Last fortnight, New Zealander Robert Martin took up his position in Geneva as Spokesperson for Disabled People on the United Nations Advisory Committee to the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
He created history as the first person with a learning disability to be a part of a United Nations Advisory Committee.
Robert is just one example of the many important ways people with disabilities are capable of contributing to our society.
Barriers to employment
About 75% of people with disabilities want work, and yet are unable to find anything suitable. They face significant barriers when attempting to get a job.
These barriers are not just a lack of ramps, disabled parking, or accessible bathrooms – although these can be a problem as well. One of the greatest barriers people with disabilities face is the perception of potential employers.
When considering whether to employ someone with a disability, no matter their qualifications, employers are often fearful of the costs involved.
Costs such as required specialist equipment, adjustments to the premises, and that the productivity of an employee with a disability might be lower than the productivity of someone without a disability.
In most cases, this feared cost is by no means the reality. Employees with a disability have in fact been proven to bring many benefits to business. These include; a higher safety rating, better employee customer relations, and an ability to be creative problem-solvers. Moreover, costs for adjusting workplaces to become more accessible and buying specialist equipment are often a one-off, and there is generally government funding available to help with the set-up costs.
Of course, this does not mean that employing people with disabilities will always be straightforward. The biggest changes employers might be required to make is an increase in flexibility in the processes and structure of the workplace.
Employers must understand that a one-size-fits-all approach is not generally possible, and the support needed for a person confined to a wheelchair can look quite different to the support required by someone with a learning disability.
Despite these challenges, if employers are prepared to be a little more creative and flexible in both their hiring and business processes they will enable an important group of the population to participate and contribute to society in ways that have often been denied.
Recent conversations with people with learning disabilities have convinced me of the importance of work – not just as a means to an income, but because it gave them a sense of purpose, that they were truly participating in the community they lived in. These contributions cannot be ignored.
People with disabilities, like Robert Martin, clearly have plenty to offer. In altering our perceptions and ensuring that even these normally straightforward contributions are possible, perhaps those of us without disabilities will be reminded of the power even a seemingly small contribution can have for all of us.
Danielle van Dalen is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.