“The Future of Diversity & Inclusion: The Next Step in Solving the Disability Employment Crisis” by Anja Christoffersen
Over the last decade, the Australian Government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into increasing disability employment, and removing barriers. In 2012, 52.7% of people with disability were in the labour force. In 2022, the labour force participation rate for people with disability was 53%. We have created pathways, sponsored employment, awarded grant after grant. An increase of 0.3% in workforce participation suggests that these tactics can only engage people to an extent.
The bias against people with disability and community attitudes are a glaring barrier, however one the government cannot be responsible for on its own. However, the biggest barrier for people with disability who are unemployed is their ill health or disability itself (45%).
When there are frequent doctors appointments, health management and unexpected flare-ups, many workplaces cannot have enough accommodations, and there are not enough roles that can accommodate such few and sporadic hours. However, these people are an untapped resource that your organisation can learn from, if you have the ability to be flexible and embrace their perspectives.
The lived experience from their disabilities, or other life experiences, can enable them to bring perspectives and skills to the table that are diverse and dynamic, and enable your organisation and people to grow. There are many business benefits, and it benefits them when they can find meaningful ways to create impact from their lived experience and generate an income.
‘Professionalising lived experience’ is a term I began using to describe how lived experience can be used in diverse ways, as a career and expertise. Lived experience can bring deep insights, and is intricate, unique and takes a certain skill to be articulated, processed and used for change. It isn’t something that can be studied or learnt, or that you can go to work every day to gain experience in — but is gained in the most grueling and close-to-heart circumstances. For it to be professionalised, requires a shared understanding of its value, and it to be treated with the utmost respect; financially and humanly. It also requires knowing how expansive it can be — in the depths of the insights it can bring, hearts and minds it can impact, the roles it can play and business benefits too.
Lived experience work can be formalised in ‘peer work’ and other lived experience related roles that are usually manifest in casual, part time or full time employment. But what I propose is an additional model where lived experience is engaged as a skill set in itself, as contractors and consultants to enable people who may not be able to gain traditional employment due to illness or disability, to engage in meaningful paid work.
Four ways you can create space for people to professionalise their lived experience, through opportunities in your organisation are:
1. Professional Development Who are your staff learning from now, and what skills are they learning? Can these be learnt from someone with lived experience — who either represent a product or service user, or can storytell to build soft skills in communication, resilience, perspective and empathy. Inclusive leadership programs are becoming increasingly popular, however they are rarely delivered by people with lived experience.
2. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
From accessibility of recruitment, workplace environments (physical and psychological), to processes; people with lived experience can bring unique insights into how your organisation is experienced and perceived. Most organisations have a DEI strategy, however it is rarely written with and by the people it is for.
Co-design is where ‘end-users’, or those impacted by what you are creating are brought along the journey with you, and have an equal say in decision making. This process makes better products and services, and generates community buy in. It’s just good business. People with lived experience are often left out. Globally, people with disability control over $13 trillion in disposable income every year, yet report 75–80% of their customer experiences end in disappointment. Co-design can change that, and improve your business’ relationship with consumers, and ultimately sales.
Events are more than who is speaking at them, but also include who has access to the event — in terms of physical and digital accessibility, and equity. Are the perspectives being showcased at events new and diverse, and are they being paid a professional speaker rate? It can be more attractive to bring in a speaker who has a large following for your organisations’ benefit, however it is likely they are already able to monetise their lived experiences and access other opportunities for income due to their audience. Invest in finding more ‘unknown’ people with lived experiences to hear their perspectives.
The disability community is a community that has experienced great marginalisation, and one that any of us can become a part of at any time. Already the largest minority, with long COVID reported to be a ‘mass disability event’ by the media, it is time that people pay attention. The responsibility for diversity and inclusion of people with disabilities is one that must be shared. As individuals, and organisations, we all have a responsibility to create a better and more inclusive future for others, and ourselves.
Meet Our Contributor — Anja Christoffersen
Anja is a passionate disability advocate — empowering others who are facing adversity with the empathy and expertise she’s built through her lived experience with a rare ‘invisible’ disability from birth. As Founder of Champion Health Agency — a world-first ‘talent agency for lived experience’ taking an innovative approach to sustainable co-designed or consumer-led transformation in health, society and beyond — system and social change to create a more compassionate, respectful, equitable and accessible world is her driving force. Harnessing studies in health services management combined with the consumer (patient) perspective, Anja utilises this unique combination of skill sets and perspectives to work with hospital and health services, consumer bodies, government, not-for-profits and the private sector to achieve shared goals of improved patient experience, safety, quality and service delivery. With diverse experiences as a strong voice and leader, including as an international keynote speaker, published author of ‘Behind the Smile’, Youth Member of Queensland Youth Parliament in 2021 and Facilitator — she can support organisations of all sizes to achieve their objectives within the health, education, business and social sectors in a range of capacities. Credit: LinkedIn; Champion Health Agency & Vacterl.