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An open letter to Julia re Dignity
Wednesday 20 April 2011
An open letter to Julia re Dignity
Dear Prime Minister
I am so pleased you have rediscovered the “dignity of work”. I actually agree with you that it is important to help non-working people to work to their capacity – whatever that is. I think where we differ is on how to do that. Also, given the lack of detail and the abject failure of previous attempts at reform, I’m not convinced that your government has the knowledge or political will to do it either. So please allow me to offer you my ideas for what they are worth, as I believe I am amply qualified to offer advice in this area.
Firstly by training I am an Occupational Therapist with 25+ years experience in the workforce, so I have some knowledge, skills and experience in this area. Secondly I am a disabled person. I have had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for 20 years and despite my best efforts along with the pathetic non-efforts of the CES, DEN and JSA – I do work. I can work 15 hours per week on a sustainable basis. Attempts to extend this have not been sustainable. Thirdly, I have done additional training and recently completed my Masters in Counselling, which involved extra hours over four years. The impact has been a substantial worsening of my physical capacity and increased pain which is only now starting to abate some nine months later. I now also have a FEE-HELP debt I will probably never be able to repay. Fourthly – for the past nine years, I have worked with the disadvantaged community. I am presently providing mental health services under the Better Access to Mental Health program. Thankfully your government reversed its foolish plan which would have seen me once more unemployed. Hopefully you can see that I know what I am talking about here.
In planning a successful “dignity of work” program, there are many things you must consider. I know you have been told these things already. I’m just asking you to exchange populist rhetoric for listening to people who know the truth, because they live it every day.
For people with disabilities – the biggest problem is the unwillingness of employers to provide suitable, quality work which matches the disabled applicant’s abilities. Just ask the Productivity Commission. Quality part-time work is almost impossible to obtain. So people with disabilities are often faced with the prospect of low paid, low quality jobs that do not utilise their skills and productive capacity because employers think that people looking for part-time work are lazy, uncommitted or that their inability to be instantly available will somehow cripple the company. If they were employed to their capacity and well remunerated some could be independent of benefits, but most will never get this opportunity because of employer prejudice.
Many disabilities, like mine, along with musculoskeletal and mental health conditions require intermittent work – that is longer or more frequent rest breaks. Again, employees seeking these things are viewed negatively as lazy. Such opportunities are extremely rare. Asking for them at interview is a recipe for rejection. Attempting to negotiate them upon success is just as risky. I had a job offer withdrawn when I asked for a rearrangement of hours. That was with a Job Network Provider – the organisations skilled in “helping us”.
Regarding the long term unemployed – you are well aware of the literacy, numeracy and mental health issues. However your government seems to have little to offer beyond the usual literacy and numeracy programs that have already failed due to the failure to diagnose and treat unrecognised learning and mental health disorders. By the time these people hit the welfare system, they often have further problems with addictions which seem to travel hand in hand with these disorders.
People with mental health conditions are frequently undiagnosed or wrongly diagnosed and often symptoms of their conditions include a lack of insight and mistrust of the very people who could diagnose and help them. It is not shirking or non-compliance. It is a symptom, just like high blood sugar or blood pressure. Eighty percent of the people I work with report a history of childhood or adult trauma and abuse – often both. Even when they are undergoing treatment and have been diagnosed, their encounters with Centrelink and JSA are often traumatic. Foolish attempts at forcing compliance often re-traumatise them and are a barrier to therapists addressing their core problems. Inflexible policy aimed at enforcing compliance actually produces the opposite. Even when they can access suitable treatment (and BAMH has been a boon), program frameworks often limit the amount of treatment or time frame available, which again impacts most on those who are more disadvantaged and severely affected.
So please allow me the indulgence of making a few suggestions that might address these realities.
If you do this, you will have the beginnings of a compassionate, responsive welfare system that respects and develops the dignity of the disabled and disadvantaged. I thought that was what the Labor Party stood for?
I would be interested in meeting with you or a representative to discuss these measures. However given that you have already been told this by Anglicare, NCOSS, The Brotherhood of St Lawrence, St Vincent De Paul and many others, I’m frankly not optimistic.
I could even be part of your solution if you are willing to employ a disabled person for 15 hours per week who requires some flexibility. What I actually expect is that I and many others like me will be whipped, penalised and subjected to even worse poverty by a government that pretends to care about the dignity of work.
Please prove me wrong.
The article originally appeared here.
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