Barriers people with disabilities face in finding work under the microscope at royal commission, as Olivia finds purpose in employment

For Olivia Sidhu, having a well-paying job is the “greatest achievement” of her life.

The 22-year-old from Sydney lives with Down syndrome and has started working part-time for an inner-city architecture firm.

“Having a job gives me independence and a sense of purpose,” Ms. Sidhu said.

“I wasn’t nervous the first day, I felt very confident.”

As Ms. Sidhu settles into her administrative work, many other people with disabilities remain unemployed.

The Royal Commission on Persons with Disabilities learned that 53.4% ​​of working-age people with disabilities were unemployed in 2018.

Olivia Sidhu, who lives with Down syndrome, recently started a new job.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes, who is blind, told the hearing on Monday that there had been no improvement in employment figures for decades.

“I have described the performance of employers, in terms of employing people with disabilities, as appalling,” said Dr Innes.

“We have been employed at a rate of about 30 percent less than the general population over the past 30 years.”

An older man in a white shirt looking at the camera
Graeme Innes said he had changed his mind about employment goals.(ABC News: Steve Keen )

Dr Innes reflected on his own experience of trying to find work after graduating from law school.

He applied for 30 jobs without success before settling on a role reading Loto numbers.

“I used to joke in this job saying that I was the only office assistant in the NSW public service with a law degree,” said Dr Innes.

On the issue of introducing targets for employers to hire people with disabilities, Dr Innes said that while he initially opposed it, he changed his mind.

“If we don’t set goals and develop strategies to achieve those goals, the situation [we’ve had] over the past 30 years will continue. ”

One of the strategies Dr Innes recommended to the committee was to include employment targets for people with disabilities in key performance indicators (KPIs) for CEOs and their direct reports.

During the five-day inquiry, the commission will hear from 12 of Australia’s largest employers, including Australia Post, Woolworths, Telstra and Kmart, on their recruitment programs to attract and retain staff with disabilities.

The system “does not work”

Ms Sidhu completed a work preparation program with Jigsaw Australia, a social enterprise providing training for people with disabilities to help them find employment.

Olivia Sidhu at work.
Olivia Sidhu at work. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

After completing a course, participants are matched with employment coaches who provide personalized support from the interview process to placement.

Michael Summers teamed up with Ms. Sidhu for the program and assisted her during her early days at architectural firm SJB.

“I will be in contact with his manager to discuss any comments or challenges. “

A man walking with a woman in an office.
Michael Summers said Olivia would do a great job for the company. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito )

Established in 2014, Jigsaw Australia has supported 610 interns and transitioned 44 people with disabilities into mainstream employment.

Managing Director Paul Brown said the current system of employment for people with disabilities was not working in Australia.

Since its inception, Jigsaw has opened hubs in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, and is expanding to Canberra and Perth.

Mr Brown said that over the next five years, Jigsaw aims to train more than 1,000 people with disabilities and move 600 to paid jobs.

Use “lived experience”

Usually, Jigsaw goes to employers to hire people, but architectural firm SJB was the first to approach them looking for an employee with a disability.

SJB director Adam Haddow said the staff welcomed Ms Sidhu to their already diverse workplace.

A man in an open plan office environment
SJB director Adam Haddow said Olivia helped the business grow. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“I think having a person with a disability is just another angle of diversity that everyone has kind of accepted as part of what we do,” said Haddow.

Ms Sidhu works at SJB’s front desk, but Mr Haddow said that in the future they hope to use her lived experience to influence their designs.

“What Olivia brought to the table, that no one else did, was an awareness of disabilities,” Mr. Haddow said.

“We probably get more from Olivia in the office than she gets from being in the office.”

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