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  • Writer's picturePeta

It's really hard to get a job when you have a disability

People with disabilities want to work. Yet society's process of gaining a job is far from inclusive. Peta discusses how to improve inclusion and diversity in all workplaces. Plus she relives a very challenging day that included a job interview.

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Episode transcript:

Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast, answering your questions about what it's like to live with a disability. My name is Peta and this week I had a question about employment. What is it like to try and get a job when you have a disability? The short answer is it's tough, bloody tough. If you'd like to ask me a question, just like the show did this week. You can ask me by Instagram at The I Can't Stand Podcast, by email at or find my website, The I Can't Stand OK, like every week. Let's get into it.

[00:00:59] I've got a question this week from Michelle.

Michelle [00:01:01] "Peta, I work in HR, how do you think I could best improve diversity in the workplace? Pass what is said in the blurb of a job ad and what are my experiences in trying to land my dream job?"

Peta [00:01:19] Well, Michelle probably is not a surprise to you, but getting a job with a disability is bloody hard. That's just from my perspective, I'm coming from a place of great privilege. I've got two degrees and I've had the ability to work for free. Without those two things, I don't know how I could have ever got ahead.

[00:01:48] The most Googled topic regarding disability in Australia is about disability employment. People with disabilities want to be employed. We want to contribute to society just like everyone else, but until the process becomes more equal and fair, I think this problem is here to stay.

[00:02:14] My disability is physical. I have cerebral palsy and yes, sometimes you can hear it in my speech. Yes, sometimes I can see it in my movement but day to day really all stops me doing, is walking and I have a wheelchair for that.

A photo of Peta in her wheelchair
A photo to prove I use a wheelchair ;)

[00:02:34] So on paper, my disability shouldn't matter. When I was 16 at school and we had a career day, I was mentally crossing things off my list going, OK, well, probably can't be a chef. That might be tricky. I can't really carry hot things. Lucky I don't really like cooking. What about a florist? No. I don't really have the dexterity to use secateurs all day. Plus, if I drop anything, those beautiful flowers will go to waste, no. Even when I was at uni, I knew I couldn't work retail. I don't have the ability to fold clothes very well. So that was out. I'd love to be an interior designer. I can't really get into other people's houses unless they have a ramp or no steps. Trickey.

[00:03:36] When I did find my niche, which was tourism, I started to apply for jobs and I was quite happy to see that at the bottom of some job ads mentioned something about diversity and inclusion in their workplace. So I thought, great, I don't mind if I'm ticking a box. Even if it's a little bit tokenistic, as long as I get in front of someone and I get to speak to them, they'll then realize I have value and they might hire me.

[00:04:09] Unfortunately, I came to realize that diversity didn't include disability in employers minds. All I came to collect was thank you, but no thank you letters. So I employed some HR experts to see how I could best improve my resume and application letters. All of them suggested I don't mention my disability. This doesn't sit well with me. I like to be honest, and having a disability for me isn't a negative, and I wasn't about to start to pretend to a potential employer that I was embarrassed by who I am. Seeing as my disability, such an issue here, I'll speak to an employment agency that specializes in disability. I'm highly qualified, I'm eager and I have a passion for my industry. Surely someone will employ me.

[00:05:17] I rang. I think 10 employment agencies here in Melbourne, and these were the range of reasons as to why it didn't succeed. Anything from,

Employment agency [00:05:31] "I'm sorry, Peta, you don't have an intellectual disability, we only serve people with intellectual disabilities."

Peta [00:05:39] That's fine. I totally understand. Next.

Employment agency [00:05:44] Yep, no problem. That's fine. You have a physical disability. Oh, no, we specialize in people with disabilities who also have mental health issues. No, I'm sorry if you have positive mental health, we can't help you.

Peta [00:06:04] All right, so what do I do, lie? No, I'm not going to pretend that I'm depressed to get a job. I ring another employment agency. This time, they asked me whether I finished high school. When I said not only did I finish high school, but I've written a thesis and completed a master's degree, they said,

Employment agency [00:06:29] I'm sorry, we can't help you. We only do low-level skilled employment.

Peta [00:06:36] They suggest another employment agency. This one was a debacle. Despite the employment agency specializing in disability, it had a step. It was inaccessible. So you can imagine how well that meeting went.

[00:06:57] Let's try a mainstream employer. I'm sorry, Peta, we can't help you. We don't know anything about disability. Of course, I would say to them,

[00:07:11] "But I understand my disability, I don't need you to understand my disability, I just need you to get me in front of people. I have the ability to advocate for myself and explain to a potential employer what my needs are."

[00:07:28] How does someone with a disability gain any experience if you're not given a go? I got experience because I was willing and able to work for free. I worked for free for my first organization, which was an accessible travel agent for 10 months. They were fantastic but no job was offered, so I moved on. So how did I get my first paying job?

Peta in a work uniform holding balloons at an expo
Peta at an expo working hard to prove she is worth getting paid for what she does

I would volunteer and did volunteer for over a year for free. I know for sure that they would not have been able to employ me if I didn't work for free, to begin with. When they finally did employ me, it wasn't full-time employment. So many people with disabilities are stuck in part-time employment. After a while, it became clear that I wasn't going to move up the corporate ladder. It was time for me to start looking for something else.

[00:08:44] One organization decided to give me a go. They offered me an interview. Before the job interview, I rang the organization, they knew I had a disability and I asked them what was the best way for me to access the building and what I should know before I got there.

[00:09:06] They explained that the building was completely accessible and I should be fine. Firstly, they didn't think about the fact that I would be driving there and there were no accessible car parks in the area. So I'm therefore panicking, trying to find a car park. I finally park, I get to the entrance, there's a step. Right. Oh, I see there's a little sign just there, I'll go around the back. I finally get into the building and of course, I'm faced with a flight of stairs. And next to it is one of those old fashioned open, a single person lifts. I get in this lift, I think this is fine. I'm going to take a few minutes.

A platform lift
This is a similar lift to the one I am talking about, a platform lift

[00:10:01] No, you need a key for these sort of lifts. So then I have to get out of the lift and find the site manager to get the key. I found the site manager, he got the key. I went up the lift, but then he left and didn't tell me that there were heavy glass doors at the top. So then I had to do a little wave and get the attention of strangers to open the glass door. There were more lifts and more glass doors. And I'm so flustered by the whole experience of getting into the building, I'm thinking before I even start the interview, can I do this job? If I have to do that every day to get into this building, I think I'll lose my mind.

[00:10:48] So now I have to go back to my actual job. I walk out of the building and I think, SHIT. Where is my car?

[00:10:59] My car had been towed. A quick Google, I realize it's in Collingwood. OK, that's, what, four kilometres away, that's fine, I can do this, so I walk to the tram stop and then it clicks and I think, oh yep, today was a tram strike, wasn't it?

[00:11:24] It was 38 degrees. I walked all the way to Collingwood to this dodgy, dodgy alley all by myself, and can I just say that the pathways in Collingwood aren't exactly accessible either. So I'm like dodging wheelie bins and all sorts of things. I get to the towing company. Crap! The towing company has a step and there's also no windows for me to wave and get someone's attention, so I then call the towing company and get their national head office, they have to then be redirected to Melbourne and then somebody comes out and gets me. Two hundred and forty-five dollars later, I had my car back and I drove to work.

[00:12:16] How do you improve diversity in the workplace? First of all. The interviewers have to understand what disability is. Coming in for an interview, I feel like I'm getting a 'no' before I even open my mouth. Education for the interviewers would be so important for them to understand that despite our disability, we still have value. We're intelligent and we can bring a different perspective that nobody else in the organization can bring. It would also be really helpful for an organization to list the accessibility and access. It Is difficult for anyone walking into an interview, let alone if you've got to worry about how you're going to get there. Also. If the workplace could view a person with a disability as an asset rather than the person that's going to solve all your diversity, inclusion and accessibility issues in the organization, unless that your specific role that you're employed for, please just let us do our job.

[00:13:34] All those things that were barriers that I faced had nothing to do with the job. And yet I still didn't get it because I truly believe that they saw me when I walked into the job interview and realized how inaccessible the building is.

[00:13:55] Look, I could be wrong, Michelle. I could just be awful at job interviews.

[00:14:03] But when you have a disability to get a job, you have to have the ability to read the job ad, write a resume, send in the resume, conduct yourself well in a phone interview, you have to be able to physically go to a job interview, the building has to be accessible, the organization has to have a culture that's flexible enough and willing to take somebody on with a disability. And may I just say, it doesn't cost an organization to make changes to their building. There are government grants for that.

[00:14:41] I know that it's 2021, but I truly believe that most people think that people with disabilities are incapable of holding down a job and won't do the role well. I work hard and many other people like me are exactly the same, but so many of us either get stuck in part-time employment where we don't get that promotion, we work for family or friends, or if we're lucky enough, we might have the ability to work for ourselves. I now work for myself because nobody gave me the opportunity to grow in the corporate world.

[00:15:26] Women have the glass ceiling, but I truly believe the people with a disability are dealing with a double glazed ceiling.

[00:15:40] Thanks so much for listening. I know that it was a bit of a different question this week, but I hope I gave you a bit of insight into how hard it is to get a job when you've got a disability. Can I remind you to subscribe! Help me make this my permanent career. I love to do it. I hope you can see how much I love to do it. This friend in your ears. We'll see you next week.


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