Speech by The Hon Jane Prentice MP

The Future of Disability Employment – NESA Conference


I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people, and pay my respects to their elders – past, present and emerging.

I would also like to acknowledge:

  • Sally Sinclair, CEO of NESA
  • providers, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests.

It is a great honour to be here today. Thank you for the opportunity to speak about the future of disability employment. I am a firm believer in the power of employment to offer a sense of dignity, and independence, and to create a feeling of self-worth.

The knowledge that you are making a contribution to the community you live in cannot be overstated. And as I hardly need to tell this audience … the impact of employment can be transformational for people with disability.

This is one of the reasons I was pleased to be appointed Assistant Minister for Disability Services in February this year, and to be re-appointed following the recent election. I believe this is work that can and does make positive changes to people’s lives.

My first priority in this role was to meet with as many key stakeholders as possible. I am pleased to say that in the months before the election I met my goal of speaking with 240 key stakeholders.

This has included employment service providers, employers, people with disability and their families and carers.

I have been immensely impressed by the passion, understanding and determination that these stakeholders bring to their work and achieving better outcomes for people with disability.

I now have an opportunity to continue those conversations with my recent re-appointment as Assistant Minister.

Conferences such as this play an important role in helping shape the thinking around how our policies and programmes work. It is important to take time away from our day-to-day work to share experiences, to question and focus on how we can continue to work together to secure a positive and inspiring future for people with disability.

We are now moving into a period where we have better means to improve opportunities for people with disability, their carers and families. The Government has been working on a number of initiatives that can transform the life experience of people with disability, including through improved support to find and keep employment.

I would like to now touch on the National Disability Strategy and its reforming framework.

We have a shared vision for an inclusive Australian society that enables people with disability to fulfil their potential both within the wider community and within themselves. This means driving improvements across the mainstream services that all Australians take for granted – not just specialist disability services.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme rollout has been our foremost achievement under the Strategy from July 1.

Let us take a moment to reflect on the start of the rollout.

It represents a significant shift in the delivery of services for people with disability which will have far reaching effects. It is the result of the enormous effort and dedication of many people across Australia, including many of you here today.

The NDIS will substantially increase the support available to 460,000 eligible Australians who have a permanent and significant disability.

Most immediately, it means that eligible people with disability will have access to a range of services tailored to their needs and their aspirations. Under a participant’s NDIS plan, services will be aligned and co-ordinated to ensure the best outcome for them.

Importantly, it means that choice and control over the delivery of those services will be in the hands of the people who actually use and benefit from those services – NDIS participants and their carers and their families.

But this is only the beginning for the NDIS.

By 2019-20, when the Scheme reaches full implementation, its coverage will have increased tenfold, to more than 460,000 eligible Australians with disability. Annual expenditure on care and support will have increased from $670 million in 2014-15 to $22 billion dollars – in just three years’ time.

While the NDIS represents a significant and historic change to the landscape for disability in Australia, it remains only part of the story. Not all people with disability – indeed the majority – will be eligible for support under the NDIS.

I know you are all acutely aware of the particular challenges involved in helping people with disability to find employment. There are important, often difficult conversations we will need to have about the low expectations of people with disability, the need to overcome the preconceptions of employers, and the practical issues of ensuring that people with disability can get to work and perform effectively in a job.

It remains the case that the single most important change that can be made to improve the lives of Australians with disability is to help them find a job.

Now I would like to talk about recent Changes to Disability Employment services.

At the Government level, we have taken several actions to improve and align our services and programmes to create, what we expect to be, better employment outcomes for people with disability.

In 2013, we transferred the Disability Employment Services programme to the Department of Social Services, co-locating it with policy for Australian Disability Enterprises, the NDIS, and other policy for people with disability and their carers.

We have extended Disability Employment Services contracts to 2018 to provide certainty and stability. New disability service contracts will now commence in 2018, as the NDIS completes its rollout.

We have also focussed on simplifying the administrative processes that stop you from doing your job in the most effective ways. We will continue to identify more opportunities to reduce red-tape. And we don’t underestimate how important that is – so you can focus on your clients not forms and paperwork.

Another important point is the Need for better Disability Employment services.

Despite these changes, Disability Employment Services data shows that less than a third of participants are securing a job from their period of assistance in the programme.

The 2015 Survey of Disability, Aging and Carers confirms that we are failing to close the employment gap. People with disability are still twice as likely as other Australians to be unemployed. They are still under-participating in employment, with only half participating in the workforce or actively looking for work.

The Willing to Work report, launched in early May this year, confirmed and clarified the disadvantages of people with disability when looking for work. It noted that Australia continues to rank twenty first (21st) out of 29 OECD countries in terms of workforce participation by people with disability – clearly, this is not acceptable.

Willing to Work contains fifty-six (56) recommendations on actions to address employment discrimination, promote accountability, ensure accessibility of information, support greater choice, improve incentives and reduce red tape.

The report includes recommendations encouraging greater efforts from the public sector as well as private sector employers, and recommendations that reforms to DES should be based on principles of client choice and control.

Given the mounting evidence from a range of sources, our challenge is to do more and to do better with our disability employment services. As Minister I am committed to follow through and improve these statistics.

DES Reform:

The immediate challenge for the Government is to reform the DES programme to make it more responsive to the needs of job seekers with disability.

We have started this process by opening discussions with stakeholders. The Disability Employment Taskforce held two rounds of public consultations and submissions about how we can improve disability employment policy. I would like to thank those of you who contributed to our discussions and for helping us gain a clearer picture of the real and immediate needs for this programme.

Much of the feedback to the Disability Employment Taskforce aligns with the findings of the Willing to Work Inquiry, as well as the direction being forged by the NDIS.

I want to highlight the three main findings from the Taskforce.

1 – Employer Engagement

First, we need to better engage with and support employers.

The DES programme has traditionally focussed on the needs of the job seekers with disability and the requirements of the service providers who assist them under the programme.

We need to maintain that focus, but we cannot create more jobs by simply focussing on the supply side of employment services.

We need to make employers aware of the benefits of employing people with disability and that support is available to help them do so. Indeed much more beneficial than many Gen Y employees.

We need to consider how to encourage employers to give people with disability the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

We need to overcome the low visibility caused by low employment of people with disability.

The message that came through the Taskforce very clearly is that we need to focus more on employers and that is also a major focus of the Willing to Work report. The report includes a suite of recommended strategies for employers, including the adoption of voluntary hiring targets, appointing corporate champions, non-discriminatory recruitment and retention practices as well as promoting workplace flexibility.

The Government is looking at how it can best offer effective incentives for employers. But I also want to challenge you to ask yourself … “What am I doing to encourage employers to consider people with disability? What more can I do?”

2 – High Quality Services

The second area where we need to concentrate is enabling service providers to deliver high quality services.

Unsurprisingly, quality providers deliver strong outcomes.

To date, the Government has cut more than $14 million in unnecessary red tape to help providers concentrate on the actual business of helping people with disability to find jobs.

Now we need to reconsider how employment service providers are contracted to do business.

Disability Employment Service providers are currently limited to providing services within geographic and market share limits. Allowing providers greater flexibility about how and where to deliver services is a step in ensuring that the most effective providers grow their business, delivering stronger services to more job seekers.

As I have travelled around the country and met with stakeholders – almost 300 at last count – this same point has been raised time and time again. We now need to work towards a better solution.

3 – Empowering participant choices

Thirdly, we must look to empowering job seekers to make informed decisions and take control of selecting the services available to them.

This echoes a stand-out feature of the NDIS – empowering participants by giving them choice and control – and is one of many ways that the Scheme is leading the way for other services.

Giving job seekers the ability to make decisions that impact on the services they receive invites them to take ownership of, and commit to their employment service.

Job seekers who are fully engaged with their programme are significantly more likely to achieve strong outcomes.

Further work is now being done in my Department to develop an improved Disability Employment Services programme based on the findings of the Disability Employment Taskforce. The Department will be consulting further with key stakeholders, including you – the National Employment Services Association – as part of that process.

There are Other initiatives as well.

While the work on Disability Employment Services reform for the 2018 contract continues, the Government has asked the Department of Social Services to look at what actions we can take now, under the existing arrangements to improve the employment outcomes of people with disability.

In particular, I would like to highlight the recent release of the updated JobAccess Gateway on 1 July.

As you would be aware, JobAccess is the Australian Government’s free information and advice service for people with disability, employers, service providers and the community about all matters relating to disability employment.

JobAccess has existed since 2006, but we have now redeveloped the service to act as a gateway to employment services for people with disability. More people with disability, and employers, can now quickly source individually tailored information including:

  • the JobAccess website, advice line, and online inquiry form
  • administration of the Employment Assistance Fund
  • the National Disability Recruitment Coordinator
  • the Complaints Resolution and Referral Service; and
  • the National Disability Abuse and Neglect Hotline.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion.

Everyone here knows the value people with disability have to offer as employees.

We know that this is a two way street, offering benefits for both employees and employers.

Of course, we couldn’t do this life-changing work without your contribution – your time, your expertise and your invaluable experience.

I know that this conference will provide a lot more food for thought for us all as we continue to improve the opportunities for people with disability to access appropriate, engaging and fulfilling work.

I encourage you to make the most of your time here to learn, to forge new connections, and to even be inspired!

Thank you for inviting me to join you this morning.