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Give us a break!

Donna Purcell

Donna Purcell knows the struggle of forging a career as a person with a disability first hand. She is a senior manager at the Commonwealth Bank and recently completed a secondment at the Australian Human Rights Commission working on the Willing to Work Inquiry which investigated the state of employment for people with disability in Australia. Donna has a vision impairment and in her work at the bank she ensures accessibility and inclusion for people with disability is embedded in the activities of the bank. She shares her insights as to why greater inclusion of people with a disability is a matter of urgency.

People say that I am lucky to have a job. Yes I am, but to be fair, so is everybody else who has one.Society puts a huge emphasis on what we do and where we work. So often I sense the frustration of people with disability when they are faced with this standard conversation starter about what they do for work. All too often they don’t have a job simply because they have a disability, not they aren’t capable. Then, if the person with a disability says, “I work at ABC Lawyers or 123 Transport or some reputable, well known corporate, they are met with a response like “aren’t they good to give people a break and make an exception for you?” It’s insulting!
The lack of employment opportunities for people with disability is a constant at every stage of life. Even while studying a person with disability is at a disadvantage compared to their able-bodied university counterparts who often get jobs in bars or driving taxis and other part-time opportunities which are very few and far between for people with disability.

For more than 20 years, the employment participation rate for people with disability in Australia has hovered around the 53 per cent compared to around 83 per cent for people without a disability. Australia ranks 21out of 29 countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) with respect to its employment participation rate for people with a disability. In turn people with disabilities earn lower wages than workers without disabilities.
While undertaking consultations and reading submissions to the Willing To Work Inquiry, I was constantly shocked and dismayed at the attitudes of some employers and the impact their discrimination and negative treatment had on the employability of people with disability. 
Whether it was being told ‘I would not have employed you if I knew you had a disability” or overhearing the interviewer saying “Don’t’ worry about the next candidate, we are only doing the interview to be seen as doing the right thing”, there is no doubt it undermines a person’s self-worth and self-esteem. 

The inquiry also uncovered a pervasive lack of understanding among employers of the range, type and impact of different disabilities, and a perception that workplace adjustments are costly and difficult to implement.
This treatment of people with disability needs to change. Australia is a world leader in so many fields but why not in the area of providing jobs for people with disability?  It’s 2016 for crying out loud!  It’s time to offer a much brighter future for our young people with disabilities and we need to change the current rates of unemployment and under employment for this demographic urgently.
There’s no shortage of talent. People with disability have proven to be highly motivated, not to mention highly skilled, ready and willing to work. However they are consistently denied this opportunity.
Why? Because employers and recruiters make unfounded assumptions, thinking that because the person has a disability in one area they must not have abilities in others.
My own career has been far from easy. I have been discriminated against, denied opportunities, been put down and so on. I have even been forced to take legal action against a past employer who wasn’t paying me fairly.  While I won my case, it made it hard to stay in that job and I ended up resigning as a result.
All this discrimination denies people with disability the personal and social benefits of dignity, independence, a sense of purpose and the social connectedness that comes with performing paid work.
Without work, it is hard to fulfil the needs and dreams we all have and the financial independence that having an income provides, whether it is buying a house, going on holidays or make investments. These things are just so far from reach for most people with disability and with the current level of unemployment, there seems little chance of this changing.
People with disability bring a range of skills, abilities and qualifications to the workplace. Many businesses already employ workers with disability because it makes good business sense. I believe that people with disability deserve the same opportunities as other Australians to participate in the community and have their rights protected.
While Australia has made a lot of progress in extending opportunity, security and fairness to people with disability, we still have much more to do to ensure Australians with disability are not excluded from work. People with a disability, like me, have choices.  We have the choice to roll over and ignore the lack of employment opportunities or we can set about creating awareness and understanding for potential employers about how we would be an asset to a business not a liability. 
 To access the full Willing To Work Report visit:

Presented by Family & Community Services
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