The 3rd of December is International Day of People with Disabilities (IDPwD). The purpose of this day is to both celebrate the achievements of people with disabilities, as well as raising awareness of the barriers still faced by this cohort.
In Australia, nearly 20% of the population identifies as having a disability. Despite this, complaints in relation to disability discrimination are the highest they have been in the previous 5 years, especially in relation to employment. These statistics are not surprising to me, given that I have struggled to access the workforce in a meaningful capacity. In my experience, this has been reflected by the findings of the Disability Royal Commission, the biggest barriers to finding work are broken down into attitudinal, organisational, and physical barriers.
Why employment matters
Before delving into my experiences, It is important to highlight why work, especially paid employment, is important to me. Any type of work, whether that is paid or unpaid, gives me a sense of importance and that I am contributing to the community. I always wanted to contribute to the workforce but did not feel I was capable of doing so, which had a negative impact on my mental health. Whilst it is more difficult for people with disabilities to obtain paid employment, being paid for meaningful work provides me with a greater sense as I feel valued by an organisation.
From High School to Ignite HR & Employment Law
After finishing high school in 2014, the options available to me were to commence my law degree (which I was offered once completing my HSC) or look for work. I always wanted to work, but due to my disability, I could not see myself working in roles that many post-schoolers usually obtain, such as hospitality and retail. I was restricted to looking for job opportunities in the professional sector, many of which required relevant experience or be a second or third-year student. Given the difficulty in finding jobs where I could perform the work as a high school graduate, I decided not to pursue employment. As a result, I often struggled with my studies as I couldn't see the relevance, and did not have a meaningful balance between work, study, and leisure. As a result, solely focusing on studies was a detriment to my mental health in which I experienced loneliness and depression.
In 2016, I applied for a job as a support person at my local university, where I would assist students in ensuring they had the right support. However, due to the application process, the role required me to attend a workshop in an inaccessible building, so I was unable to progress to the next stage. This was despite my efforts to contact the relevant person in charge of the workshop and how I might be able to still put my name forward. I never received a response from this person. This incident further cemented my difficulties with being employed in which attitudinal and physical barriers were present.
In early 2017, I was lucky enough that one of my friends was assisting with the set up of a new initiative at the University of Newcastle called the Navigator (known as UoN Navigator) and recommended me for a position as a blogger. The UoN Navigator involves a series of multimedia resources, not limited to blogs and videos on how students can make the most of university studies. Whilst it was not my ideal first job, I am grateful for this position as it gave me a stepping-stone into the world of blog writing among other skills.
Whilst working as a blogger, I decided to seek other employment opportunities that had a more legal focus. I have been volunteering at Disability Advocacy NSW since April 2018 and my experience there has been invaluable as I put theory into practice, especially when it comes to analysing legal decisions in relation to the NDIS and disability discrimination. This skill has come in handy at Ignite when summarising recent judgments that are of extreme importance.
Due to my increased involvement with Disability Advocacy NSW and seizing opportunities at Community Disability Alliance Hunter (CDAH), including working as a peer mentor and organisational representative for the City of Newcastle’s Access and Inclusion Advisory Committee from 2018-2021, I resigned from my role as a blogger for the Navigator. This proved to be a good decision as I was getting busier with extracurricular activities and university studies.
Securing a role with Ignite HR & Employment Law
By the beginning of 2021, I had graduated with a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in Human Services, and wanted to get back to paid employment. Whilst there were job opportunities available that I was interested in, they were full-time positions, which did not suit me due to still undertaking my Bachelor of Laws. Through a mutual connection (Hi Dave), I found out that Ignite HR & Employment Law, then Karen Ansen Consulting, was seeking to hire a law student. While I had no experience in HR, after meeting Karen and Jamie as well as providing my resume, I became the third employee of what is now Ignite HR & Employment Law.
My experience at Ignite HR & Employment Law has been extremely rewarding as I have a greater understanding of the intricacies and intersectionality between human resources and employment law. It has been an invaluable experience in which I have learned how to draft legal letters of advice, interpret modern awards and provide some HR advice but also be part of a team in which I am valued.
There are numerous key lessons that I have learned from my experience in the workforce. These include:
Volunteering and networking are crucial to skill development and future jobs "it's not what you know, it's who you know"
Advertising and applying for jobs that explicitly state willingness to employ people with a disability
Being open and transparent about your requirements to perform the work – I have needed little to no adjustments to perform the work in the roles I have been involved in.
Joseph Popov is an ER Legal Intern at Ignite HR and Employment Law. He has recently completed a Bachelor of Laws/Diploma of Legal Practice at the University of Newcastle and is undertaking a Graduate Certificate in Workforce Diversity and Inclusion. You can find out more about him via his LinkedIn profile.