Seeking Employment Post-SCI

14 June, 2016

Maree Ireland from Field interviews Raelene West, research assistant at RMIT University, about her personal experiences and the challenges that people with disabilities can face in seeking employment. Raelene is also part of the Professionals with SCI Network Group (PROwSCI). 

Tell me about your experiences in gaining employment?

My experiences have been quite varied. Most of the employment I’ve had is within the academic field, which is where I worked before my injury. Getting the actual position though is always a challenge. I think for people living with a disability just the pool of jobs that are available are reduced. You know, I couldn’t go and get a job stacking shelves, or working in a bar or café making coffee. There are just less jobs that I can physically do, so it is a matter of finding a job and getting trained up into a role that I can fulfill.

Although, having said that, the amount of academic work around is fairly limited. For me, it was more a matter of finding a team that I could get to know and work well with - there was a lot of networking involved. I think the jobs came about more from networking, rather than just applying for a job online to somewhere that I didn’t know the people or organisation. I also went to conferences and was on various different committees, trying to get to know people in the same area of research that I was doing, and through that was how employment opportunities arose.

Do you think there have been improvements or has it become any easier for people with disabilities to gain employment?

Good question! I think it is just tough to get employment anyway - even for the average person. But having said that, I do think it is gradually getting easier for people living with disabilities. There is much more awareness in the community now. There is a bit more acknowledgment of the capacity that people with disabilities have, and that they can complete the work with technology or in their own adapted ways. People are also becoming a bit more aware and understanding about flexible hours, the use of technology, and the differing work styles and strategies that people with disabilities utilise.

What do you think are the major barriers that still exist?

Certainly physical barriers would be the first one, and I don’t say that lightly. It must be recognised, if you can’t physically get into a workplace then you can’t work there. If the building is upstairs or if there are two steps at the front entrance and you can’t get in then you can’t work there. As blunt as it may sound, it is the main barrier. You would think that things like this would have been dealt through legislation 30 or 40 years ago so that employers have a legal obligation to provide level-entry access, like in the USA where it’s mandatory; however Australia is still working on this. Ironically, I went for a job at a disability advocacy organisation, only to find out at the interview stage that their offices were actually upstairs and I couldn’t even do the interview in their offices! You would think a disability advocacy organisation would be a bit more switched on.

Access within the workplace is another major physical barrier, whether the work environment is going to suit your needs; whether they have bathrooms, access to the lunchroom, and even being able to meet with your colleagues if their offices are upstairs. This is an experience I have had where I couldn’t meet the other half of the organisation because they were all working upstairs! They always had to come down to me, which was a little bit annoying and also patronising for me as someone with a disability.

Additionally, the attitudinal barrier of actually taking on someone with a disability and not being willing to see the advantages they could bring to the organisation is another major barrier. I think this is particularly true in the area of small business. Government and big organisations all have disability action plans, they encourage people with disabilities to take on positions and they actively encourage them to be a part of the organisation. However, small businesses are still lacking. They are just so profit-bound and they have this mentality that ‘we are here to make money, we are in a competitive environment, and we haven’t got time to be training someone with a disability and giving them extra support’. This is really not true because any new worker, when they first start, is going to need training and support until they are familiar with the role. I just think they are a bit nervous about employing somebody with a disability and aren’t willing to expand their thinking and be diverse enough to take on someone with a disability.

Can you expand on the positives of diversity within the workplace?

Yes, I think people with disabilities have a lot to offer in the workplace. They bring a different perspective, through different and often challenging life experiences. They may have experienced discrimination or disadvantage and from that they have very likely had to do quite a bit of problem solving bringing broad thinking capacity into a role.

In your experience, were the attitudes of your employers and colleagues positive or negative?

In my experience, the attitudes have generally been positive, from both employers and employees. I think most people can’t do enough to try and help you once you are actually in a role. The employers I’ve dealt with have been very good in doing a review and audit of my work-station to make sure I can easily access the area; my computer is set-up, whether I needed a track ball and that overall, everything would run smoothly. People have been friendly and I haven’t experienced any discrimination or putdowns and I have never been excluded from anything.

However, there have been one or two situations which I spoke about earlier, where half of the office space was upstairs; this was basically discriminatory and exclusionary.  What was disappointing with that particular issue was that the organisation was not willing to consult a third party and we ended up in the Equal Opportunity Commission; an avoidable outcome. They basically said ‘we are a small business and we don’t have the capacity for that sort of reasonable adjustment’. That was disappointing but I wouldn’t say that is the general attitude.

Most people with a disability want to work. Have you got any advice for people with disabilities on how to overcome employment barriers?

I definitely agree with you! I think most people living with a disability want to work. There are just so many advantages of working in society. It is the way that we build up social networks, make friends and meet people. It gives you that feeling that you are contributing to something and that at the end of the day, you have worked hard. There is also a lot of psychological stuff involved in being part of a team and working towards and meeting goals - it reduces isolation in the community.

It isn’t always just about money, too, you need to value and be valued for the work that you are doing. The DSP (Disability Support Pension) is a controversial issue. People view the DSP as a safety net and they may be reluctant to move off that, but the government is offering a lot of incentives to try and allow people to work at least part-time and still maintain the DSP.  I think that is the ideal situation, so people lose that fear, and say yes I can still do this or I can get into work.

A lot of it is personal motivation as well, getting out there and building the networks. You have to push to get a job; jobs just don’t land at your feet! You have to be motivated, meet with people, look through all the different applications and advertisements; and that is hard work, but people with a disability are used to hard work and they are used to meeting challenges.


Raelene West lives with C5 Spinal Cord Injury. She is currently employed as a research assistant at RMIT University. She has also been involved in various areas of disability advocacy as well as many disability services committees. She lives independently with the support of attendant carers, and enjoys travel, art, film, sport and good coffee and cafes.

Tags: Blog, Career, employment, study