1 Jan 2017

To Have an Ordinary Life - part 2

From Spectrum, 12:30 pm on 1 January 2017
close-up of hand and wheelchair

Photo: 123rf

Mike Gourley explores the current state of employment options for disabled people in the aftermath of the repeal of the Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act.

In 2001, the then government released its Pathways to Inclusion Strategy. The strategy provided for a new regime of support services to ensure that disabled people would find meaningful community participation, either through paid work or other  avenues of community  participation, through good quality day programmes.

Among the changes called for by the strategy was the repeal of the near fifty year-old Disabled Persons Employment Promotion or DPEP Act 1960.

That Act exempted sheltered workshops and other like enterprises from affording their disabled clients minimum employment conditions, particularly the minimum wage.

Then Disability Issues Minister at the time, Ruth Dyson, managed to shepherd the repeal legislation successfully through Parliament in 2007. That courted controversy at the time, with some workshops threatening closure, or extensive layoffs. In replacing the DPEP Act, Ruth Dyson says she believed she’d reached agreement with a major provider to continue on in the new environment, given that there was still the option to operate with a Minimum Wage Exemption – [MWE].

In the event, that major provider reneged on the agreement and closed many of its day-bases, which caused a large degree of community outrage. That controversy is set to re-ignite, with the current government moving to remove the MWE “loophole”.

Tess Casey is the Chief Executive of Inclusive NZ, which started life as The Federation of Sheltered Workshops then became Vocational and Support Services, before its current iteration. Casey says that various enterprises ceased to be employers and became community participation services. It’s impossible to say what happened to all the disabled clients because there’s never been a central tracking census done.

One agency that met the economic and political headwinds head on was the Avalon Disability Support Trust.

Chief Executive Tania Wilson and board member Helen Brownlee describe the transformation of their service from that of a traditional sheltered workshop to a support agency that tries to meet the aspirations of their disabled clients, including working at jobs of their choice for the same rates of pay as their non-disabled peers, whether that be working in the orchard or community gardens.

It’s that kind of model that NZ Disability Support Network [NZDSN] Chief Executive, Garth Bennie argues for – a sustainable business model that can support job equity for disabled people.

Community Connections Executive Director John Taylor believes all talk of Minimum Wage Exemption is a red herring.

“If a group of disabled people want to set up a business making widgets, then that should be supported.” As an example, he points to Hawkes Bay man Clayton Guthrie who, with the help of Community Connections, turned his passion for art into saleable product – everything from the artwork itself to greeting cards and fridge magnets.