Negative events, positive outcomes: improving labour for outcomes via tertiary study for individuals with disability and chronic illiness.

Author:Werth, Shalene


The economic appraisal often displayed by organisations in the assessment of their staff, at times crosses ethical and legal boundaries and evaluates personal characteristics of workers which are not relevant to their work--such as a disability. Workers report problems in the workplace which have led them to decide to complete a tertiary degree in order to improve their skills and increase their labour market power. They hope this might result in labour market outcomes such as improved job satisfaction, job security job quality career opportunities and increased access to flexibility to allow for their circumstances of disability. The decision process undertaken by workers with disability can be a fraught one and might require considerable motivation and commitment to follow through to the end. The students in this project are committed participants who followed this course of action to achieve improved labour market outcomes.

  1. Introduction

    Disadvantage experienced by disabled workers is a complex and, at times, a socially difficult issue. Understanding of a colleague's disability cannot be taken for granted by individuals who attempt to balance the circumstances of their disability with employment. They are in a position where their personal characteristics may be negatively judged by peers and supervisors, despite their professional abilities. Explanations about variability of symptoms can result in a loss of professional credibility. As employees a re assessed according to their knowledge, skills, and abilities when selected for a position, and their performance is reviewed regularly, they are, in more subtle ways, under scrutiny to evaluate their continuing conformity with expected norms at work. The ways in which organisations evaluate their staff, at times, may cross ethical and legal boundaries where they seek to assess personal characteristics which are not relevant to the employees' work.

    The number of individuals in the labour force with disability is significant. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2009) data show that 18.5 per cent of the population have a disability. Only 54.3 per cent of those with a disability--who are aged between 15 and 64--participate in the labour market (Council of Australian Governments 2011). This group of people encounter more barriers to workforce participation than others with similar characteristics (Nelms and Tsingas 2010). The disadvantage experienced by those with disability is evident from these statistics, and that more needs to be understood about their labour market participation is also clear. This article considers this through looking at the experiences of students with disability. Some had been in the labour market and were studying to improve their labour market power; other students with no labour market experience also participated in the study. Their study-related decisions were linked to accessing work which, ultimately, would accommodate their disability. There are other reasons for carrying out research in this field; compliance with recommendations from the World Report on Disability includes recommendations for academic institutions including, '[to] conduct research on the lives of persons with disabilities and on disabling barriers ...' (World Health Organisation 2011, p. 22). This article provides a unique perspective on the lives of people with disability by examining the experiences and expectations of students regarding the labour market.

    This study examines the experiences of students with disability in a regional university. The data show that most participants were studying to improve their labour market outcomes to facilitate their entry or re-entry to the workforce. The research examines the disclosure decision-process and motivations for undertaking study; it also observes how developing human and social capital improves students' expected outcomes at their workplace.

  2. Literature

    The understanding of disability in society has been contested throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1950s, the Medical Model dominated social attitudes and policy. This model couched 'disability as a feature of the person, directly caused by the disease, trauma or other health condition' (World Health Organisation 2002, p. 8). The Social Model of Disability came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s, and was advanced by the Disability Rights Movement. The Social Model viewed 'disability as a socially created problem and not at all an attribute of an individual' (World Health Organisation 2002, p. 9). The World Health Organisation (WHO) has since acknowledged that:

    neither model is adequate, although both are partially valid. Disability is a complex phenomena [sic] that is both a problem at the level of a person's body, and a complex and primarily social phenomena [sic]. Disability is always an interaction between features of the person and features of the overall context in which the person lives, but some aspects of disability are almost entirely internal to the person, while another aspect is almost entirely external ... [A] more useful model of disability might be called the Biopsychosocial Model. ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health)is based on an integration of medical and social (World Health Organisation 2002, p. 9). The Biopsychosocial Model regards disability as the 'dysfunctioning at one or more of these ... levels: impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions' (World Health Organisation 2002, p. 10). Impairments are defined as 'problems in body function or structure such as a significant deviation or loss' (World Health Organisation 2002, p. 10). Therefore, this article uses the term 'impairments' where relevant. In order to provide additional meaning to a context, the term 'illness or chronic illness' is used.

    Australian legislation has been enacted to protect the rights of disabled people. Australia is also a member of the collaborating network supporting ICE Specific legislation includes the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) and the Fair Work Act 2009 (FWA). The National Disability Strategy vision aims for 'an inclusive Australian society that enables people with disability to fulfil their potential as equal citizens'(Council of Australian Governments 2011, p. 22). The Australian Human Rights Framework

    recognises that all Australians are responsible for respecting and protecting human rights and ensuring that our commitment to a 'fair go' becomes a reality for all Australians (Council of Australian Governments 2011, p. 36). The spirit of the law is that in any sphere, the rights of those with disability need to be protected. This is reflected in the legislation. The DDA 'makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person because of their disability' (Australian Human Rights Commission 2004, p. 1).

    Disability is defined by the Act as the:

    (a) total or partial loss of the person's bodily or mental functions; or

    (b) total or partial loss of a part of the body; or

    (c) the presence in the body of organisms causing disease or illness; or

    (d) the presence in the body of organisms capable of causing disease or illness; or

    (e) the malfunction, malformation, or disfigurement of a part of the person's body; or

    (f) a disorder or malfunction that results in the person learning differently from a person without the disorder or malfunction; or

    (g) a disorder, illness, or disease that affects a person's thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgment, or that results in disturbed behaviour.

    And it includes a disability that:

    (a) presently exists; or

    (b) previously existed but no longer exists; or

    (c) may exist in the future (including because of a genetic predisposition to that disability); or

    (d) is imputed to a person.

    To avoid doubt, a disability that is otherwise covered by this definition includes behaviour that is a symptom or manifestation of the disability (Disability Discrimination Act 1992, Part 1, s. 4).

    Provided that impairment does not harm a person's ability to perform the inherent requirements of a position, then they are entitled to an equal chance when competing for that position (Australian Human Rights Commission 2004). The Australian Human Rights Commission also notes that 'if a person with a disability is the best person for the job then the employer must make workplace changes or workplace adjustments if that person needs them to perform the essential activities of the job' (Australian Human Rights Commission 2004, p. 2). The Productivity Commission, in relation to DDA, stated that,

    its effectiveness has been patchy and there is still a long way to go. Furthermore the nature of the challenge facing the DDA is changing as the focus shifts from addressing physical barriers to attitudinal barriers. The Commission is especially concerned about discrimination in employment (Productivity Commission 2004, p. XLVII). The Problems with Disability and Work

    Workers who have a visible disability may not be able to appear 'normal' to colleagues in their workplace. Others may have disability which is less visible and may have more choice regarding disclosure; both groups face difficulties in the workplace (Vickers 1997). Accessing understanding and accommodations may be difficult where social expectations are at odds with the lived reality of a disability.

    Where a disability is not obvious to colleagues, workers have a choice about disclosure until medical treatments or other circumstances dictate that disclosure is required (Myers 2004). The Model of Disclosure (Figure 1) shows a range of risks associated with disclosure and ultimately the disclosure decision (Werth 2010a). Once a worker has disclosed, they will then be subjected to the attitudes of others around them (Werth 2010a). They may be expected to conform to work or social norms which tend not to accommodate disability. The problems encountered by these employees in the...

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