Girls with mental disabilities inspiring others to seek out work

Alanna Julian had to overcome several obstacles in life to find employment as an adult woman with an intellectual disability.

As a teenager, her first job was in a sheltered workshop – an environment that employs people with disabilities – where she was paid only 50 cents an hour.

“I found the work really repetitive and not for me,” said Ms. Julian.

“I sometimes felt discriminated against because it was also a very male-dominated sheltered workshop.”

Ms. Julian is now the workshop moderator and community engagement officer. (Supplied: NSW Council for Intellectual Disability)

Difficulties since childhood

What was originally thought of as a developmental delay in her childhood was later diagnosed as an intellectual disability after her teachers noticed she was having problems in school.

Ms. Julian said she was facing bullying and teachers who could not support her needs.

She left school when she was 14.

“Ideally, if things were different, I would have wanted to go to 11th and 12th grade,” she said.

To make matters even more complicated, she was hit by a car in her late teens and suffered a minor, acquired brain injury.

Two women talk to each other at a table in a workshop. Ms. Darling (left) was inspired by Ms. Julian to apply for a job. (ABC Radio Sydney: Luke Wong)

Find a dream job

After years of volunteering, Ms. Julian found the confidence to apply to the NSW Council for Intellectual Disability (CID), where she now works as a workshop moderator and community engagement officer.

“Throughout my life, intellectual disability has certainly had its challenges because people would not see your disability,” she said.

“You feel like a hidden disability and they would treat you in a certain way at a high level and [as a result] you just fall through the gaps “

Since her employment, she has taken on various leadership roles in her community and is actively involved in helping people with disabilities.

Ms. Julian is currently part of a working group producing a shadow report on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

“There are limited ways that they don’t give enough people with disabilities, there is just so much they can do,” she said.


Inspire others to work

Ms. Julian’s enthusiasm has inspired other people with intellectual disabilities like Ella Darling to join the workforce.

“She’s a great role model because she’s been through this and she knows how it is; it’s very difficult,” said Ms. Darling.

“I just felt, wow, I wish I was her and I want to be like that.”

Ms. Darling was born in Romania, sustained a brain injury as a toddler, and was adopted by Australian parents when she was five.

In her early 20s, she experienced exploitation and discrimination based on her disability while working in the hospitality industry.

Through a workshop program run by CID, she learns to consult employers and organizations on how to involve people with intellectual disabilities in the workplace.

“I just think everyone should have equal rights and everyone should have a job and live normal lives.

“My heart breaks when people just sit at home and do nothing.”

Laminated decorated cards on a work table. Maps help communicate how workplaces can better support people with intellectual disabilities (ABC Radio Sydney: Luke Wong)

Overcome complex obstacles

The unemployment rate for people with intellectual disabilities is 20 percent, relatively high compared to people with other types of disabilities (8 percent) and people without disabilities (5 percent), according to 2012 figures from the Bureau of Statistics.

Rosemary Kayess is the director of the Disability Innovation Institute at the University of NSW and the lead researcher on a 2016 report on people with intellectual disabilities in the workforce.

She said that people with intellectual disabilities looking for work face complex obstacles, including misconceptions and attitudes from employers.

“Some of those misconceptions are that it will be costly, that it will disrupt the employment culture, and that it will have a bigger impact on the business than it probably would.”

While it found that the majority of participants were employed in assisted sheltered workshops – often in low-paying, repetitive manual labor – there were few options for those wishing to switch to other types of employment.

Two women sit on a public bench outside an office. Ms. Darling and Ms. Julian hope to inspire other people with intellectual disabilities to join the workforce. (ABC Radio Sydney: Luke Wong)

She said Australia ranks poorly when compared to other OECD countries when it comes to employing people with disabilities.

“I think there needs to be more flexibility in terms of the support that is available to them and also to people with intellectual disabilities [to understand] that they have a wider range of options.

It takes a village

Woman with glasses in optometry shop.

The country town that promotes inclusivity for people with disabilities.

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“Social enterprises are highly valued by people with intellectual disabilities because they achieve many of their goals of getting out and meeting people and doing interesting and varied work.”

Ms. Kayess said more support in the workplace could improve opportunities for people with physical and mental disabilities.

“The interrelationship between the NDIS and the National Strategy for People with Disabilities needs to be able to identify a much more coordinated approach to employment,” she said.

“When people are given packages giving them the support they need to achieve their goals, there has to be the innovation to support that employment.”

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