Disability Employment Services causing heartache
Those of us who love someone with a disability will not be surprised by the Productivity Commission’s report showing employment rates for people with disabilities are going backwards.
What those statistics don’t show is the heartache behind them. Our son is one of those statistics.
Tom is smart, sensitive and has schizophrenia. By the time he was finally diagnosed, he had dropped out of school and was homeless. Our once-happy family was shattered.
Thanks to a combination of medication, counselling and love and support from family and friends, he has been desperately trying to get back his life. He wants what others have: a job and the self-respect that comes with having a job. He wants a chance.
Tom has applied for so many jobs we’ve lost count. Through the Department of Employment, Tom is registered with Disability Employment Services. His agency is supposed to help him “find work and keep a job” but mostly he just helps himself.
He tells us they get government funding to “provide expert support”. They don’t get funding if he finds a job himself – this is why they discourage him from doing this and why he argues with them regularly.
There have been lots of false starts. Disability Employment Services regularly sends him for interviews where he finds out that the job is full-time, even though his agency knows the conditions of his disability make full-time work very challenging. Tom’s mental health is tested with every rejection.
After a couple of years of “providing expert support” but no employment opportunities, Tom’s employment agency offered a potential employer financial incentives to employ him.
The wage subsidy program provides employer incentives of up to $10,000 to encourage businesses to hire, train and retain eligible job seekers. Employers can access this wage subsidy if they offer a job that is expected to be ongoing and for an average of 20 hours a week, over the six months of the agreement.
This was Tom’s chance. He started work and was determined to show everyone, including himself, that he was capable. He could do this.
Over the next few months of working, the company regularly provided positive feedback to his employment agency. Tom was a great employee; he was friendly, would willingly work overtime; was picking up the necessary skills so quickly that he was put in charge of a small area and didn’t require any supervision. He was even given a coveted role using some of the large machinery.
Tom’s agency would regularly call him to schedule appointments during work times, even though they knew he was by then working full-time and didn’t want to take any time off. He was trying to demonstrate to everyone that he was also reliable. This caused lots of distress and the agency finally agreed that Tom could phone after work to meet his obligations.
Tom was now just like other people his age. For the first time he had a job, was making new friends and had a chance of getting his life back. He saved nearly all of his wages, bought a car and even planned a holiday.
Tom spoke to us about wanting to stay in this job for at least a year, as he had been approached about becoming a supervisor in the future. Tom was so proud of himself and we were proud of him. Our family was healing.
When work resumed after a public holiday, Tom turned up half an hour before his shift started because he was so excited to be back. Tom was told by his supervisor to go home. He was being let go. Tom kept calm; he asked why and was told that he was a really good worker but his wage subsidy funding had run out.
Some of the other employees with disabilities were also let go that day for the same reason. Tom saw them crying in the car park. Tom came home devastated. He called Disability Employment Services and was told that the company had already called them and asked for “another one just like him”.
Over the next few days, Tom called and went in to his employment agency several times. There must be some sort of mistake. He really needed their “expert support” now. As each day passed, Tom’s dignity and self-confidence faded. His agency said they were handing over his case to their lawyers, as there were no grounds for his dismissal. Tom was very anxious about this step but was prepared to do whatever it took to get a job – any job.
Now that Tom had some skills and experience and his supervisor had agreed to be his referee we all believed he would find another job. That was 12 months ago; there has been no outcome, no “expert support” and, most importantly, no job. Tom is back to being an unemployment statistic.
There’s so much research showing that employment along with the social connections that come from working are a major part of a disabled person’s recovery, but part of the reason the unemployment figures for people with a disability are so high is that there’s very little practical support to them finding and keeping work.
How can this be when almost 83 per cent of Australian government funding on specialist disability services goes on employment services? How much of that government funding is going to companies such as the one Tom worked for? Tom, like his co-workers, was set up for failure at the taxpayers’ expense.
Maybe the “crackdown” on disability support needs to be redirected towards companies accessing government funding and taking advantage of people with disabilities. Why are these companies allowed to spit out people with disabilities as soon as their wage subsidy funding runs out? Why don’t these companies have an obligation to retain people if the work is still available and it’s working out?
For so many years Tom had his dignity stomped on, but for a very brief time he was holding his head high and dared to dream about a future with a job. A future filled with possibilities. For a brief time we were a happy family again.
The impact of this job loss had a flow-on effect. It has damaged Tom’s mental health and wellbeing.
Tom is now depressed and is so embarrassed that he tried to get his life back and failed. He has lost his self-confidence, is isolating himself from us. Our family is shattered again.
Tom is a strong and fit young man; he really wants to work and wants a chance to do so. There is still time for him to rebuild his life and regain his dignity if he gets real support to get and retain a job. He doesn’t want unemployment or disability benefits; he just wants a chance to fulfil his potential.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 18, 2017 as "Not working ". Subscribe here.