The Great New Zealand Experiment

Recently I stumbled upon a post by Sarah Blahovec, which was a cry for help from a disability activist from the USA. It drew me to look at the new Accessibility section of the venerable Huffington Post, and it occurred to me that I should share a little of the work we are doing in New Zealand, and my personal journey.

NZ is a fantastic place to test new stuff, whether it be banking and finance systems, Telco services or whatever. We are a small nation (only 4.5 million people spread over an area slightly larger than Great Britain), tech savvy, isolated, and egalitarian - the first country in the world to allow women to vote! We were the last country in the world to be colonised by a European nation in the early nineteenth century, so we are not ingrained in tradition apart from a huge Maori influence who had lived there 800 years before they were "discovered".

In terms of diversity, we are a multicultural society, and Auckland has the largest Polynesian population in the world. Our future is in the Asia Pacific rim, and not tied to our Colonial ancestry of Great Britain and Ireland where most immigrants haled from, and perhaps for these reasons we are more open to new ideas.

Why am I telling you this? Because there are some exciting things happening with the way we are addressing some of the issues surrounding disability; particularly with regard to the area I am focussing on: employment opportunities.

Some background - my life changed markedly when in their teens, three of my four children were diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (commonly known as RP), a condition for which there is no cure and often leads to total blindness. Whilst it is a hereditary condition, there was no trace in our family history.

A pivotal moment occurred when the eldest daughter with RP was looking to study sciences at the University of Auckland. However, neither the Faculty of Science, nor Disability Services could give us any information about a potential career after completion of her Bachelor of Science, with their only suggestion being Statistics.

I was bemoaning our situation to a candidate I had placed at the Business School of the same University (I have been an Executive Recruiter for 15 years, working mostly with Chartered Accountants), when she informed me that one of her colleagues also had a daughter who was legally blind, and who was completing her PhD in Cancer Research. The two girls met, and my daughter had the courage to enrol, and now had a mentor.

On reflection, I was very disappointed at the lack of information available to me as a parent, but also shocked that the University did not have any real idea about career paths for disabled people. This was despite actually having a PhD science student already studying on campus. I thought that somebody should do something that would enable children with disabilities to assess potential career paths based upon their skills and interests. I figured that "the somebody" may as well be me, given my recruitment background and family situation.

I went on a five year journey of understanding about the disability sector, which I knew very little about, in order to assess where I could make the most positive difference to the awful statistics of unemployed or under-employed people with disabilities. I was still doing my day job.
What I found were: -

• Internal recruitment processes which effectively screened out people from diverse cultures, gender, disabilities. The recruiters are too busy filling mass job orders, that it becomes an administrative production line, leaving little time to consider "thinking outside the square".
• Businesses tied to "Preferred Supplier Agreements", normally large multi-national Recruitment firms, which forbade the acceptance of resumes from non-PSA recruiters. This is despite the fact their suppliers did not actively look to provide diversity within their candidates, as profit is generally the main motivator.
• A default HR position of Health and Safety concerns being a barrier to hiring disabled people.
• A large number of disabled Tertiary educated people just could not secure their first post-graduate job. Many support agencies working in the employment area, were not able to provide assistance to the graduates, as they largely focused on semi skilled roles.
• Businesses tended to concentrate on one or perhaps two diversity groups - generally gender plus one other. Disability was normally rated last in the pecking order, as it was seen as the "hardest", and businesses generally did not know how to engage with that sector which appeared to them very siloed and disparate.

I could go on, and I am doubtless preaching to the converted who are nodding their heads, given where this blog is being published.

What I found though, was that many people I spoke to were passionate about the need to change. More often than not, they had a close tie to someone with a disability which gave them both empathy and a better understanding of the need to change. I have found it encouraging that multi-national businesses like the ANZ Bank and EY have been amazingly supportive, and I thank them.

Likewise, we have had huge support from The New Zealand Government, who are committed to improving the lives of New Zealand citizens who have different and special needs.

However, to quote Albert Einstein's view on insanity, that is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results", I took the view that unless a new methodology or approach is taken to diversity in general and disability in particular, nothing will greatly change.

Next week, I will share with you how we have adopted Maori values, combined with HR best practice under a framework we call He Waka Taura which could well be the answer you are looking for in your own countries.

Adrian Coysh is a strategic partner with an online talent pool JobCafe. He is working very closely with the disability community, Government and businesses, in the pursuit of diversity equality. Contact him on adrian.coysh@sigmasolutions.co.nz