Putting people with disabilities into work 'not all plain sailing'
Taranaki Daily News, 7 September 2009
GRANT CLELAND wants people to know the facts.
The former New Plymouth man is the new chief executive officer of Workbridge, the government employment agency for people with a disability.
Since getting the job three months ago he has been touring the country introducing himself and his philosophy to the agency's 140 staff.
Last week he was in New Plymouth, where his parents still live and his family name is seen on signs everywhere for Clelands Construction.
"We are responsible for getting disabled people into work. You know, 17 per cent of people have a condition that lasts for six months or longer, whether that is physical or mental disability or an injury. That is quite a lot bigger than people realise."
And therefore a far larger resource than people realise, he says, even though placements are chugging along well enough. "People would assume the disabled job market would be hardest hit by recession but we are still meeting our targets. We are still placing people into employment about 4000 people each year."
But it could be more. Mr Cleland says there is a perception that disabled people are less skilled or will require too much special assistance to be productive members of the workforce.
He says this is quite simply not true, with 75 per cent of people placed by Workbridge not requiring assistance at their workplace.
Rather, they require help to overcome prejudice and get the job. Even then it's not all plain sailing. "Basically if you look at employment for disabled people, generally one statistic that really sums up where we are at this.
"Disabled people with qualifications are generally on the same wage as employees without qualification in the same workplace."
For Mr Cleland the discrimination is more than simply a curiosity of the job. It is something he has faced himself.
Born with spina bifida, he uses a wheelchair to get around. The condition severely disrupted his school years at New Plymouth Boys' High School as operations frequently took him out of classes and into hospital rooms.
They were difficult years. Falling behind at school and with his social circle, it would have been easy to let his disability consume him and define who he was. He says he was only able to achieve what he has today because of the support of his family throughout those years.
"They always encouraged me to make plans and follow my dreams. They never expected my life goals to be different because of my disability."
His is a shining example of what a little support can do, and he wants employers to know Workbridge can provide that support should they hire one of its clients.
Inglewood's Kevin Walsh of Walsh Auto Services hired Robin Donaldson as an office administrator through Workbridge nearly three months ago. It is the young man's first job.
His wife heard about the agency through a friend and convinced her husband to give it a go.
Mr Donaldson's physical disability has required some specialised office equipment and a PA system, all of which has been provided by Workbridge.
"I'm always in for helping people out a bit," Mr Walsh said. "I've taken people on over the years that perhaps would not have got a job but they turned out to be bloody good employees."