Disability Employment - The Experience

By Joshua McKenzie-Brown

Disability employment is a hot topic right now with Stats NZ recently releasing the breakdown of employment data for the June 2022 Quarter. Progress has been made, but not enough. Finding permanent employment is a challenge for anyone. But for those with a disability, it's a long journey that tests both character and determination. Josh McKenzie-Brown shares his personal experience ...

I never wanted to work in the disability sector. As someone with spina bifida I was actually keen to distance myself from disability as far as possible. I studied marine biology. As a fresh graduate unable to dive or drive a boat I was told to move on and into the lab. My mates went on to become commercial divers, underwater photographers and dive instructors in tropical locations. I was left behind with no options. A life of research was not the vision I’d been holding onto whilst studying. 

With my future looking bleak, my grandma advised me to study again. Move on from my marine biology dream and find a new one. I needed to pay the rent. I became a biology teacher. Not what I wanted to do, but a decent compromise. With NZ experiencing a teacher crisis, surely employment would be guaranteed. 

Year after year I was offered a one year contract. At a different school each time. At first it seemed standard practice. After a while I realised it wasn’t. Schools were so short on staff I was teaching Chemistry and Maths, subjects I wasn’t even qualified in. Even in the grips of a teacher shortage crisis I was still not  given a permanent contract like my peers. I was a good teacher too, with positive feedback on all professional assessments.

The disrespect shown by my employers frustrated me and I moved into the disability sector. Here, lived experience can be as valuable as a qualification. I had able bodied colleagues on the same salary with no formal qualifications. By this stage I had a BA and a Post grad diploma. My work was meaningful but I wasn’t there by choice. It was the only place I could find permanent full time employment stability on an average salary. With a daughter to support I felt like I had no choice. Even in the disability sector, working for Government funded organisations, I was a lone voice.

One company had 1 other disabled employee. Another had 2. Out of hundreds of staff all across Auckland. 

Recently released Stats NZ figures around disability employment have been the subject of media attention. According to the data, the employment gap between disabled and non disabled people is closing. Great to see, but the definition of employment is broad.

According to a response from Stats NZ the question that was asked to obtain employment data was  “Did you do any work in a paid job”. This question clearly leans towards providing inaccurate statistics.

People with disabilities are over represented in short term contracts, paid work experience that never evolves into a permanent position, contracts with only a few hours per week and one-off paid opportunities. None of these provide the financial stability and independence that most of us strive for.

Figures that were not shared widely online were those concerning part time employment. For many people with disabilities this means 1 or 2 days a week. Often not due to their medical condition. Due to lack of opportunity. 

26% of people with disabilities in the working age range of 15 to 64 were engaged in part time work vs 17% of able bodied people in the June 2022 quarter. This 9 percent gap would look even more concerning if further breakdown of the data was available, in terms of how many days worked per week. Sadly, Stats NZ does not record this information.

From a personal point of view I can relate to these figures. Full time work was challenging to come by. I was fortunate to find it, but permanent positions evaded me until my late twenties. 

Later I worked as an Employment Consultant. Helping others with disabilities to find work. My inbox was full of rejection letters on a daily basis. The best way to ensure a qualified candidate with a disability could get an interview was to not disclose it. Hiding who you are is never the best way to begin a new career, but it was the most effective method to secure that elusive interview. 

One of my clients was placed at a well known burger chain restaurant. His contract required availability at short notice for most of the week. He was unable to work a second job and ended up spending most of the week at home on zero pay, lucky to get called in for one or two shifts a week. 

A company that I will name is Hells Pizza. This company deserves further recognition for their work in the inclusivity space. In recent years they’ve been running a programme called Active in Hell. Young people with intellectual disabilities can gain paid work experience in a franchise restaurant over 10 weeks. A number of stores have permanently hired their trainees following a successful experience in this programme. The burger chain should take note. 

In my current role I have a colleague called Will. He has a degree in Communications and is a highly valued member of our team. He’s also non verbal. Highly articulate, intelligent and hard working, yet massively undervalued in the past until he found an employer willing to let him prove himself.

Determined to not hide his Cerebral Palsy, as a fresh graduate Will remained unemployed for three years. Three years and nearly 300 rejection letters.

Will’s story is a timely reminder that we have an under-utilised and undervalued disabled workforce in NZ, with talented people simply waiting for an opportunity to prove their worth. 

Will and I want employers to look past our disabilities. Recognise that we are disabled yet look to our skill set, our attitude, our character, our professional and lived experience. We’re not asking for special treatment, we are not asking for pity. We are asking for the opportunity to let our work ethic and talent speak for themselves. 

If you are an Employer that would like to look at hiring a skilled candidate with a disability, please reach out to Workbridge via their website www.workbridge.co.nz . Offices can be found throughout the country.