Enabling opportunity through meaningful work.
For those with an intellectual disability, jobs opportunities are limited. Only 32% are part of the workforce, and many of those work in ‘sheltered workshops’ – segregated workspaces – doing menial and repetitive work with almost no inclusion in the wider community. These workshops have recently been in the spotlight at the Disability Royal Commission for paying wages as low as $2.27 an hour.
With almost 3% of Australians living with an intellectual disability, providing a better way forward is vital.
A paper published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation has investigated a group of people who are attempting a very different path to success. The researchers interviewed a small group of people with intellectual disabilities who have taken the plunge and started their own businesses – called microenterprises – and the results so far have been incredibly encouraging.
“Historically, families have been doing this themselves for years,” says Helen Neale, the mum of one of the microenterprise owners. “Families would often accommodate someone in their family in a family business.”
Microenterprise is different from a traditional job in a couple of ways. In traditional work, people compete for a job by matching skill sets they already have. In a customised microenterprise, the job is crafted around the person’s hobbies, interests and skills. Participants can use part of their NDIS funding to support the microenterprise, including hiring a personal assistant with business skills in a relevant area.
The researchers conducted interviews with seven intellectually disabled business owners, as well as personal assistants, family members, customers and other stakeholders to get a full picture on how these microenterprises are working, and anything that might be causing difficulties. The businesses were diverse, from gardening and T-shirt design, to selling home-grown produce or home-made dried fruit, and some had been remarkably successful. One 53-year-old woman called Rose had run her own flower-arranging business for eight years.
“Some of them, once they’re established, they’re running [the businesses] for quite a long time,” says Flinders University social scientist Claire Hutchinson. “If it keeps going well, some of those people can keep working in their own business for the rest of their working lives.”
Tom Neale is one of those success stories. When he left school five years ago, work offerings were very limited – he was assessed as only suitable for day placements, so his options were either to join a day group, or stay home and do nothing.
“We were looking at post-school options for him, and the people at the school weren’t suggesting anything ‘person-centred’ or anything that we thought he was capable of,” says his mother, Helen.
“We’ve always had aspirations for Tom. We always assumed he would work in meaningful work, and it was quite a disappointment that no one else seemed to hold the expectations for him that we had.”
Helen discovered Community Living Project (CLP), one of the very few companies around Australia that provide support for microenterprises. CLP worked with Tom to find out what he wanted to do, found a personal assistant to work as a helper with job tasks, and created an enterprise management group to support him. Tom’s lawnmowing company was born.
“My business is called ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’,” explains Tom. “I do that three days a week – Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“I’ve got a personal assistant who helps me, called Dylan. He works for me and does the stuff that I currently don’t do. Like, I don’t drive, so he drives. I don’t whipper-snip, so he whipper-snips.”
Although running your own business isn’t for everyone, microenterprises can be either a long-term way of engaging with the wider community, or a stepping stone to other things such as study or traditional employment.
“It can give the enterprise owners the courage and the capacity to look beyond [the microenterprise], because they’ve experienced success and they’ve been seen as capable from others,” says Helen.
“When someone’s in a valued role and they’re seen as capable, then more opportunities tend to come their way. They experience other benefits, which is definitely a by-product of the enterprise.”
For Tom, being outdoors was an important consideration when starting his business, and getting to spend time with his personal assistant (and now friend) Dylan is his favourite part of the job. Over five years, he’s built up his business from three regular clients to 60, and although he’s used much of his money to buy more equipment for the business, he does occasionally splash out on jet-ski rides.
Research has shown that employment in the community (known as open employment) results in a better quality of life and wellbeing then does work in sheltered workshops or unemployment.
But unfortunately, microenterprises still represent a very small portion of the job opportunities available to those with intellectual disabilities. This is part of a larger problem in which parents are pushed towards segregated pathways for those with impairments, starting at school, then to sheltered work or day activities.
Inclusion in the wider school system increases the likelihood of students with disabilities scoring higher on tests of language ability, and eventually living independently and finding competitive employment.
There’s no easy fix to this problem, but Helen suggests that making parents more aware of microenterprise as an option is one way forward.
“Even though I’ve always thought that Tom had capacity and could work, when I met Jayne [Barrett, the then manager of the microenterprise project at CLP] I was really worn down by everyone else telling me I was wrong,” says Helen. “When I met Jayne, it was just perfect timing. It gave me that encouragement to think ‘oh, yeah, this is possible and we do know him best’.
“But if parents and families don’t have connection with organisations and people that believe and have high expectations, then they’re not going to often have had the capacity or the strength to look for more.”
Microenterprise isn’t a perfect system. In her research paper, Hutchinson highlighted funding limitations and problems recruiting the right personal assistants with business skills as two issues of the system. It was one of the few research papers looking into this issue in Australia, highlighting the fact that more study needs to be done.
“In a systematic review of microenterprise papers, I could only find six internationally – only one of them Australian,” says Hutchinson. “There’s a few more studies in America, where this has been a bit more developed.
“This is a really an under-researched area.”
Through the research we have so far, however, microenterprise has been shown to be a successful way of integrating those with intellectual disabilities into the larger community, and giving them increased skills and social capital. Providing this as an option to more people should be a priority.
Jacinta Bowler is a science journalist at Cosmos. They have a undergraduate degree in genetics and journalism from the University of Queensland and have been published in the Best Australian Science Writing 2022.