Sitting in the Invercargill airport, I kept on wondering why people were giving me more strange looks than usual.

Then I realised it might be the bloody big bandage wrapped around my head.

The night before I had fallen over backwards and clipped the back of my head on a wall heater. Wall heaters are very common in Invercargill, I reflected as a cheerful Irish nurse stapled my scalp.

Jon, my colleague and friend, and I were in Invercargill to look at an alternative model of employing disabled people we could possibly replicate in hybrid Whangārei.


Employment is a biggie. Unless you inherit a big whack of dosh at a young age (and even then, there is no free lunch), it's one of the major components of a successful life. Employment is all about planning. Putting the hard yards in, whether that's going to uni and getting a sought-after degree or rising up through the ranks, tooth and nail. The latter is becoming rarer.

Disabled people are right at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to employment. Our glass ceiling is so low we can see our butts in the reflection.

A dodgy rung on the vocational ladder is discrimination. Lately we have heard a lot in the news about pay equality. Sectors which are primarily staffed and run by women are not reimbursed at the same rate as their equivalent man-powered cohorts. While I have said it before (and no doubt will say it again), disabled people are right at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to employment. Our glass ceiling is so low we can see our butts in the reflection.

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The unemployment rate of disabled people was double that of non-disabled people, according to the Department of Stats quarterly return in January 2017. I find that overly optimistic.

Successive governments have tried to turn this rather glib statistic around. Time for a scintillating Jonny history lesson — ta da… it's Disability Employment!

After World War II, returned injured veterans were put to work in factories and retrained to work on production lines. The Government took a pragmatic approach, training the vets who had lost their legs to be productive with their hands, and visa versa. At the time this was an acceptable way of ensuring the whole workforce was productive.

These work camps slowly morphed into what were called Sheltered Workshops — factories where disabled people did repetitive manual tasks such as making kiwifruit boxes.

Around 2001 the Ministry of Health produced a document called Pathways to Inclusion, a lofty document laying down the law proclaiming everyone had the right to paid employment. It was a precursor to a Labour repeal of the Disabled Persons Employment Promotions Act which (kind of ironically) was all about making it legal to pay disabled people less than the minimal wage.


The strategy didn't fully address the need for daily activity programmes or services that promote community participation. While many Sheltered Workshops were shut down to end exploitation and institutionalisation, what was going to replace the sense of community and value engendered by these places?

Isolation and fragmentation began to take hold.

Fast-forward to the present day. We in the disability sector are now waiting for the new Disability Strategy to be implemented. We are also waiting for a spectacularly nebulous Disability Action Plan for 2018 to 2020. We are told the Government's prioritisation areas for this will be employment, housing, disability data, accessible government information, education and seclusion and restraint. At present I think you could use the words "seclusion and restraint" to describe historical efforts to employ disabled people.

In the last Disability Action Plan, the key tasks were to encourage employers to feel more comfortable in employing disabled people and Government departments and agencies were to take a lead role. So how's that working out?

As a disabled person in employment, I have had a variety of jobs. One of my most challenging was as a house husband. I was the primary carer to our two daughters when they were preschool age. While Sally brought home the bacon, I would thrash around making sure Chyna and Somer were fed and watered and entertained, leaving a trail of devastation behind us.

Yes, Clarke and I are birds of a feather although I'm sure I never wore cardigan. Yes, being a caregiver is very hard work and I am looking forward to payback time as Father's Day rolls around and my daughters steel themselves in preparation for my high expectations.

Jonny Wilkinson is the CEO of Tiaho Trust — Disability A Matter of Perception, a Whangārei-based disability advocacy organisation