Karen Beard-Greer, chief executive of Independent Living Service (ILS) in Auckland believes that disability support services (DSS) employers have an additional responsibility to employ disabled people because, like any industry “We need to understand our target market. If we are in the business of disability then we need disabled people as our leaders and front people,” says Karen. The ILS is Auckland’s largest disability information and advisory centre and product showroom.
Tony Howe is an information consultant with the ILS and a part-time administrator for New Zealand Wheelchair Rugby. He says, “I was never encouraged to believe employment was part of my future from the word go.” Tony was told at his mainstream school that his impairment, Muscular Dystrophy, meant he would never work, so he may as well go on benefits and ‘accept his lot’. Tony’s father and grandfather also had Muscular Dystrophy and had never worked, meaning expectations at home were not really any higher than at school.
He jokingly says it was only when, in his twenties, he was ‘coerced’ by a social worker to attend a rehab gym where he met other disabled people, that he started to realise there could be other possibilities for him.
As Tony became involved in wheelchair rugby, his confidence grew, both in his physicality in his chair and generally. When deterioration in his physical health meant he could no longer play rugby, he moved into coaching and as coach of the Wheel Blacks he went on to attend two Paralympics.
"They slowly pulled me out of the corner and encouraged me to be part of the team"
Tony’s relationship with the ILS, in Royal Oak, Auckland began as a volunteer in 1992. He credits his colleagues and managers for encouraging him and challenging him to develop his employment skills. “For the first year or so I hid in a corner, but the encouragement I got, especially from management meant they slowly pulled me out of the corner and encouraged me to be part of the team, even as a volunteer.”
However, it took Tony a number of years to see himself as employable or to think an employer would consider him employable. After six years as a volunteer, Tony applied for and got the job as information consultant. Age 29, Tony had his first paid job, the first adult male in three generations of his family to do so.
People gravitate towards the person whose impairment most closely matches their own
Karen says that Tony’s wide knowledge of disability information, as both a disabled person and in his work experience, “Brings a unique skillset that we couldn’t get from someone who hasn’t got a lived experience of disability.” She notices that when people come into their showroom they tend to gravitate towards the person whose impairment most closely matches their own. “I would too,” she says, “I’d think that person knows exactly what I need.”
Tony has developed his knowledge and skills over the years and is a Barrier Free Adviser, and a BE Master Coach. These are both functions he carries out within his role with ILS. As a Barrier Free Adviser he assesses buildings to ensure they meet legislative requirements on access. As a BE Master Coach he advises business that want to improve their disability access and become more inclusive.
Tony has attended leadership training on a course specifically for disabled people and says, “You bring a diverse group together and it’s not about what you can’t do - it is what you can. I got a lot out of it. If I could go back and be a coach again I would be a far better coach (after the leadership training). How much more prepared I would be now. The goals you set and handling the physical and emotional strains. It is funny to hear me say it, but I am a lot stronger now, even though my impairment has got worse.”
Just do it - even if all the boxes aren't ticked
Karen’s advice to employers who haven’t experienced employing people with disabilities is “Just do it! Even if employers don’t have all the boxes ticked, it’s lovely to have the whole team involved in helping make the place more accessible, it’s great team building and enriches the whole environment. It’s the greatest gift an employer can give to someone who’s had barriers in their way.” She also says employers have lots of tools available to help them to be more disability confident, such as the BE Institute (BE Employed) and Workbridge.
The benefits of employing disabled staff far outweigh the difficulties
She believes that the benefits of employing disabled staff far outweigh the difficulties. “You have to be mindful that there are times when ill-health means people are incapacitated. But it’s worth working through that with them because of all the gems you get from them. Our organisation’s purpose is ‘making daily living easier’, so we have to live that.”
Karen says if she hadn’t been thrown into a situation of employing and managing disabled staff, she would never have realised how easy it was. “You just find solutions for problems day by day,” she says.
ILS doesn’t have specific recruitment policies in place to target disabled applicants, but it is within their constitution that they employ disabled people. As a result they always have this in mind when advertising a post. Some roles are more suitable than others for a disabled person and they assess this on an individual basis. As ILS runs a product showroom they need to ensure there are enough physically able staff to carry out the heavier physical work. However, someone doing supply chain management can do the job equally from an office chair, or a wheelchair. Karen says, “We are in the enviable position that this is our day to day life. We work in the sector; we take it for granted. They (disabled staff) are just part of the team.”
Tony plans to continue to work for ILS, he says “I am lucky to have a job and I am loyal to a place that has looked after me for 22 years. You reciprocate.” As it turns out, that reciprocation goes for Tony’s family. Tammy, Tony’s daughter, has put her own lived experience of disability from supporting her dad to good use, and has worked for ILS as an information consultant since 2011.