Getting a job as a wheelchair user

JOBS AND DISABILITY: Prue Hawkins on the set of Insight, SBS.
JOBS AND DISABILITY: Prue Hawkins on the set of Insight, SBS.

I remember one of the strangest job interviews I ever had, was not long after graduating from Law School at the University of Western Australia. I had a new suit, my hair was appropriately fastened in a "professional" looking bun and I made sure my wheelchair was nice and clean looking. 

Having not disclosed to the potential new employer that I was a wheelchair user, I expected the initial eyebrow raise reaction as I entered his boardroom to discuss the current opportunity. What I didn't expect was for him to shake my hand and say "oh wow, my wife was in a wheelchair for about 4 years before she died". Cue awkward silence. Not entirely sure what to do with that piece of information, so I simply said "oh I'm sorry for your loss" and reached for the obligatory glass of water that had been placed in front of me. 

The employer then spent 15 minutes asking me questions completely unrelated to my quest for employment with his law firm, and all related to my disability. Then it ended. 10 points for guessing whether I got that job. 

Of course not all job interviews have been as blatantly ridiculous as that one, but the act of getting a job as a wheelchair user involves jumping over a lot more hurdles than people might anticipate. Issues around accessible buildings, availability of accessible bathrooms and transport to and from the work place are just the tip of the iceberg. There is also the battle of stereotypes, attitudes and preconceived ideas of what employing someone with a disability will actually mean for that employer that people like myself are required to deal with.

So in 2011, when the then Australian government took it upon themselves to review and eventually amend the legislation governing the Disability Support Pension (DSP), I couldn't help but chuckle at the Australian Law Reform Commission's statement in their report on the proposed changes, that the intention was to promote people with disability to enter into the work force if they had capacity to do so. 

And as warm and fuzzy as that idea is, I cannot help but see the glaringly obvious problem here; it's not only about the person with a disability being willing and able to work, but the prospective employer being willing and able to take them on. 

When these changes to the legislation were made, I took little notice as I was working full time as a lawyer. However in February of 2014, my contract at Legal Aid WA was up and due to funding restrictions it was not going to be renewed. I was unemployed. 

Unaware of the effect of the new impairment tables in the Act, I applied to be placed back on the DSP, a Centrelink payment I had received from the age of 16 to 28, to help support me while I looked for another job. I had to see my GP again, get him to complete the exact same Centrelink form, again and wait to attend an appointment with someone at Centrelink for a Job Capacity Assessment, which I did with a broken leg which I had cracked 2 weeks before. 

Long story short, a determination was made that I was not eligible for the DSP. 

In the first instance they reasoned that I had not collected enough "points" on the impairment table, and then upon review (which Centrelink did on their own after I went public to the WA media about my situation) they decided that, yes I did have enough points on the points table, but it was foreseeable that I would get a job within the next 24 months, so I still wasn't eligible. 

I acknowledge the thought process behind these decisions, however for the many reasons I outlined above, just popping down to my local pub or restaurant or supermarket and getting a job stacking shelves is not an option for me. I cannot get a job behind a bar - I can't see OVER a bar.  It is the practicalities of these new rules that have been missed by the previous government when these changes were made and if the current government's changes come to fruition, it will only get harder. 

I should point out here, that I do not want to be on the DSP. I do not want to be on any welfare payment. I want to go back to work and be a contributing tax paying citizen. And I am doing everything in my power to do just that. But in the meantime my higher cost of living and my knowledge that it will take me sometime to find another job makes the changes in the DSP a little hard to swallow.  It would be nice if the decision makers could see that when you are dealing with something as diverse as the issue of disability, a blanket rule is simply not appropriate. One size indeed does not fit all.