By Sue O'Reilly
Thousands of Australians with severe physical disabilities and learning delays would dearly love to go out to work each day and earn some income, but their chances of finding any sort of gainful employment are currently zero.
Here, the mother of a young man severely disabled with cerebral palsy tells how her late son’s deep desire to work after leaving school and passion for computers inspired his family to think outside the box, developing an innovative, 21st-century model of work opportunities they believe could well have global applicability.
When it came time for my son Shane to leave school at the end of 2009, he faced having to spend the rest of his life in what is known as a Community Access or Community Participation program, engaged in non-work activities such as watching videos and going on outings to the local shopping mall.
While Shane was very fond of the staff at his program and happy to spend weekdays from 9am to 3pm with them and his fellow wheelchair-user friends, he also very proudly thought of himself as a “computer whizz” - as he put it himself - and his personal dream was that one day, he might be able to work with computers.
It broke my, his sister Laura’s and his brother Jordan’s hearts, knowing the reality was that Shane would never get any opportunity to work, with computers or anything else.
Mainstream work was out of the question because of Shane’s high personal care and support needs and degree of physical disability. He was even rejected out-of-hand by our local Disability Enterprise because he was unable to do the simple, manual, repetitive, production-line type tasks undertaken in these workshops.
Sadly, a Community Access program appeared to be the only option.
But thinking about this issue, and talking it through with another mother whose physically disabled son was also about to leave school and was keen to work in some sort of computer-related field, an idea began to develop.
Why not create a 21st-century, computer-based, Disability Enterprise-type workplace where, instead of packing boxes, folding linen, sealing envelopes and so on, people with disabilities who were keen to work, loved computers and had enterprising, modern, online-based business ideas could develop those ideas, in a supportive and fully accessible environment?
While open, mainstream employment is of course the ultimate goal that all Australians with disabilities are justly entitled to pursue, the stark reality is that achieving this goal will require radical changes in employers’ and societal attitudes we are unlikely to see any time soon.
And, while traditional, production-line Disability Enterprises, or DEs, also play and will continue to play an important role for the 20,000 or so Australians currently employed in them, the stark reality is that DEs as currently envisaged will never be able to offer work opportunities for people with severe physical disabilities. Nor are traditional, repetitive, manual-type tasks all that alluring – let’s face it - for people with physical disabilities who are bright, ambitious and smart.
Recent technological advances, however, have opened a whole new, exciting universe of work and communication opportunities for people with severe disabilities, even for those who cannot physically access a keyboard. Shane, for instance, needed a full-time assistant to sit with him whenever he went “online”, tapping away at the keyboard and reading out the words that appeared on-screen. But it was Shane who called the shots, as it were, telling the assistant what icons to click on, what to write and where to navigate next.
In other words, it is possible - thanks to computers - to give even people with severe physical disabilities the opportunity for cognitive, creative and social stimulation, engaged in such tasks as designing and promoting websites, marketing services and/or products and creating blogs, and to do so in an office, mainstream-like environment. But unlike a mainstream environment or even a traditional DE for that matter, the people we would be giving work placements to would not be under any pressure to work at a “profit”.
Whether an individual’s online or computer-based business idea made $10 a month or $10,000, the principal aim would be to create opportunities for people who currently have no chance whatsoever of any sort of employment to engage in work they found meaningful, intellectually stimulating and creative.
As my children and I began to work on this idea, we quickly realised a substantial amount of money would be required to lease office space, fit it out with computers, printers, desks and other vital equipment and employ personal assistants and admin staff to work alongside our first tranche of computer buffs. Fortunately though, I had several years earlier created a NFP organisation called Fighting Chance, in memory of my late husband, and the board of Fighting Chance agreed that funding a pilot computer-based employment project for people with disabilities was an appropriate use of Fighting Chance funds.
We leased office space in the Sydney suburb of Brookvale, received some very generous donations of computers and desks, and opened our doors in September 2011. One of the projects the interns there are now working on, for instance, is creating and running a website to promote and sell silk shoe bags which we have had made in China, and which we have named Shags.
Tragically, Shane died in his sleep in July last year, just a few weeks before the opening of this pilot project. He would have been so, so, proud to be a part of it, knowing that it was his passion for computers and desire to work that inspired it. But his sister, brother and I are pushing on, fund-raising through Fighting Chance to keep this innovative pilot afloat. And if it proves as successful as we believe it will in filling a yawning gap in employment opportunities for people with disabilities, we hope eventually to spread the idea around Australia and indeed internationally.