Last year one of my children was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. I have two boys.
He was just about to complete Year 12. He’d noticed for some years that his social interaction skills and the way he viewed the world were increasingly out of step with his peers and that he felt different.
Getting a diagnosis was a shock to both of us, but in time, became a relief for him, offering a much needed explanation for so many parts of his life’s journey.
Fortunately, it doesn’t mean he has trouble with his studies and I don’t expect he will strike difficulty in pursuing a university degree next year.
However, as a mother I fear for his employment prospects when he graduates because social interaction is such a big part of employability, regardless of success as a student.
The matter came strikingly to mind today because I’m conscious that we are in the middle of Mental Health Week, and I was struck that for the first time it’s a week that touches my life directly.
I’m not alone, of course, because a quick check on Google reveals that one in five Australians suffer from a mental illness either permanently or at some time in their lives. That’s more than four million Australians.
The other way it affects me directly is because the organisation I head up has undertaken recent research into the issue of disability employment and the picture is not a pretty one.
We surveyed 678 HR practitioners in a 2011 study on disability employment, with mental illness being one of a number of disabilities.
Nearly a quarter of respondents to the study whose organisations had not employed a person with a disability believe there is a workplace perception that such a person would not perform as well as a person without a disability, and that such a person would also be high risk and potentially expensive.
Another third of respondents were unsure about the perceptions in their organisation on those questions.
If those estimates of perceptions by HR professionals are reliable, that makes only around 40 per cent of employees positively disposed on the matter.
And of the 60 per cent who are negative or non-committal, the study reveals a number are CEOs, senior executives or line managers who put the issue in the too hard basket and would not appreciate an HR manager proposing a person with a disability for employment in the organisation, regardless of the person’s qualifications.
Not surprisingly, almost half of the study respondents believe those perceptions have a negative impact or are the main barrier preventing employment of people with a disability.
And some of the qualitative comments put mental illness in the bottom category because of what are seen as behavioural problems associated with that category of disability.
Our research, of course, was a study of perceptions rather than hard numbers of people being employed.
But those numbers are not a pretty picture either, with around 800,000 Australians registered in the labour market as having a physical or mental disability but not being able to find employment.
The number of job seekers drawing on welfare in that category was around 800,000 at the time when Peter Costello’s welfare to work budget was handed down in 2004, and it’s still around the same number in 2012.
Among that number are a great many Australians who are able, willing and qualified to join the workforce.
Many are supported in getting job-ready by government programs, but are unable to get their foot in the door for a job.
The constant refrain is that employers only see a disability, not knowledge, skills or attitude – so perception is a key issue.
That is not all the fault of employers, I should add.
The issue is a serious matter with respect to the Australian economy and social inclusion: the government knows that, business knows that, yet the issue is not out there as you might expect it to be so employers are often not aware of it and they are in large part not put under pressure to own it.
It is widely believed that having a job gives all of us a sense of dignity and self-respect, and Australians with a mental or physical disability are no different.
The former chairman of the Future Fund, David Murray, spoke on television last week about the urgency of reducing Australia’s welfare bill and fixing our lagging productivity problem.
He even suggested that failing to do so will send us on the track that ends in a Greek or Irish economic train wreck.
While that may be a bridge too far, it is plain that employing Australians with a mental or physical disability who are keen to work will deal with both of those issues.
Fewer Australians will draw on welfare and more Australians will be productive and pay taxes.
But it’s not happening. Why not?
Lyn Goodear is the interim chief executive officer of the Australian Human Resources Institute.