In September, over the course of three days in Auckland, more than 400 business leaders and disability advocates came together to discuss the topic of meaningful employment for people with disabilities.
Speakers at the Make it Work conference included Phil O’Reilly, former head of Business NZ and current owner of Iron Duke Partners; Brent Wilton, director of Global Workplace Rights at The Coca-Cola Company; Steve Shepherd, former head of Ranstad’s specialist disability recruitments team; Catalina Devandes Aguilar, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities from the United Nations; and journalist and disability rights advocate, Michael Pulman.
Here, Pulman shares his thoughts on how far the disability sector has come in improving the lives of disabled people over the past 50 years, and what lies ahead.

I am a 24-year old journalist based in New Zealand. I am also disabled. I’ve been confined to a wheelchair after being diagnosed with a muscle-wasting condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy at age four. I am also a young advocate and public speaker on the rights of people with disabilities.

The disability sector has had far too many conferences that provide a lot of talk, positive engagement and inspiration to "go forward" and make a change in their respective communities and organizations.

While there was a risk that “Make It Work” would be more of the same, I came away from Auckland fully uplifted with a different sense of just where New Zealand sits currently in the conversation about employment for people with disabilities.

Employment isn’t just a way to earn a living. It is also about a person's sense of wellbeing and place in the world. It is about making a contribution, but also a good life that can only be provided by having a financial buffer of some sort.

Let’s not kid ourselves about what a “good life” actually is. A good life is one where disabled people are just like anyone else in our society. It could be argued that a good life is a normal life. A good life is where we work to pay the bills and feed ourselves, but it should also be one where we can give back to the communities we live in.

Disabled people should have the same access to education and employment as their non-disabled peers.

Employment is a big discussion for hundreds of disability organizations and charities the world over. The access to fair and equal employment is significantly challenging to those with intellectual disabilities in particular. 

That difficulty translates to the education sector, as well, and recent government proposals as to how schools are to be funded and how disabled children will be supported at school have a lot of people feeling very nervous and frustrated. Having a fair and inclusive education system for people with disabilities is one big key to solving the employment issues in the future.

Future business owners and employers need to see that their disabled peers are just the same as them. Who knows, some of those future business owners and employers could be disabled themselves, but only if our education system becomes more inclusive early on and throughout.

The population of people with disabilities is on the rise. In New Zealand, 45 percent of the total disabled population is unemployed. Some have suggested to me that the number could, actually, be far higher.

What is a job? Let me tell you something that it’s not. A job is not a vocational service that a person with a disability is shipped off to once or twice a week. For far too long I’ve seen countless disabled people tricked into thinking they have a job, but in actual fact, no money is being made at all.

This is still happening amongst many organizations today. Why? Because for many, it is the one and only option. It’s not the fault of the organizations either, their intentions cannot be questioned, and they should be applauded for including people in their communities. Those organizations will say that the dollar value of the contracts they have with government falls short of what they need to do provide quality and effective support services.

But, the disability community is not the community that most people live in, or even know about for that matter. Mainstream society doesn’t understand disability and how diverse it is. The subject of diversity, particularly gender diversity, is only so hot right now because of the women’s movement. This is a topic that the media loves to repeat because it generates a lot of ad revenue through clicks.

The disability community is extremely diverse in itself. It includes people with physical disabilities, intellectual and sensory disabilities, those who’ve had accidents, and also the elderly. On top of all that, there are the families of those directly impacted by the disability of their loved ones. Within the disability community there are the issues of gender and ethnic diversity, sexual orientation, poverty, access to justice that are reflected in all communities. However, the problems experienced with have a good start in life, accessing a quality inclusive education which leads to good employment and life outcomes resonate across the disability community

Disabled people themselves and their allies need to lead from the front in this disability rights movement. We speak about how far the disability sector has come in improving the lives of disabled people over the past 50 years. We have come a long way. Institutions are closed down, education is a lot more accessible than it was before, and we have various hard-working, dedicated individuals and organizations that advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

But that doesn’t mean we haven’t achieved all we can. The disability sector is entering a new phase; it is itself in transition. And we have to be bold, brave and perhaps even radical in taking the next steps from here.

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Michael Pulman is a public speaker, blogger, radio host and part-time journalist based in Hamilton, New Zealand. He is a strong and passionate advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, who currently works as a Communications Coordinator for CCS Disability Action. Follow him on twitter at @realmikepulman.