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Dyson - Hiring workers with ill health

15 March 2005

Hiring workers with ill health or an impairment

Hon Ruth Dyson - Address to Employers Summit 10.25am Level 3 Auditorium Bowen State Building Wellington


Good morning, and a very warm welcome to everyone here. Thank you for joining us at today’s Summit. Acknowledgements: Keay Bishop - Chairperson, ASENZ Sarah Davey - President, VASS Ruth Teasdale - Chief Executive, Workbridge Pam Crothall -Mainstream Programme Manager, State Services Commission Phillippa Reid - Chief Executive, EEO

As my colleague Steve Maharey has already outlined, and as you will be well aware, New Zealand’s economic and employment growth presents us with a new challenge: a shortage of people and skills in the labour market. Today’s summit is about exploring how people with impairments and ill health are potential workers for your business.

The employers’ perspective I am sure you’ll have questions about employing a person with ill health or an impairment. You might wonder about the possible extra costs to your business, or how your other staff and clients might feel, and how this might affect your workplace.

I encourage you to approach this question in the same way as you approach any potential job candidate. When you hire new staff, you want to get the best match of character, skills, knowledge, and experience for the job.

This means looking at abilities, not just at an impairment. It means focusing on what’s most important: does this person have the ability to get the job done, and to do it well? Does this person have the background, the skills, and the potential that my business needs to thrive?

With the right match of a person to a job, the right accommodations made in a workplace, and the ability to access the support you, as employers, need, you may find the impact is minimal – if there is any at all.

Today is your opportunity to find out more about the support that’s available for you to support someone else to work for you.

Facts about disabled people I’d like to share some facts with you about New Zealand’s disabled population.

One in five New Zealand adults has an impairment. That’s about 800,000 people.

Within the disabled population, there are similar proportions of gender, ethnicity, urban-rural distribution, and educational qualifications as in the non-disabled population.

Fifteen percent of all people in employment have some kind of impairment. That’s around one disabled person for every six people in the workplace. In other words, there’s a strong likelihood that we all know someone in our workplace who has an impairment, and employing someone with an impairment is not as radical or new as it might seem. It’s already happening, in businesses across the country.

Nearly 60% of disabled people are in some kind of employment. Half of these people are in full-time employment. And nearly one in six run their own business.

What do we mean by disability? Since taking office, our government has led a new approach to disability, in response to growing international trends and to what disabled New Zealanders have told us about their lives.

In 1999, our government made distinctive policy commitments on disability for the first time. New Zealand got its first Minister for Disability Issues, to provide a voice on disability at the Cabinet table.

I am proud to be that Minister, I see my role as one that promotes the full participation of disabled people as ordinary members of communities around New Zealand.

In 2000, we set about developing a framework to ensure that agencies consider disabled people before making decisions. This framework became the New Zealand Disability Strategy.

The key focus of the New Zealand Disability Strategy is that “disability” is not about being sick or having something wrong with you.

Some individuals have impairments, such as physical, sensory, intellectual, psychiatric, or other impairments.

Having an impairment itself does not cause a problem. The problem is that society creates barriers that prevent people from being able to do things that other people take for granted, like move about independently.

Interestingly, what we found when we consulted on the New Zealand Disability Strategy, was that the most significant barrier disabled people identified was society’s attitudes and behaviour. It’s an area we obviously can’t change by legislation. But you as employers are perfectly placed to help shift some of those attitudinal barriers.

Who are people in receipt of Sickness or Invalids benefits? While there are many disabled people already in the labour market, there are also around 100,000 New Zealanders currently receiving a Sickness or Invalids Benefit.

Their skills and experiences are varied and many are keen and willing to get a job. But some may need some support or assistance to do so.

Medical conditions range from things like asthma, diabetes, or a spinal injury, to a sensory impairment like poor vision or hearing, to a mental illness or an intellectual disability.

People with ill health or an impairment are seeking a wide variety of work. The jobs they’re interested in include labouring and related elementary service work; personal and protective service work; agricultural and fishery work; and office work. Some people who receive a Sickness or Invalids Benefit have much in common with long-term unemployed clients – both groups may have lost confidence in their employability, and will need support to redevelop their work habits and work skills.

Supporting clients into work Supporting Sickness and Invalids Benefit clients into work, and supporting the employers that hire them, is the main purpose of a new Service approach being developed by Work and Income. You’ll find out more about this new Service later today.

In a nutshell, the new Service focuses on the abilities of a person and supporting them into work, rather than focusing on their limitations.

That’s pretty much the same attitude we’re asking for from employers.

People with ill health or an impairment are saying they can work, and want to work. They might be able to work full-time or part-time, or only intermittently. Many have valuable skills and experience that will benefit their employers, and some may need support to get into work and do their job.

It’s worth remembering that every person, regardless of ability, needs support in the workplace.

Ergonomic chairs, safe vehicles and machinery, regular rest breaks, OSH-approved safety equipment, good lighting, and emergency access are all standard forms of support. As responsible employers, you provide these things – probably without thinking twice.

I encourage you to apply the same attitude to workers with ill health or an impairment. Some may not require the ‘standard’ support offered to other workers, and some may need something different.

Good lighting won’t mean anything to a blind employee, but a clear walkway and assistive computer software would.

A deaf employee might need a textphone to make phone calls, or access to a New Zealand Sign Language interpreter, but they would not need protection from loud noise.

A person with a mobility impairment would benefit from a ramp to a building, wide door-ways and space to manoeuvre around their workstation, but they would never use a stairway or need an ergonomic chair.

The Human Rights Act sets a “reasonable accommodation test”. The test states that if a person requires special services or facilities and it is not reasonable to provide these, then the employer need not provide them. For example, it may be unreasonable to ask a small business employer to relocate the office to enable wheelchair access.

However, an employer does need to attempt all reasonable practical measures to accommodate a disabled worker, starting from the recruitment process through to the workplace.

Government agencies can help employers provide some of the support that a disabled worker may need. We’ll talk about these things later today.

Often, the most important things are flexibility in work practices and a chance to get up to speed in the job.

Allowing for part-time work, for modified work hours, or for different ways of organising the work, goes a long way to opening up employment opportunities.

Some successes

Some of you may already have some of your own success stories, and it’s important that you share such experiences. I’d like to share a couple of stories about people who were receiving a Sickness and Invalids Benefit, and who have successfully entered the workforce.

A 30-year-old sole parent and Invalids beneficiary with an intellectual and learning disability, Daniel felt the odds were against him. His ambition was to become a joiner, and he had attempted some training to achieve this. Due to his learning disability, he found the training requirements very difficult.

Daniel’s Work and Income case manager put him in touch with a supported employment provider, who developed a tailored and personal service that fitted Daniel’s requirements. Eventually, the provider supported Daniel to apply for a position as an assistant laminator – an application that was successful.


My other story is about Ivy, a 54-year-old who received the Sickness Benefit for nearly three years due to a back injury. She had been a Registered Nurse. In September 2004, the Kaikohe Service Centre of Work and Income held a presentation for doctors about the new Service for Sickness and Invalids Benefit clients.

Following this presentation, a local health provider created a full-time position for a receptionist, and Ivy’s case manager referred her for the job. With help from a Job Plus Training subsidy, Ivy got the on-the-job training she needed, and is now highly successful in her position.

Both these workers had different pathways into employment, and needed to go through different stages. Ultimately, both just needed a chance.

Closing New Zealand has enjoyed exceptional employment and economic growth in recent years. More jobs are available than ever before, and more New Zealanders are out there working.

At the same time, we’ve seen a radical change in attitudes towards disabled people. From the very exclusive society of 30 years ago, we’re moving towards being an inclusive society, where people with ill health or disability can participate and contribute their skills, energy, and ambition. What we’re talking about today is the next step in our progress in both directions. We want to see the economy continue to grow, see business flourishing, and see all New Zealanders have the opportunity to contribute to that growth.

Our government is not asking employers for a favour. Nor are disabled people themselves asking for charity or a handout. What we are talking about today is a common sense approach to a labour market skills and people shortage – all you have to do is give it a go, and give a person with ill health or impairment the opportunity to work.

While we have made real changes in government services and policy that make a difference in disabled people’s lives, much more remains to be done.

But there is only so much that government can do. Society as a whole needs to make changes, most importantly in attitudes and thinking.

Our government’s goal is for all people to be supported to participate as they are able to on the basis of their needs and aspirations, rather than on a set of personal characteristics.

Our goal is for all New Zealanders to have equal opportunities for a good life, contributing to and being part of our society.

You, the employers, are vital to helping us achieve this goal. Good luck in your discussions today and I look forward to hearing your own success stories in the near future.

Thank you.


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