Despite being a skilled hairstylist, Caitlin Sheehan struggled to find a job that didn’t make her unhappy every day.
She wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until she was 20, and although life has been “much easier” since then, for 18 months she struggled to find work.
Last week National Party leader Christopher Luxon confirmed that beneficiaries of jobseekers with a disability or medical condition could face penalties as part of the national plan to withdraw young people on social assistance.
The policy pledge has drawn criticism from advocates, who have hit back at ableist rhetoric and notions of laziness attributed to those forced onto Jobseeker’s Allowance. And now, some community members are speaking out in hopes of changing the narrative.
* Wellington restaurant which refused to serve a man with a disabled dog apologizes
* Disabled woman gets job after Covid-19 prompts increase in work-from-home option
* Launch of a job search tool for people with disabilities in a context of “jobs crisis”
Sheehan, 22, found the hairdressing industry ‘not very supportive’ and other previous employers unresponsive to her needs.
“With ADHD, the worst thing I deal with is time blindness. My body clock doesn’t work the same way…so she was constantly being scolded and in stressful situations,” Sheehan said.
“I wanted a job that I was going to do long term and not wake up and feel miserable.”
Sheehan is one of over 700 people with disabilities supported by Workbridge – a disability owned and run organization that helps people with disabilities find employment.
Three months after working with the organization, she had her first interview with Beam Mobility and was offered a job fixing e-bikes.
“It’s the first job I’ve been in for two months and I always wake up excited enough to go to work.”
The work was hands-on and offered something different every day.
Sheehan said she enjoyed telling people about her diagnosis when applying for jobs, but previous experiences had caused her to lose confidence.
Workbridge, which celebrated its 90th birthday last week, has been an advocate for people with a wide range of disabilities and ages.
It helped Sheehan present her ADHD in a positive light, rather than focusing on what she would struggle with, she said.
“The last job I had, I lasted six shifts before I quit and it’s the only job – knock on wood – that I will ever quit.”
Last year, nearly one in 10 employed people with disabilities said they felt they had a ‘high’ or ‘almost certain’ chance of losing their job or business in the coming year, according to NZ stats.
Workbridge chief executive Jonathan Mosen said there wasn’t much public education for employers who often wanted to avoid employing someone with a disability.
While over one million people in Aotearoa are estimated to have some form of long-lasting impairment, only 42.5% of disabled people aged 15-64 were employed in the June quarter of 2021. was compared to 78.9% of non-disabled people in the same age group, according to Stats NZ.
The median hourly income from wages and salaries for people with disabilities was $25.22, compared to $27.81 for people without disabilities.
“People think employing someone with a disability is a health and safety risk or they think people aren’t as productive… We have to confront those ideas,” Mosen said.
“It’s not the big scary risk that people think it is.”
The biggest barrier faced by the disability community was “attitude” and having had her own experience of being totally blind, Mosen said people were unaware of other ways that disabled people could work. In the meantime, funds were also available for more expensive technological assistance.
Whanganui resident Emily Mason faced hurdles in finding a job after sustaining an ankle injury, breaking both tibia and fibula, around 14 years ago.
The 52-year-old previously worked for the Treasury as a systems accountant, but her injury left her on masses of painkillers from the day of her injury, until she left.
“I could not any more.”
Employers told her she had no ambition and by the time she started receiving support from Workbridge, “I was broken,” she said.
Mason struggled to find a part-time job until Workbridge advocated for a full-time position on the then District Health Board to be split into two roles.
She said she felt “free to do my mahi” at a workplace that supported flexible working hours, allowing her to “work within my disability.”
Being given her job was “so freeing,” she said.
Mason currently works as a trustee for Kai Hub and although she had hoped to start a new role with Health New Zealand, she had struggled to secure financial support from Work and Income in the meantime. Support for her injury, including a wheelchair, cane, handrails and pathways in her garden, had been paid for herself.
For Grzegorz Smuga, the journey to a new job was continuous.
Since a job restructuring led to his dismissal in October 2019, he had applied for at least 40 jobs and been selected for around four in-person interviews, but had never heard from him.
Not a single call had been made to his referees and even after asking for comment on jobs where he had failed, Smuga said there had been no response.
In 2013, Smuga was diagnosed with a rare genetic eye disease – retinitis pigmentosa – and although his extensive vision had not changed, his peripheral vision was gone, rendering him unable to drive.
Intersectionality was a “big problem,” faced by people with disabilities, including gender, age, ethnicity, Mosen said.
“People can be disadvantaged in so many ways, that can make it even harder.”
The 63-year-old spent nearly 40 years working for removals company Allied Pickfords, where he held various management roles including project manager and customer service manager.
He tells how he flew across the country to save a major construction project, just three days before it was opened by former Prime Minister John Key.
Working 14 hour days, Smuga said the building was complete with just four hours to spare when Key arrived to cut the ribbon.
He was given the project because of his long experience and expertise in the field and he often dealt directly with clients – something many were not asked to do.
“My eye disease is nothing compared to my expertise… I just need to be able to prove myself,” he said.
“All I want is chances, chances to talk to people.”
Smuga said he hoped sharing his story would help others get their skills recognized, and hoped it would stop potential employers from “assuming that people with any type of disability aren’t helpful.”
The labor shortage market has “opened doors in some ways” for people with disabilities, with some employers approaching Workbridge for potential employees, Mosen said.
“There’s a lot of education to be done.”