Employment solutions can be found close to home


Home office desk

The McClure review of Australia's welfare system is causing dread in the hearts of disability support recipients. With the final report due by October, we're terrified that all the talk of transitioning to work is simply code for not just a lower rate of payment – when the current rates are already too low – but a new, punitive regime that will require useless job searching.

Much of the controversy has centred around the episodic nature of some mental illnesses. Both review head Patrick McClure and Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews have been cavalier about the chances of people with illnesses like bipolar and severe depression being able to hold down a job in today’s challenging workplace.

As someone with a complex anxiety disorder, running a part-time microbusiness while on part-DSP, it seems that one obvious solution to help some people in this group has been overlooked to date: self-employment.

Rather than extend the overly targeted and punitive unemployment regime, wouldn't it make sense to support people with suitable job skills to run their own microbusinesses? This could also be an option for those with chronic physical illnesses like arthritis and MS.

The beauty of microbusiness is that the worker themselves has the say over how many clients they take on and what jobs they say no to – a perfect scenario for those with episodic illness.

It could be also be an option for older unemployed people with mental illness, as even perfectly fit older people face age discrimination, regardless of the range of skills they offer. The pension could retain its current form as financial back-up, with tapering payments that provide enough incentive for work.

Yet this area is unfairly neglected in the delivery of employment services for those with disabilities. A low percentage of people on disability are already self-employed, but the government and employment agencies could offer much more support.

The kinds of support needed are those that anyone who runs a microbusiness needs, but are too often out of reach if your business is never going to fund a lavish lifestyle of limos and six-star hotels. As someone whose income is limited, I’ve found many of these supports just too costly to fund on my own. Yet funding such supports would save the government money in the long run, and could help people like me to either go into business or expand our businesses.

Training is the most obvious need. Private niche training can be notoriously expensive and even short courses such as using social media to market your business could be too pricey for some people. Subsidies for professional development and membership of industry organisations would be a huge help.

Isolation is an issue for anyone who is self-employed, let alone someone with a chronic condition. Isolation can also eat into your confidence, which makes it harder to reach out to potential clients. The government could reduce isolation by creating a variety of supports that could bring microbusiness owners together to share business and skills in dynamic ways that could raise the profile of disabled workers.

It could fund online forums, and offline networking and social events where self-employed people could support each other’s businesses, for example accessing services like logo design or copywriting.

Some workers could get together in coalitions offering a suite of services, and government departments could be encouraged to use them.

To avoid a 'ghetto' mentality, subsidies could be available to attend industry events such as seminars and conferences. Government could also subsidise people with disabilities to work in coworking hubs, where everyone would benefit from the cross-pollination.

Another option would be for the government to create such a hub, housing microbusinesses headed by those with and without disabilities to work side by side.

Informal support groups that met up to share their challenges and triumphs could also be resourced.

Subsidised business mentoring and coaching is another way to enhance business skills. These kinds of relationships can be crucial to getting contacts in the business world and developing skills and self-confidence, which are all vital to gaining new clients and expanding a business.

Not all businesses would be office-orientated. Visual artists could gain skills in marketing and selling their work; others might want to set up a part-time window cleaning or dog walking business.

There are employment services that provide some support for self-employment, but they could be much more visible and better resourced. Job services for people with severe mental illness use a proven, intensive program called Individual Placement Support – this is a flexible program that can easily be adapted to help self-employed people.

Then there's NEIS, a training program for job seekers who want to start a business, which is open to DSP recipients. But NEIS has strict eligibility requirements, only 6,300 places in total each year, and could be more tailored to people with severe mental health issues.

Programs like these could be expanded, made more flexible and brought together under the umbrella of self-employment with an easy-to-find government portal for jobseekers with disabilities.

My belief is that throwing people like me, with chronic and sometimes unpredictable illnesses, onto a version of Newstart could actually harm our work chances by threatening our mental health. 

But with the right amount of genuine support, and carrots rather than sticks, some of us could work more hours, contribute to the community and enjoy a better quality of life by running or expanding our own businesses – while also saving the government money in the long run.

The way to achieve that is not through the dispiriting, inhumane system of unemployment payments but by offering dynamic and flexible support that gives us control over how and when we work.


Adrienne McGill is a Melbourne writer. Her poetry and prose have been published in a number of journals. She has chosen to use a pseudonym for this article.

Image by David Martin Hunt on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Attibution license.

Topic tags: Disability



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Existing comments

Brilliant! Yes! Not only for all of us with episodic chronic and disabling conditions and aging people, but also for single mums. Excellent suggestions, born of experience of the difficulties and costs of accessing skills experience and ongoing business structuring in a changing world, and, the problems of 'slowness' caused by chronicity which reduce productivity and reliability. Maybe many could be recycled into social enterprise interlocking micro-businesses? Can this article influence the dreaded Report somehow, Eureka Street, please?

Carol | 16 September 2014  

Brilliant ideas, thank you, Adrienne. This model could also be used for people who are transitioning to retirement.

Lorna | 16 September 2014  

Some great ideas from Adrienne on this topic. People living with mental illness need understanding, friendship and support in moving into satisfying employment. For anyone starting their own business there are many pitfalls and this is particularly so for those suffering mental health issues. A more realistic number of places in the NEIS program would help. Although economic factors are important, more important still are the increases in self-esteem and self-determination.

Pam | 16 September 2014  

Excellent article, Adrienne. While you have addressed those with illness and the elderly in the main, your view raises the question as to why this same approach cannot be used for the young, healthy unemployed. Perhaps it is the will to work that is missing in this latter group, raised on the "government owes me a living" mentality. Perhaps getting rid of that mentality is what the current government means by encouraging the un-employed to become responsible by making it difficult to depend entirely on welfare when there are many self-employed, unskilled jobs to be had.

john frawley | 16 September 2014  

This is the most positive thing I haver read in quite a while. Perhaps business could partner people with a need to work from home or in a flexible time frame. The government could support this just as it supports apprenticeships and the like. Thank you Adrienne for setting us thinking. Lets Get the word out.

Paul | 16 September 2014  

Great article, full of helpful ideas. I just hope someone in government takes note.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 16 September 2014  

I warmly commend the spirit of this article. I would only add that one of the biggest obstacles to self-employment is the crackdown on the distribution of ABNs that occurred during the Rudd/Gillard governments - a cynical move by union heavies to regain control over employees. The Abbott government must address this issue urgently, and thereby make it easier for start-up small businesses to come on stream.

HH | 16 September 2014  

Agree with all the above comments. Hands IN Academy is a not for profit organisation in Canberra who works with a basic training course in hospitality, then connects graduates to opportunities for general hospitality sales, leading individuals to self employment with full self determination on size of sales, regulatory of services and there is ongoing mentoring for full graduates who move on to self employment. Although a new organisation we have had significant interest from potential students, it will be interesting to see if employment agencies and government departments come on board and assist with fee for service payments.

Tammy Britt | 16 September 2014  

Thank you for opening a window. Pray that the government will listen. While it would help many people with disabilities, unfortunately there seems to be little chance it will help those with significant intellectual impairment. They are always going to rely on being supported.

Frank S | 16 September 2014  

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