Private Members' Business - Workforce Participation of People with a Disability

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (11.32 am)—First of all, I thank the member for Pearce for bringing this motion before the House. I will add my comments to those of others here that it is encouraging to see the level of interest and competition to speak on the member’s motion, and it reflects the fact that there are many of us in this House who are well aware of the importance of this issue. I should also acknowledge that the member for Pearce was the minister for this area for a period in the late nineties, and I acknowledge her contribution on this important issue during that time as well.

Not surprisingly, I do not entirely agree with the member’s characterisation of this government’s approach to the area. I think it has been given an unprecedented level of significance and priority both by the current government and in our previous term from 2007. In particular, I think that it is important to recognise that there is the National Disability Strategy in place from 2010 to 2020. I just want to take a few moments to put some of the significance of that strategy on the record before I take the opportunity to talk about some important local initiatives in my area around this.

I should indicate that the National Disability Strategy is intended to establish a high-level policy framework, and the idea of that is to give coherence and guidance to government activity across both mainstream and disability-specific areas of public policy. I think some of the issues that have been raised by other members in their contributions around issues such as transport indicate why it is important that such a national strategy crosses not only the disability-specific areas of public policy but, more broadly, all areas. It is also designed to drive improved performance in those mainstream services in delivering outcomes for people with a disability.

For me, the reason I particularly welcome that is that I have dealt with a number of people who have what you would call periodic or episodic types of illnesses that create the disability—for example, schizophrenia. They are high-functioning, university-qualified professionals but, when they have an episode, hit the wall and need some time out, the system does not cope very well with those sorts of circumstances. In particular, mainstream services such as Centrelink and so forth really struggle to deal with people who do not fit what might be termed the classic interpretations of having a disability. So I think it is important that we give that focus not only to the disabilityspecific services but also to services across the board in the way that they interact with people with a disability.

There are strategies also designed to give visibility to the issues, and I think that is important—that we never think that the job is done and we can stop talking about this, because that is when we all know that progress slides back into stagnation. We need to constantly be talking about these issues, and that is why I think the motion before the House today is so important. In particular, the other important aspect of the National Disability Strategy is the fact that it acknowledges that not all people with a disability are alike. There are a wide variety of both forms of disability and degrees of disability, and the ‘one size fits all model’ is probably the least useful one. So this strategy looks at a social model of disability. It recognises that attitudes, practices and structures are disabling and can prevent people from enjoying economic participation, social inclusion and equality. That is not an inevitable result of the individual’s impairment; it is a result of the disability of the systems with which they come into contact. Those are really important principles to drive the National Disability Strategy.

I want to take the second half of my time to talk about two areas where I am quite optimistic that, if they are well utilised, we can have a good impact on some of the issues confronting people with a disability in entering the workforce and participating in our community. One is the National Broadband Network. I notice my colleague the member for Gilmore, who is a great sceptic, I think it would be fair to say—

Mrs Gash—Absolutely.

Ms BIRD—about the National Broadband Network. She would not be surprised to hear I am exactly the opposite.

I think that in 20 years time people will be sitting here reading the member for Gilmore’s speeches and saying: ‘What on earth was she thinking about? She was so out of date.’ They will look at my speeches and say, ‘What great foresight and understanding of where the future was heading.’ The reason I think the National Broadband Network and fibre to the home are so important can be encapsulated in some of the major projects that have been rolled out in the UK. I would encourage members to have a look at some of the projects that have been directed towards social housing in the UK with fibre-to-the-home services.

In particular, there have been a few aimed at people in facilities for the aged and also people in economically and socially disadvantaged areas, with a couple of them particularly targeting people with a disability. The programs did not just provide the infrastructure and the technology to connect people in their homes; they also provided education and social connection services so that people were able to then utilise the technology. That is an important thing for us in this country to take out of their lessons.

What they were able to do, for example, is significantly increase the workforce participation. If you do have somebody who has a social disability, either through a mental illness or a physical disability that makes them less keen to be out there—as the former member said, spending $400 on taxi fares and so forth—the capacity for some of those people to run either home-based businesses or consulting work with good-quality technology infrastructure in the home was a really significant outcome for many of them.

I would draw to the attention of members the fact that the current inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications, which I chair, into the National Broadband Network has a reference in it to social and community access and equality. I do not want the voices of people who are aged, infirm or disabled—and who could utilise this if we do it right and get the supports in place—not to be heard because there are whole lot of other very technical and specialist and high-profile advocates in the area. I do want to hear those voices. Indeed, we have already had some good evidence from aged-care providers about the capacity.

There are some great programs out there. For example, one of my aged-care providers was telling me about an exercise program. The technology is sort of like Google Street where you can walk around and look at a street. They get footage of the hometowns of NESB people. They encourage them to interact with them. You can walk your old hometown street and have a look at what is there in modern times. There are some activities and programs that really encourage people to get active and are also good for brain function. So I encourage those sorts of ideas being brought forward. I also know from many local people who have talked to me who have issues with mental health that the capacity to do more work from home is a really significant opportunity for them.

The other area is in social enterprise. I want to highlight that, through the job program that the previous minister spoke about in his own electorate, there were two programs funded in my electorate for people with disabilities to gain employment. They have been tremendously successful. One is Renewable Recyclers, which is a new business of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Australia. I went to their opening the other day. They take e-waste, which is a major problem for all of us—they take computers in particular—recycle them and onsell the products. They had a group of people working there who could not get bigger smiles on their faces. They were just so thrilled to have the opportunity to get into work and to be doing something constructive in their community. It was a great, win-win match between an environmental issue and a work access issue for people with a disability. The other one that was funded I had previously visited: the Mission Australia Soft Landing project, which is a mattress recycling program. It targets people with a disability. There was a gentleman there who is profoundly deaf and had never had the opportunity to work at all. He was really thrilled to have that opportunity. It is another great social enterprise.

I think these models are so good because they are sustainable. They do not have to keep coming back to government for money; they are real businesses. I want to acknowledge two long-term ones in my area— Greenacres and the Flagstaff Group—who have been doing this sort of work for decades with great success. I always enjoy the opportunity to visit and acknowledge the work that, as the member for Gilmore would know, they do so effectively in our community. I commend them.