Unemployment of PWD

Written by Tammy Milne – PDA TAS Director

I applied for a job. A small job offering 7 hours a week. That’s all. I did not get an interview and I am not sure why.

Could it be that I am now 59 years old?

Could it be that I have too many degrees and graduate diplomas?

Or could it be the elephant in the room – that I have a disability?

I was upfront in my application that I have a congenital disability (from birth), but my application was solid and outlined my extensive work experience.

A friend told me that she never discloses her disability when applying for a job. So was this my mistake? Should I have hidden my disability like it was something to be ashamed of?

For seven hours work a week they received 50 applicants! Is this an indication of the jobs market now? Has our boom of low unemployment disappeared?

Whatever the economic reasoning, the thing is that high unemployment for people with disability has not disappeared or changed in 30 years. 

“People aged 15–64 with disability are more likely to be unemployed than those without disability. They are also more likely to be unemployed for longer.” [as reported by the Australian Institute for Health and Wellbeing in 2024]

On average, it also takes a university graduate with a disability 3 years longer than their contemporaries to gain employment. The percentage of people with disabilities who have superannuation is also minuscule. 

So what does this mean for people with disabilities – who are amongst the poorest of minority groups in Australia today and suffer social discrimination? It results in a lack of financial stability, with a flow on effect to the social indicators of disadvantage; poverty, housing stress, food stress and mental health stress. Alongside these consequences, the sense of worth of a person with disabilities is undermined every time they apply for a job and are rejected. When the rejection letter pile reaches the (glass abled) ceiling, that’s when they stop trying.

Even though a person with disability may be highly educated or highly skilled, these social indicators do not move if the person is unemployed.  On average, PWD die 10 -15 years earlier than those without disability. This is assisted because we simply cannot rise above the unconscious, or dare I say conscious, bias that people with disabilities are less and thus unworthy.

The benefits of having meaningful employment for PWD has been explored and persued by successive governments for over 30 years and yet, as mentioned earlier, unemployment rates for PWD have not changed. 

“Our Government has committed an additional $227.6 million, bringing the total funding to $5.4 billion over the next five years to help more people with disability prepare for and find suitable employment including through a new specialised disability employment program commencing on 1 July 2025.” [Reported by the Department of Social Services in 2024]

This is fantastic news. Finally Government acknowledges the problem and is throwing billions of dollars towards getting PWD into jobs and accessing an under-utilised employment pool. Unfortunately though, this step forward is overshadowed by Government’s very own under-employment of PWD. Did I mention the job I applied for was a state government position?

I am not saying that Government should not spend billions of dollars on a huge social issue that is broader than just job agencies and training courses. What I am saying is that Government should step us and put in place dedicated programs for PWD to gain employment in the public sector. If you are going to talk the talk on disability employment, then walk the walk.

When speaking of Government as a whole, we need to understand that Government is made up of a conglomerate of agencies, both at federal and state levels, and the culture of these individual agencies needs to be accountable for any bias against PWD and work towards correcting these prejudices or oversights.

I am not suggesting anything new here. PWD have long advocated to have more Government jobs dedicated and provided to PWD. If a position is disability related, surely it makes sense to have a person with the most lived experience in that job? I.e. a person with a disability.

However, it is not just Government that has an issue with employing people with disability. Our own disability organisations have horrendous track records of employing PWD within their own organisations. Of all the peak bodies organisation for disability, almost none have a CEO who is disabled themselves. The policy officers who write policy for these organisations, and present them to Government, also predominantly do not have a disability themselves.

Sadly, my disappointment at not being deemed worthy of an interview for a seven hours a week job becomes a drop in the ocean of the disappointment felt by PWD everyday, enduring rejections and building on feelings of unworthiness and trashed self esteem.

In a conversation with a disabled friend, I was told “I’ve just given up. I can’t stand the hurt from rejection anymore and will just live my life as best I can on the pension.”

Australian Federation of Disabilities (AFDO) reported that 53.4% of Australians with disability are employed, compared to 83.2% of non-disabled Australians – keeping in mind that employment can mean as little as 1 hour/week and that the 88% of people on Disability Support Payments are not counted (AFDO, 2024). It’s not rocket science to see that the vast majority of PWD do not have jobs and that the scale of unemployment for PWD is huge and that corrective action is long overdue.

Most PWD want to work, be contributing members of their communities and get paid for it. Volunteering or sitting unpaid on a board is one thing, but actually getting paid for the work you do brings a whole level of life satisfaction and self value.

Australia has a long way to go in truly becoming a welcoming country that embraces and values all its people, and this includes the culture of disability where our great community is portrayed as being less – deserving pity and paternalism. How will we ever reach equality if we are never given opportunities? I grieve that I was not good enough for seven hours a week and this grief is amplified by the millions of fellow PWD who are discarded in the “not-employable” pile each and every day.

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