Minister flags more changes to disability employment review aimed at boosting ‘persistently low’ employment rate

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An overhaul of the federal government’s controversial Disability Employment Service (DES) could see people with disabilities given more power to rank their job providers.

The unemployment rate for disabled people is about double that of other working-age Australians, despite the national labor shortage and increased spending on DES.

The federal government spends more than $1 billion on the scheme each year, but participants have given mixed reviews about its effectiveness.

Under the program, providers receive performance payments from the federal government when participants meet various goals, such as being in the program for a certain number of weeks.

Providers are ranked using a star rating system based on whether they meet key performance indicators.

In February, the Disability Royal Commission examined the effectiveness of the DES program following witnesses previously proven that “participants were rarely placed in meaningful work”.

The commission heard evidence from a former DES participant who described an unpleasant experience with a barista program that lacked basic equipment.

In August, the government dumped the services of 52 DES providers following a planned performance review.

An ongoing review of the DES program has been extended by two years to the end of 2025 while the government develops a new specialist disability employment model to replace the current scheme.

Minister for Social Services Amanda Rishworth told 7.30 that she was keen to see changes that would give people using DES more say in the performance ranking of providers.

A woman wearing a green jacket and a white turtleneck with brown hair and glasses looks serious
Amanda Rishworth says unemployment for people with disabilities has not changed. (ABC News: Che Chorley)

“What I noticed is that participants who have experienced the service don’t really have a say or get to inform the evaluation process,” Ms Rishworth said.

“We need to drive improvements. We need to ensure that the service delivers high quality outcomes for people with disabilities.

“I don’t think overall it does right now.

“Ensuring that these services are assessed and assessed on a much wider basis, I think, will give a much better insight into how these services are performing.

“We’ve had a very stubborn level of unemployment for people living with disabilities. It hasn’t really changed for decades.”

Ms Rishworth indicated that the changes could be carried out before the end of the review period in 2025.

“There is the long-term reform process that needs to happen and that is why we have said we will extend the current contracts for two years,” she said.

“But that doesn’t mean the current contracts won’t be subject to a close look, and I’m certainly committed to short-term reforms as well.”

Of the 282,000 current DES participants, about 42 percent of them have a job and receive support.

Reports of DES providers ‘not understanding disability’

Disability advocate Samantha Connor said further consultation was necessary and welcome as part of the ongoing reform process.

A woman with red hair and glasses sitting outdoors.
Samantha Connor is president of People with a Disability Australia.(ABC News: Glyn Jones)

“For the amount of money that has been invested in DES, people have reports of poor outcomes in general, poor providers, people not getting any support, [and] providers who don’t understand disability,” she said.

“It’s really pleasing to hear that the government has decided it’s time to change that.”

Ms Connor said for some people with disabilities, who, like her, were particularly vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19, it was even harder to find work during the pandemic.

She said she had been unable to find suitable work during the pandemic and would like to see the review of disability services consider those who have to work remotely.

“COVID is something we have to consider,” she said.

“We need to look at how people can safely work from home, study from home and do things differently in a digital world.”

Participation rate ‘hasn’t changed in 28 years’

Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott has made improving employment outcomes for people living with a disability a key focus of his tenure.

Dylan Alcott gives the thumbs up at an awards ceremony where he was named 2022 Australian of the Year.
Dylan Alcott was named Australian of the Year in 2022 for his work as a disability advocate.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

He recently announced plans for a new online job platform aimed at improving the employment and recruitment process for people with disabilities, which will receive $6 million in federal funding.

“The participation rate in this country hasn’t changed in 28 years,” he said when launching The Field earlier this month.

“There are half a million people actively looking for work with a disability right now, and there is a labor shortage.”

Man wearing a black shirt and cap in a cart with a coffee machine behind him.
Before starting his own business, Kyal Fairbairn found it difficult to get the jobs he wanted. (ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)

Perth-based business owner Kyal Fairbairn, who has an intellectual disability, said discrimination was still a major barrier to employment.

Fairbairn runs his coffee van with the help of the support workers he employs through the NDIS.

“I started my own business because I wanted to be my own boss and show people that if you have a disability, you can pretty much do anything,” he said.

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