacklustre position with a ranking of 21 out of 29 OECD countries for employment levels of people with a disability. Workforce participation for the 20% of Australians who identify as having a disability has dropped to 53%, with a large number of this cohort also dealing with underemployment and workplace discrimination. This predicament is compounded by a shortfall in school completion rates of students with a disability. At the current time, while over 9% of students identify as having a disability only 36% end up finishing their Victorian Certificate of Education, with a further 26% not making it past year 10. It is imperative that improvements to outcomes in the area of employment, training and education are made sooner rather than later, especially given the current focus on maximising efficiency across the economy.
In 2015 the Federal Government made a strong commitment in its budget, announcing that it would “support and enhance the social and economic opportunities of people with disability. Everyone who has the capacity to participate in employment should have the opportunity to enjoy the dignity of work …”. This announcement was backed up by a $25 million dollar investment in job seekers with a disability and employers, a $17 million dollar investment in Australian Disability Enterprises to improve their viability, as well as the introduction of a central information point (JobAccess Gateway) at the cost of $9 million dollars to be introduced in July 2016. Further promises were made in the area of school transition with a $2.2 million dollar investment being made to Disability Employment Service Providers to increase time spent with young people immediately after finishing their schooling.
These commitments suggest that there are strong intentions to improve outcomes for people with a disability when it comes to employment and education. However a number of challenges await these reforms as structural concerns continue to plague efforts for change.
Disability Employment Services (DES) providers continue to work hard to source employment for their clients, delivering a number of training, placement and employment opportunities in different industries. However, while the recently announced funding increase could strengthen their position to deliver on these objectives, existing contractual parameters and growing responsibilities due to cuts in other areas (such as Youth Connections) may well counteract the benefits from these changes. With initiatives such as Youth Connections being defunded a number of employment and training services for young people are feeling the strain of increased expectations on the same budgets. If the roles and responsibilities in this area are not properly refined a great risk is being run in confusing not only the service providers, but the students themselves on where to turn when attempting to take the next step towards further schooling or work.
Further to this, the transition from a school environment to an employment service for young people, let alone those with a disability, can be a particularly difficult and confronting shift. With the current focus being on an immediate transition from school to work, young people with intellectual disabilities are being sent to employment agencies when they may want or need to develop further skills and knowledge to be work ready.
Without extra training and support, the additional service or attention from DES providers post school could mean little to young people with a disability who may lack motivation, skills and/or confidence to begin and sustain employment for lengthy periods of time.
Activities such as job search appointments with a case worker can provide useful connection for young people looking for work, but this relationship also comes with a variety of challenges. With DES providers still receiving minimal funding by government, the expectations placed on them may be too high to make any meaningful impact in the short term.
While there are positive steps being made towards assisting and supporting young people with disabilities in training and attaining employment, a risk also remains that DES providers may provide in house training delivered by staff who are under or not qualified for these challenges. The diversity within disability cannot be underestimated, with the need to cater sensitively to any individuals needs being a challenge within itself. There is also a risk in DES providers developing partnerships with Registered Training Organisation’s to deliver accredited courses either at inappropriate sites such as Australian Disability Enterprise’s or at the site of the DES provider. The geographical barriers are an underappreciated challenge to committing to work and training, especially when it comes to young person with a disability who may rely on a parent or carer for transport and extra care.
It should also be acknowledged that career planning is still not given enough attention in the currentschooling curriculum, especially when it comes to people with a disability. While it is a positive step promoting earlier interactions for students with qualified planners for schools, the part time nature of these roles means these positions can either be invisible to students, or overwhelmed with a lack of on-the-job time. Further to this, realistic expectations must be placed on students with a disability fromthis point of view, as it may take longer to hit milestones compared to peers without disabilities.
Hence, effective career planning needs to support young people to identify what they can do, rather than what they cannot do, while also appreciating the reality that a career doesn’t necessarily mean one line of work for life. A career includes a lifetime of experiences with periods of education, training, paid employment, unpaid employment, unemployment, volunteer work and life roles just some of the diverse areas that everyone must participate in. Young people with disabilities can participate in a variety of valued work activities regardless of the level of their ability, and should not be discouraged from thinking creatively and strategically about their decisions in this area.
One area of concern that relates to the need for career planning has surfaced as a result of the Service Agreement Notification (SAN) in August 2013. This agreement has meant that a student enrolled in a school cannot attend further education and training such as at TAFE concurrently. This has created an unnecessary barrier for students with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder in particular. Previously students in their final/ senior years of schooling were enabled part time enrolment within a TAFE as a means transitioning to employment opportunities, as well as reducing anxiety into a new unfamiliar environment. The learners affected by the changes outlined in the SAN are already amongst the most marginalized members of our community, so they come as a surprise when bold claims are being made towards improving outcomes and increasing funding for initiatives that support employment and transition for young people with a disability.
RTOs still have a number of issues that must be addressed, namely the type of work/study being undertaken and an examination into the locations where this training is occurring.
The use of Certificates 3 levels which currently underpin School Based Apprenticeship and Traineeship (SBAT) programs are pitched at a higher level that students with intellectual disabilities are not able to successfully undertake based on their numeracy, literacy and cognition levels.
A danger could be students undertaking activities engaging in work for the sake of itself rather than working through graded levels of tasks required by the level of the course level (Certificate III in Warehousing). Further to this, Victoria does not list Certificate level one courses (e.g. Certificate 1 in Hospitality) as able to be funded within the SBAT system and this may have lead schools and others picking up funded options at higher Australian Quality Framework levels as a result.
The volume of learning, as it pertains to people with intellectual / learning disabilities, is also a concern. There is a risk with providers delivering courses at substantially reduced hours than recommended. The contestable market has opened the flood gates for RTOs to take advantage ofvulnerable people with intellectual disabilities, due to the funding dollar. People with intellectual disabilities take longer to learn and gain skills and be work-ready. The intention of the 2014 Foundation Skills Preferred Provider list was to ensure quality provision in delivery of these courses.
People with intellectual disabilities are significantly under represented in employment. This requires to change with quality education and training to improve employment opportunities for this cohort.
Cross Sectoral Coordination and Transparency
Across Public, Private and Not-For Profit sectors there must be a greater level of coordination in activities, initiatives and advocacy. Currently many diverse and well-meaning disability action plans, working groups and policy announcements take place in the aforementioned organisations and entities, yet how these initiatives are held to account, and by whom is often left open for discussion.
This situation promotes an air of uncertainty among stakeholders, and, ultimately, a disorganised and mostly ineffectual approach to long term and meaningful change within these organisations and the wider community. It may seem a bridge too far for these diverse entities to work together more efficiently on this matter considering the infinite number of matters they regularly have disputes on.
Yet the cause of improving employment, education and training outcomes for people with a disability, especially the younger cohort, is one which has been shown bi-partisan support on multiple occasions in recent times. It is of fundamental importance that relationships across these areas are built as numerous myths (e.g. additional costs, lower productivity, too many adjustments to workplace etc) regarding the employment of people with a disability continue to persist, and dissuade employers and others from contributing to the betterment of Australians level of employment of people with a disability.
The importance of a continuous, sustainable and supported pathway for people with disability fromschool to further education to employment cannot be overstated. The reality is that students with a disability may take longer to establish and work through their own pathway than their peers without disabilities, yet they can contribute just as much if not more given the opportunity and support that many of us take for granted. Greater employment levels of people with a disability are universally associated with increased productivity and growth across the economy.56 On top of this, findings from a recent paper from the Disability Investment Group demonstrated reduced rates of absenteeism and increased morale, as well as decreased reliance on welfare services. Thus, the commitments made in the most recent budget cannot go by as mere alterations to the existing structure of transition for young people with a disability. Rather, these commitments must be built upon and strengthened in the short and long term and across a variety of sectors so that a coordinated and inclusive approach to producing positive outcomes for people with a disability is developed. Increased access to employment opportunities is key to improving economic security and personal wellbeing, and with the level of poverty or near-poverty experienced by people with a disability, change in this areas must be swift rather than subtle.