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Workbridge, Where abilities equal employment

Expert support for disabled employees

Waikato Times, 26 September 2009

My Career


Attitudes - of the disabled as well as of employers- have to be modified to smooth the path to employment, reporter Ben Stanley finds.

Attitudes must change when it comes to getting more disabled people into employment. That's the stance of Grant Cleland, chief executive of national employment service Workbridge, which is geared to finding jobs for disabled Kiwis.

The Waikato Times caught up with Mr Cleland when he was in the Waikato recently, and also spoke to Hamilton branch manager Jevon Hammond, about the obstacles to finding work for someone with a physical impairment, and improving their chances of winding up in a position he or she applies for.

Mr Cleland speaks from experience. He was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair for mobility.

He has been the Workbridge chief executive officer for only a few months but has forged an impressive business career, focusing on the support of other disabled Kiwis.

He has been involved in the disability field for 22 years and counts as career highlights the drafting of Kia Orite, the New Zealand code of practice for supporting disabled students in tertiary education - now being implemented by the Ministry of Education, and managing the disability support services at Canterbury's Lincoln University.

In addition, for six years, Mr Cleland has been a leading facilitator in employment workshops, getting employers and disabled and deaf New Zealanders together to improve employment chances, and change attitudes.

His parents emphasised the importance of him having dreams, and Mr Cleland said that was an important notion for a disabled person to hold on to, even as the years roll by.

"I find with my disability that people sometimes undervalue your skills, just on the basis of me sitting on two wheels, and it's very easy for people to buy in to that," he said.

The 2006 census showed that 75 per cent of disabled people do not require any extra equipment or other modifications or support to work, yet, Mr Cleland said, the perception lingers that a huge amount of support is required for someone with a physical impairment.

"While some employers may be fearful that they have to be around supporting someone and is that going to take up a lot more additional support, the actual facts really don't back that up," he said.

"I always talk about what I've achieved and if I'm going to ask for support, I ask about it in a really specific way.

"Rather than dumping support at the foot of the employer, it's actually saying to the employer what I can do myself, so it's a bit more of a partnership."

Hamilton branch manager Jevon Hammond believes attitude is the key, from both the employer and the possible employee.

"I suppose it's a bit of a cliche but the worst disability is actually a person's attitude," he said, using the example of employment websites which require people to reveal personal impairments and injuries.

"Sometimes we get clients coming through the door saying I just didn't bother to apply because I would have to put yes - immediately assuming that employers will not be keen.

"That's their perception and that's their fear, they draw a line through their own name before anything even happens."

Workbridge's Hamilton branch has about 300 "active job seekers" in the Waikato as well as up to 400 "monitoring" clients already in work or training. Nationally, 4000 jobs were found for Workbridge clients in the past year.

It usually takes the branch up to three months to place someone in work, although, according to Mr Hammond, "the record is a day".

In addition to the support and guidance it offers clients, the Hamilton branch has created a business support network, where it initiates contact between two similar businesses which both have disabled people on staff, and gets them talking together about the support system they each employ.

"We match jobs with people," he said. "We are not like a recruitment agency that has a list of jobs and we find the right candidate for that position."

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