Joint WDC approach to maximise potential within the disabled community

One significant resource that has been historically overlooked is the estimated twenty-four per cent of New Zealanders who are living with a disability. Waihanga Ara Rau and Hanga-Aro-Rau Workforce Development Councils (WDCs) recognise the considerable opportunity that is presented by reducing learning and workforce inequities for disabled people and tāngata whaikaha Māori. These organisations are working collaboratively to support this community to create better outcomes for industry, employees and the New Zealand economy.

“This work is about shifting views of what people can and can’t do, unlocking new pipelines for our labour shortages, offering great career pathways to people who haven’t been able to access them before, and, in doing so, contributing to greater business productivity and a stronger New Zealand economy,” says Deputy CE Samantha McNaughton of Hanga-Aro-Rau WDC. Waihanga Ara Rau Equity and Inclusion Manager Zoe Lyon-Gifford added, “We are prioritising this work to support our industries to see the benefits of employing and retaining disabled people.”

The two WDCs came together in April 2023 to establish a Disability Expert Panel. This panel is composed of experienced industry professionals with lived experience of physical, intellectual and invisible disabilities. Together, they are addressing inequities, challenging stereotypes and demonstrating a solid business case for employing disabled people. “There’s a mindset to break about looking at disabilities as a cost exercise. The value is so much greater than any cost,” says Jonathan Tautari, Panel member and tāngata whaikaha Māori specialist.

“Diversity of thought and experience brings huge benefits for industry,” says Panel member Sarah Benikowsky, who also holds a role as Governance Associate at Hanga-Aro-Rau. Grant Cleland, who brings three decades of senior and Board-level experience in supporting the disabled community to the Panel, agrees, “There are real benefits to having people in industry who think and do things differently,” he says. Not only can people with disabilities help to address skills shortages, Grant says, but they can also bring new perspectives that increase productivity and profitability. “The message is that people are disabled by poorly designed environments, not by differences. We have the potential and the ability, but we live in a world that has been created for only one way of doing things.”

To ensure a sustainable workforce for New Zealand’s future, spaces need to be accessible for all, Jonathan says. “I’m doing a lot of work in this space around creating more accessible marae. We have to get past arguing about the mechanics of change and just do it for everybody. If we don’t, whānau will be left out of the culture.”

Tāngata Waikaha Panel

Disability Expert Panel members.

“The idea of employing disabled people as an added cost is a myth,” Grant agrees. “The number of people who actually require real workplace modifications is something like ten per cent. Many of the strategies we need to support our disabled workforce are quite simple and often the same as they are for everybody else. We also know that reflecting your entire community – including people with disabilities – opens the door to a whole range of new potential customers. So, there’s actually a significant opportunity there for businesses to reach them.”

Only by supporting New Zealand’s historically underserved workers can we hope to meet our future workforce needs, the Panel members agree. “The imperative now is to identify what must be done to enable our whole workforce to be as productive as possible,” Grant says. “How do we build an infrastructure that is accessible and allows disabled people to provide value so that industries can maximise the opportunity that presents?” “We need to look at this as a design problem and create our infrastructure so that the most number of people can participate,” Sarah agrees. “If we train people to better understand neurodiversity, it could help both workers and industry,” says Tamara Grant, Panel member and invisible disability and youth advocate. “Everyone arrives differently; you can’t just put in a ramp or modify your learning environment and expect that approach to suit everyone. Requirements will always change, and we need to put people first and treat them with respect.” “This is not a tick-box exercise,” Sarah adds. “There are wide-ranging benefits of doing this right; the whole of New Zealand thrives.”

The Panel is now undertaking detailed research to address these challenges and learn how to best remove barriers for people with different ability needs. This work will also provide insights for Hanga-Aro-Rau and Waihanga Ara Rau about how both WDCs can improve their internal capability and honour their commitment to be inclusive organisations where the right of all people with disabilities to have control over the choices they make, is upheld. “We have talked a lot with both WDCs about their ability to become leaders in this work,” Jonathan says, “and I’ve been quite impressed with how they’ve taken that on board with genuineness and authenticity.” “I’m excited to watch the research come to fruition,” Sarah says. “I read a lot of strategy documents that talk the talk, but watching the actual follow-through happening here is quite rare.” “It’s not just words on paper,” Tamara agrees. “It’s an action plan informed by ongoing kōrero where we feel very heard.”