Promotional launch of the Employers' Disability Network

  • Tariana Turia
Disability Issues

I am honoured to be here at the invitation of Michael Barnett, Chief Executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce; and John Allen, Chair of the Employer’s Disability Network.

I want to particularly thank the Chamber for hosting tonight’s event; and all of the board members of the Employers Disability Network
who have walked alongside employers and members of the disability community in this journey to drive social change.

This is an extremely important occasion – a chance for us to formally recognise the Employers’ Disability Network. A collective of like thinking people.

The network is focused on action and leadership, and that is what tonight is all about.

It is a call to employers and businesses to take the lead and to drive change – and it is also, importantly, about providing a forum for you all to connect to.

The Employers Disability Work is testimony to the fact that innovation and lasting change are possible when employers and disabled people work together.  The Network is about creating job opportunities for disabled people, and better serving disabled customers.

It is great to see that partnership at work tonight.

Indeed it augurs well for a bright future ahead, not just for employers and disabled persons, but for families, and for communities.

Sometimes we only realise how much progress we’ve made when we look at where we’ve come from in getting to this point.

Recently I had occasion to read some information from a person with a vision impairment. He was describing the work opportunities that opened up for him as a school leaver in the 1970s.   This is what he said:

‘… I did some contract assembly work from time to time.

One of the contracts paid quite well, provided we worked flat out. Other contracts paid virtually nothing.

I recall one in particular which involved assembling electrical junction boxes. It took around an hour to assemble each one and the rate of pay was equivalent to about a dollar a day in today's terms.

Then there were the meat labels. This mindless job involved attaching and tying string to labels which would later be placed around the legs of unfortunate lambs destined for export …’

This was not an isolated case in the 1970s.

Literature of the time shows that service providers were quite proud of being able to offer an occupation for school leavers with disabilities – even if it was repetitive and often meaningless work.

As Minister for Disability Issues, I know that there has been a massive shift in thinking about disabled people and what they can do in the workplace and in daily life.

Today, it is almost inconceivable to most of us that society could consign disabled people to a certain type of work, regardless of individual strengths, abilities and interests.

Attitudes have changed and technology has removed many barriers which prevented disabled peoples from their right to achieve their full potential.

We have also realised that the economic and social cost of inaction is both unsustainable and unacceptable.

But we still have a way to go.

In my time as Minister, I have had the chance to meet and listen to many disabled New Zealanders.   I have met people with talent and skills who are making a great contribution to their workplaces and in the community at large.

I have heard what a profound difference an inclusive employer and a good job makes to their lives.  

In fact I can say that the annual Work and Life Awards hosted by the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust are always one of the ‘stand-out’ moments of my year.   There is something so awe-inspiring about seeing the various ways organisations have come together to create inclusive and supportive workplaces.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to announce that today, Cabinet, confirmed my membership on the Ministerial Group appointed to consider the recommendations of the Welfare Working Group. 

A particular priority for me will be in responding to the call from the Employment Disability Forum of “disabled people, disability organizations and employers being proactive in exploring options, finding solutions and developing collaboratively the way forward for disabled people in employment”.

Increased employment is one of the goals of the Disability Action Plan.   Work gives a person the chance to develop the things they can do, in a society which too often sees a disabled person and automatically thinks “can’t do”.

I am committed to making progress in changing that way of thinking – to achieve an enabling society which does not tolerate the negative attitudes and practices which further limit those who already face challenges.

As employers, you have a key role to play. When an employer steps up they make it possible for a disabled person to be part of their workforce, it really does transform lives.

As the website says, “It is not only the right thing to do, but the bright thing to do.”

New Zealand’s success- and indeed the success of every business - depends on our ability to make the most of the talent and productivity that is available to us in our workforce.

In fact disabled people are as productive and reliable as any employees. They also tend to have better attendance records, remain longer and have fewer injuries at work.

So there is a real need to understand how your business can build ‘disability confidence’ and reach the tangible benefits to be gained from doing so.

In other words, people are one of the key components to improved business performance. Tapping into the talent that exists in our large community of disabled people is both innovative and smart.

So is being responsive to disabled customers.

Research has shown that businesses that fail to make their products and services accessible to disabled people, or don’t build their expertise in welcoming disabled customers, risk missing out on a great deal of business.  I understand Minnie Baragwanath was here today talking about accessibility and having transport and accommodation is a start to helping people to move around.  

For those businesses and employers just starting on that journey, the Employers Disability Network website sets out practical steps to create a disability confident organisation.

I am proud to be here tonight, to recognise your leadership among employers and businesses, to promote the work you are doing, and most of all to celebrate the vision, the commitment, and the spirit of partnership this initiative represents.

I wish you all the best for the future.