Jonathan's employment journey
During the development of season two of our documentary series Perspective Shift which explores the life experiences and employment journeys of three people with disability, we realised that there were far too many community stories going untold. In an effort to amplify the voices of our community and shine a light on repeating themes in our society, we connected with some people who wanted to share their stories.
A degree in Creative and Professional Writing seemed like a great idea before I had a family to feed. By the time my future wife decided to leave Melbourne, and live with me in Brisbane while I finished uni, I was starting to think about the difficulties I might face as a person with disabilities looking for work. And how my arts qualifications probably wouldn’t help much.
I’d actually been taught how to do much more than just talk at parties about the novel I was pretending to write. I think my education equipped me pretty well, and if I could have my time again, I’d really struggle to give away everything I’ve learned for a better-sounding major. There were also other things I was willing to charge for, including audio production and editing.
But I knew a potential employer would look at me critically. The first thing they would see was my wheels. Then they’d realise I couldn’t see them. I should have armed myself with a secret weapon - a third thing that would cancel out the other two. Instead, I’d be starting my interviews by saying I was “a writer. I spent many sleepless nights cursing my younger self as I struggled to work out what two people and a cat could eat for a week with $20.
So I decided to get some expert advice. Humiliating as I feared it would be, I was sure employment services would at least know how to spin my resume the right way, to help me navigate the alien world of job listings and cover letters. I knew how little I knew about finding employment, and I wasn’t above asking for help from someone who’d dealt with these challenges before.
My first appointment was a very pleasant surprise. I arrived at a cosy office and was greeted cheerfully by a couple of amiable ex-schoolteachers, who seem to have come to this job for something a little less high pressure. Everyone felt I was very employable, and though I’d be working largely with one consultant, they all showed a lot of interest in my case.
“What’s your dream job?” my consultant asked.
I’d been ready for this question. “Working at the ABC,” I said without hesitation.
“Fair enough,” she said. “Let’s aim for that then.”
Sitting at the desk next to my hero Richard Fidler’s for a week of work experience was pretty gratifying, even though he was away that week. Everyone in the Radio National office was as excited to have me as I was to be there. Though they hadn’t worked directly with a person who was blind, they all knew of Nas Campanella, the Triple J newsreader from Sydney. They had a lot of questions, but they were all encouraging, not patronising. And if I ran into trouble, I had Nas on speed dial. “Call any time,” she said.
I was captivated by the mechanics behind the magic of Conversations, the team of three producers who worked hard to prepare Fidler for his interviews. One of them seemed to be around my age. I was interested in how she’d gotten the role. “I did an internship,” she explained.
This was promising. Maybe this week of work experience would have an impact. “How long did it take you to get a job?” I asked.
“Well, I was an intern for around a year,” she said, “then they graduated me into a paid role.”
“Ah,” I said, crunching numbers in my head. My brittle bones made public transport out of the question. A year of taxi trips to and from home could cost almost half my pension. And she was surely not the only person willing and able to work that much for free. This week was going to be awesome, but I realised then that it likely wasn’t going to get my foot in the door.
I was right on both counts. My manager wrote me a glowing letter of reference and said she’d never seen another intern achieve so much so quickly. But with the ABC facing savage budget cuts, she also knew that there wasn’t anything else she could do for me. “I’m so sorry,” she said over and over. I believed her.
In the cab home that Friday night, I imagined the email I’d have written to my consultant. I’d have told her how well it had gone, and that even though it probably wouldn’t directly lead to a job, it was a valuable step in the right direction. But she’d never know any of that. Her address no longer worked. Her phone was disconnected. She’d recently joined me in unemployment after her agency had been bought by a much larger company. I’m told this happens all the time.
My first appointment with my new provider was in a huge, crowded office. I don’t need sight to tell you not one person smiled in the hour I spent there. My consultant was a mousy woman who hesitantly explained that she hadn’t had time to read my file, but no, I couldn’t have appointments on the days on which I had support workers, and I couldn’t do them over the phone. I would actually have been happy to work in a call centre, but when she misspelled my name in every email, I lost all confidence in her ability even to help me that much.
At that time, your current employment agency needed to sign some kind of release form before you could join a new one. Extricating myself took almost six weeks; in which time I was bombarded with automatic appointment reminders. Unlike your typical job seeker, I was volunteering for this terrible experience and could have given up at any point without losing my payment.
But after my first consultant had so easily got the ABC’s attention, I thought it was worth one more try. And the new agency I chose seemed much smaller and more personable. My consultant, there wasn’t much older than me. He was a business student working part-time, and I doubted someone so young could tell me much about what employers wanted to see. But he was enthusiastic and had access to jobs which weren’t advertised.
He found the job somewhat dispiriting. A lot of his clients didn’t seem to want work, and his caseload was increasing very rapidly. He suspected his agency was using a business model which didn’t require getting people jobs. They could accumulate massive caseloads and profit off the admin fees. But as a result, consultants were so swamped that they weren’t much help to anybody.
Nonetheless, we got along well, and he did his best to make me a priority. When he called me to talk about a potential job at a radio station, I was too excited to ask many questions. They weren’t advertising, but they were keen to employ someone part-time to take the pressure off their content team. They essentially had nothing to lose, since the government would initially subsidise my wages. I didn’t care where the money was coming from. I was never going to say no to paid work in my field. But after our phone call, I looked up their address and found that they were 45 minutes from my home. Even if I could have used public transport, it would have been extremely difficult, and catching taxis both ways would take up most of my wage. He was apologetic and tried to access temporary travel assistance for me, but for reasons neither of us ever understood, this wasn’t possible.
I decided to go to the interview anyway. I immediately got on with the guy who’d read my letter. He’d worked for the BBC for decades, so I had lots of questions for him, and he realised I was someone who’d understand and appreciate his shop talk. He was also very comfortable with me, having employed a blind audio engineer before. He offered me a job on the spot. “Just one thing,” he said. “The team you’ll be working with is upstairs. Is that going to be ok?”
From the government’s perspective, I guess this was a great result. My provider got me employed, and I stayed that way after the subsidy period. But I was only able to get to the office because my boss went out of his way to pick me up. I was able to traverse the stairs, but it wasn’t easy, dignified, or independent, because for a long time I needed someone else to carry my wheelchair after me. Don’t get me wrong. None of these problems were insurmountable, and I was grateful to be working. But I was shocked that the government paid a company to find me such laughably unsuitable employment.
My agency also failed in pretty much every other obligation they had. They neglected to tell me about a second appointment at the office, which resulted in me appearing to miss it. They took my original consultant off my case and replaced him with someone who immediately went on leave, never to return. They didn’t pay my wage subsidy to my employer for months and underpaid me for the entire length of my subsidy.
Less than 50 per cent of people with disabilities have employment. Graduates with disabilities take more than twice as long to find work. Our labour market is also changing extremely rapidly, in ways which are likely to harm workers with disabilities more than the general population. I think it’s reasonable that we should have expert help to navigate these challenges.
I had one consultant whom I believe was capable of helping people find suitable, rewarding and dignified work until she lost her job. I had one who wasn’t capable of helping anybody. And I had one who meant well, but was clearly out of his depth, and overwhelmed by so much busywork that he couldn’t do basic research.
I was able to cope with and understand the frustrating elements of my experience, with the support of family and friends. But I found it extremely stressful. I would hate to see how it would impact anyone who experiences mental illness.
Yes, the system basically worked for me. In the end, I got into a room with someone who saw my potential. But you’ll notice that all my opportunities came from people who knew I was capable of working. As usual, it’s all about attitude. I wonder whether my success was based on skill or just luck.
Ultimately, I can only tell my own story, but compared to some I’ve heard, it’s a very nice one. If this is what this system calls a happy ending, are you happy with it? Do you think it’s good enough? Would you trust it to help you if you needed it? Would you want your children to rely on it? Because the environment in which they’ll be job hunting will be much harsher and more competitive than ours.
If you answered no to any of these questions, we need a better system.