Advocates say despite years of Federal Government policies designed to boost employment, it is as hard as ever for people with a disability to enter the workforce.
The number of people living with a disability working for the Australian Public Service fell from 5 per cent in 1999 to just 3 per cent last year.
The latest figure puts Australia behind countries such as Canada, with 5.8 per cent of its public service identifying as living with a disability, and the UK, where the figure is 8.8 per cent.
Both countries have strong employment equity laws which have the effect of encouraging employers to take active steps to hire more people with a disability, and there have been calls from some advocates for Australia to consider similar legislation.
Assistant Minister for Social Services Senator Mitch Fifield said he would like to see employment numbers for people with a disability improve, but that laws that would compel employers to take action were the wrong approach.
“I’m uncomfortable with quotas, but I’m very relaxed with individual organisations setting targets for themselves,” he said.
Senator Fifield said that a better method would be more transparency and employer peer pressure, which would produce results.
“One organisation looks to another, they’re having good results, why shouldn’t we take advantage of the full talent pool as well?” he said.
But disability coordinator Gary Kerridge, and many of those on the front lines of the battle to improve employment prospects for people with disabilities, said that kind of thinking was naive.
Mr Kerridge is deaf, and uses a combination of email and texting to communicate on the job.
He also often turns to Skype to have conversations on screen using Auslan sign language.
Mr Kerridge said nothing less than a wholesale attitude shift by employers was needed, one that considers people with disability not as an employment obligation, but as a resource.
“I don’t think they understand that sort of relationship where it’s reciprocal,” he said.
“Where I have something to offer. They think they’re doing me a favour by employing me.”
In Greenvale, in Melbourne’s north, Riki Domagalski said she did not want any favours, just a chance.
The 36 year-old was born with low vision and a slight cognitive impairment, but Ms Domagalski can work, and wants to.
Ms Domagalski estimates she has applied for more than 3,000 jobs in 14 years. That search has brought just two short term contracts, working in administration.
“It’s demoralising, it really, really is,” she said. “I’ve had roughly 6 months paid work in my entire life.”
She said that brief period of employment only made her realise what she was missing.
“To have the taster, it was so liberating. I felt so empowered having that job.”
Ms Domagalski said she was desperate to move out of her parents’ home to get her own apartment and enough money to live independently.
She said the current measures to promote disability employment were not working.
“What employers and the public in general need to realise is that people with a disability are people first,” she said.
“We want the same quality of life anybody else not just wants, but is entitled to.”