Disability Employment Protest
Maria Scharnke talks about her experience of education and employment and what needs to change now.
Image description: A photo of Maria Scharnke, a young white woman with brown hair and glasses standing in front of a white background with her hands on her hips. Her head is tilted to one side, and she is wearing a t-shirt that says "behaviour is communication". There's a simple pendant around her neck, and she's written something on one of her hairy arms to remember it. There are some marks on her skin, from acne, freckles, scars, hair and stretch marks. Her hair is tied back, but a bit messy anyway. She is looking at the viewer and smiling knowingly.
Maria Scharnke is a proudly Autistic, multiply Disabled advocate who works (mostly through volunteering!) in disability policy and (Disabled) human rights. She has a passion for disability theory and is on the board of Women With Disabilities Australia. She can usually be found carefully regulating her sensory input and documenting societal ableism.
I don't have paid employment. I want paid employment. I certainly wouldn’t be eligible for the disability support pension(DSP), and nor do I want to be – I have no interest in earning below the living wage because the Federal government decided such. In Grade 12, I was one of around two students in my grade (out of a total of around sixty) who didn't have a job. I have applied for jobs perceived as specialist/expert-level (such as disability advocacy roles), and for jobs perceived as entry-level (such as stacking shelves in a supermarket).
There are far more jobs that I haven’t applied for because they are not accessible to me than jobs I have applied for and not heard back from.
Most jobs I'd be suited to (writing, etc)require tertiary qualifications I can't gain because tertiary institutions refuse to reasonably accommodate, or to admit me because my ATAR score was low(because of educational inaccessibility).
I was ping-ponged from terrible school to terrible school in my primary years, including two years at an autism-only“specialist” school (I fought for the legal right to name the parent company inOctober 2020 – Autism Queensland). At most of my primary schools, I excelled inmost aspects of the curriculum, but each day was a waking nightmare. I was kept heavily sedated because otherwise I wouldn’t agree to go. At the “specialist”school, there was no curriculum.
During secondary school, my grades gradually dropped from ‘straight A’ to ‘barely scraping by,’ as assessment tasks became more and more ambiguous and my executive function struggled more and more. I applied to the Queensland Curriculum Assessment Authority for equitable assessments, ones that would judge me against my peers fairly, rather than the deck stacked against me, but I was denied. I studied a subject with no teacher and no textbook for weeks on end, then finally obtained the textbooks for my class in an act of activism that meant when everybody else had theirs, I had to apologise on hands and knees to the head of curriculum before I could pick up mine.
When it came time for ATAR ranks, I qualified for around five of the around seven “adjustments” – a pitiful band-aid attempt at equity, they’ll bump you up by 2 out of 100 for various mitigating circumstances. I only got the paperwork for one of the five adjustments I had applied for.
When it came time for university applications, I knew exactly what course I wanted. I applied with my low ATAR(in the high 60’s) and with a glowing letter of recommendation from a former professor and a person that is recognised as an academic pioneer and world expert in my topic. I didn’t get in. The university didn’t process my letter of recommendation.
I settled for an online collaboration between two universities in a basic Bachelor of Arts program – and neither of the universities thought they had the responsibility to assist students with disabilities. To perhaps nobody’s surprise, I had none of the support I needed ,and I dropped out after doing brilliantly the first few weeks, but then hitting a mental health snag that had me hyperventilating every time I even thought about opening the website.
So, what are my skills? I'm a skilled public speaker and writer. I occasionally find gigs in disability consultancy throughQueenslanders with Disability Network’s Engage program. For about 10 months, I had ~5 hr/month with a Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO). I do a lot of volunteering for my community.
All I'd need to be in steady paid employment would be for job specifications to be switched around a bit – to have a chance taken on me, rather than requiring tertiary I can't gain; to be able to work from home; to not be instantly rejected because I don't lie and say I can do things I can't, even if other applicants might.
For a long time, I worried about keeping jobs I, by some miracle, was hired for because a teacher told me, when I spokeout against injustice, "This is why you'll be fired from your firstjob". This was because I told him it was inappropriate to speak coarsely
about another Disabled student to me. Well, I wasn't fired from my first job but I worked for about 60 hours and that was the entire job. Mr Roy* was closer than I like to admit. I certainly haven’t had another job since.
Right now, I'm an 'adult dependent'. I really don't want to be. I want to be able to earn, if not a living, at least food and bedsheets. I want to earn enough to start paying taxes because I love supporting my community. Doing all my work for free isn't indefinitely survivable, and being an ‘adult dependent’ has an age limit in Australia (formed i care, the cut-off age is 30. For some other services, it’s 25. Other funds were cut off the moment that I turned 18.
I put this in my NDIS goals. The NDIS didn't get back to me, and, frankly, it' snot the NDIS' problem, it's a societal one. I'm not a second-rate worker. I'm not a reduced-rate worker. No Disabled person is, despite what proponents ofAustralian Disability Enterprises might tell you – if we put in the work, if we do the job, we have a right to equal pay.
AustralianDisability Enterprises, the newspeak name for sheltered workshops, theoretically pay Disabled people to work for them.
Unfortunately, this ‘pay’ is far below the minimum wage, which is legal for reasons I am yet to comprehend as being anything but blatant discrimination on the basis of disability (which, normally, I’d want to take up against an employer with the Fair Work Commission(FWC). Who do you go to when it’s the FWC who sets your rate?). Sometimes, despite it not being supposed to happen, the people who ‘employ’ Disabled people in Australian Disability Enterprises also manage the employee’s care or housing.The effectively-nil rate of pay and forced dependence is a form of modern slavery (don’t just trust me, read Linda Steele’s work).
I likely couldn’t manage eight-hour days five days in a row, not because I couldn’t do the work itself, but because I couldn’t be ‘on’ for so long without resting. I’m known for doing an hour’s work in 20 minutes, and that should more than make up for being a part-time rather than full-time worker when it comes to benefit to an employer. So why doesn’t it?
I’d likely need to work from home; I cannot drive, navigating public transport is very difficult for me, and, oh yes, I haven’t forgotten there’s a pandemic on. In case we forget the meaning of the word, that’s “pan” meaning “everywhere,” and “demic” meaning “in the population” – a deadly disease sweeping around the world and killing discriminately. Discriminately my people, discriminately my community. And for some reason it’s ‘good for the economy’ to just let it mutate indefinitely into ever-more deadly and vaccine-resistant varieties. I’m not very good with numbers, but I do understand some logic. The ‘let it rip’ approach is not logic, and it is deadly and discriminatory illogic I refuse to participate in. I don’t know about you, but I have some serious issues with eugenics.
I may be suited for part-time work rather than for full-time work. I may be suited for working from home rather than from in an exterior space such as a shop or office cubicle. I am extremely good at that work I’m suited to.
I could talk, here, about recruitment processes, about the architectural modes of oppression, about the valuation and devaluation of labour and community service – it would be at quite some length, and I was hoping to do, but this article is already rather long, and I find myself struggling to shape the words around such a huge set of topics. I do not fault myself for this; I have more than exceeded my initial brief, as, indeed,I tend to. Please do bear in mind these factors in disability employment struggles, though.
If there’s nothing about, us without us, why do so-called “disability services” organisations (for example, large NDIS providers) not employ mostly Disabled people – or, indeed, often any Disabled people at all? If there are more job vacancies than unemployed workers, why do employers still get away with payingDisabled people below the minimum wage? And if there are more job vacancies than unemployed workers, why aren'tDisabled people who want to work being hired?