Employ for Ability

Response to Consultation paper: Shaping your new disability employment support program

Employ for Ability is a social purpose business setup to help people on the autism spectrum and other neurodivergent conditions to find a pathway to work. Employ for Ability was set up by Managing Director, David Smith in 2019.

In Australia 1 person in 44 (CDC, 2020) is on the autism spectrum and the unemployment rate is 34% (ABS 2018). Adults with an autism diagnosis are less likely to be employed than people with an intellectual disability, down syndrome or physical disability (NDIS 2018). This made no sense to me as people on the autism spectrum have an incredible amount to offer, have low rates of absenteeism, are more likely to work harder, smarter and quicker than their neurotypical peers (JP Morgan Chase 2016).

After completing the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership program in 2016, David resolved that he wanted to help improve the employment rate of autistic talent, he completed post graduate qualifications in Autism from Griffith university and decided to embark on this journey.

David left a corporate leadership role in the tech recruitment industry to build a business that would help reduce the unemployment rate of adults on the autism spectrum by focusing on their strengths and abilities, rather than their so called disabilities. The aim was to look at them holistically and provide support so they could succeed at work. LinkedIn article from 2019 talks about our beginning. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/start-employ-ability-pty-ltd-david-smith/.

“The sense of purpose I have experienced in placing people so far has been amazing. Seeing the joy in the faces of the neurodiverse workers, the transformations in their families and the realisation from employers that what they considered disability employment is actually giving them a competitive advantage has been profound.”

This is still true 3 years later and in fact, more so as we have now placed over 100 individuals and have grown to a team of 18 staff delivering a broader range of services to support people transition to work.

Our practical experience since 2019, is that more than 90% of the candidates we work with who have been registered with a DES provider had never obtained paid employment, under that system of support. Most had given up and not stayed registered as the experience was affecting their mental well being. Many other candidates had never registered with a DES provider and where not receiving any unemployment benefits. They had applied for mainstream roles and never received an offer, so had given up and stayed at home.

We have three streams of clients:
1. School Leavers Employment Support (SLES) who have completed year 12 and we support them with their NDIS funding to develop their skills, competence and ability to work in a role to gain confidence, learn about managing their conditions in a work environment with a tailored holistic support model around them so they can succeed. We currently have 30 people in our SLES program. In the first 12 months of piloting this program we had 10 candidates. 8 have gained permanent part time work and of those 8, 5 are completing tertiary vocational training courses and/or traineeships. The other 2 participants are undertaking volunteering and continuing self-development, learning to manage their significant disabilities in the current Covid world. Our current group of new SLES participants (the new 20) are undertaking self development courses to become job ready. Some are undertaking work experience with job coaches and 5 have obtained casual work in the recent weeks. This cohort looks like continuing the trend of 80% gaining meaningful work compared to other SLES providers who use it as a precursor to DES where they place less than 10% into meaningful work.
2. Clients over 21 with an NDIS plan who have not received any success with a DES provider. We provide a program tailored to them similar to our SLES program that provides holistic support to get them into work experience with a job coach/support worker and then into permanent or part time work. Since 2019 we have placed more than 100 people into work using this program at a success rate of 80%. Work has ranged from Public Service positions at the APS 1-5 level, entry level positions into technology firms, retail, hospitality, freight and logistics, administration, finance and trades.
3. Participants who do not have an NDIS plan and have been referred by DES providers or family members due to lack of progress in the current system. On a pro-bono basis we assist these clients and place them into roles, using the methodology of the group 2 clients above. DES providers then claim the current funding model they are entitled too when we find them a role and support them to keep the role.

The NIDS funding model has worked well for our participants and our company to provide a reliable funding model to help people gain employment. No two participants have the same needs due to their range of complex challenges, but with trained staff and reliable funding we are able to make the model work. As a guide, a person who has never worked will need funding to the same level as the SLES funding model as a minimum to support them over a 12 month period with many needing additional funding for specialised OT support. The funding we have utilised so far does not allow us to provide any financial incentive to an employer to hire a person with disability. The work we do with employers is generally unfunded. We need to partner with a DES to provide a wage incentive or funding for training.

Specialist Versus generalist

We came to this industry with clear focus that being a specialist provider for people on the autism spectrum and other neurodivergent conditions would provide us with the expertise to assist this cohort of people who had received poor outcomes from the current DES model. If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. Each person is unique and needs a different support program to help them reach their goals. Teaching them to be neurotypical does not work as evident by the current results for autism in DES. Interviews measure social and communications skills, areas that people on the autism spectrum do not have as strengths. Teaching people how to apply for mainstream roles via mainstream processes such as interviews is disabling and like asking a person in a wheel chair to go and climb stairs to get to work. Or asking a gay person to not be gay at work.
Our specialised approach seeks to understand the persons neurodivergent profile and comorbid conditions such as anxiety, ADHD, intellectual disability, Down Syndrome, learning or reading challenges. We then provide a tailored program of support to develop in them the confidence, work readiness and skills to handle difficult situations they will face in a neurotypical workplace. We focus on the following key areas through an autism lens:

1. Employment communication skills
2. Anxiety management skills
3. Executive functioning and time management skills
4. Safe use of public transport
5. Finance skills
6. Work experience
7. Working with a job coach and mentor
8. Self advocacy to be able to request reasonable adjustments
9. Adulting skills to live independently

The key aspects for helping a person on the autism spectrum to find and maintain suitable employments are as follows:

1. Trained, autism aware support workers and job coaches
2. Access to autism focused training to develop work ready skills ( not teaching them to be neurotypical)
3. Access to work experience opportunities so they can try different roles to find their strengths. They don’t know what they don’t know.
4. Job Coach/support workers who can take them and support them during work experience. Taking into account comorbidities such as anxiety. Staff need to be trained in how to handle different sensory challenges or behavioural challenges. Behaviour is communication.
5. Autism aware employers. Before placing a work experience person the employer needs to participate in autism awareness training
6. Manager training in how to manage a person on the autism spectrum
7. Support post placement which will be episodic depending on changes or circumstances. Support for both the manager and employee. Understanding that no support may be needed for a few months as both manager and employee learn how to work well with each other, but intense support may be needed if change occurs such as job role changes, new manager comes in, Covid restrictions mean work from home or return to work from work from home.

Supporting young adults post tertiary education
Young adults who have completed tertiary studies need the same levels of support that students leaving year 12 do. Offering a SLES style funding program for post tertiary students would give them the same ability to obtain meaningful work as a post year 12 student has. At present SLES is only offered to post year 12 upto age 21. The supports we provide post uni or TAFE students is the same model as SLES, but due to their NDIS funding being lower they get less support and take longer to gain employment or receive less support at work making the transition to full time or part work less successful. An element of the funding needs to be to provide training and support to the managers of hiring organisations.

Funding models and innovation

Specialised DES providers that have expertise in a range of disabilities should be funded using a model similar to NDIS where individuals are assessed based on need and appropriate levels of funding are made available based on the individuals needs. At present participants can choose from a limited range of generalist providers and have no visibility of what funding is provided to the DES provider. At present someone can have finding and keeping a job funding under NDIS and also be serviced by a DES provider.