Advocate for your Rights: Mel’s self advocacy against employment discrimination

By Warren Heggarty 

mel home study.jpgAbove: Mel in her study at home, showing some of the assistive technology related to her sensory disability. She is a member of a certain profession requiring official registration…so we can’t show you her face, if you know what we mean. PHOTO BY WARREN HEGGARTY 

In this second instalment, we look at the experience of Mel who has lived experience of a mental health issue as well as a sensory disability. Rather than live on a pension, she decided to enter a profession and support herself, but once qualified, she found herself in a protracted battle to gain appropriate employment. This was a battle she eventually won. 

Note: to protect the identity and privacy of certain parties some specific details have been suppressed in this story. -Editor 

You would expect that a Government Body responsible for registering people for employment would be a model of anti-discrimination rectitude. Mel found it was not quite so simple. 

After completing the first of her university degrees and after having already commenced the second, Mel applied to the appropriate Government Body for registration in her chosen profession. Although she eventually completed all six years of study across two degrees, the Government Body delayed the registration which was required for her to work on a permanent basis within that profession. That meant two whole years without the ability to earn a full time income. 

‘I had performed really well at university,’ says Mel. ‘My results ranged from Passes to High Distinctions, my practicums were all successful. I received a lot of positive feedback from my supervisors. I didn’t fail any subjects or assignments. I loved my time at university!’ 

‘I was actually approached by the course coordinator of one of the degrees that I completed and was asked to return to university to do some one-on-one tutoring with a student. Then I was asked to do some face-to-face and online tutoring of classes. Part of my duties was marking and assessing student’s assignments.” 

The Government Body did not outright decline Mel’s application for registration, but they didn’t approve it, either. They saw her sensory disability as problematic. Instead, they only allowed her to work on a limited casual basis while they considered the case. Mel had many meetings with people from the Government Body, but two years out from her application for full permanent registration, she was still waiting for approval. 

During this period in limbo, Mel says that ‘the feedback (from supervisors of my casual work) was really good, I did really well. I was working at the one workplace as a casual for three years and I was one of their regular staff members, and that led to a [long term] temporary role.’ 

So while the registration body avoided making a decision, individual workplaces were giving her long term work! 

Nevertheless, because she needed to have a stable, predictable income (due to having a mortgage, as we will see in a future story) Mel was driven to apply for much lower paid jobs, such as being an assistant to the very profession that she was fully qualified to do. 

When a person is clearly overqualified, prospective employers can become suspicious and hesitant. They often suspect that ‘overqualified’ job applicants have ‘something wrong with them.’ Either that or they assume the applicant will leave after only a short time for something better and waste all their job training. It’s very difficult for a prospective employee to hide qualifications. 

Mel admits that in the early stages of her battle, she may have contributed to her difficulties by not being assertive enough. 

Not fair? 

Originally, Mel admits that she was talking herself down. She was going along with the Government Body’s idea that there was one common task of her profession that she could not perform. This would have required her to rely on colleagues to cover for her. There were suggestions that this would not have been fair on those colleagues. However after a while, as she gained more casual experience and confidence, she realised that with the support of reasonable adjustments she WAS capable of this task. 

At length, the Government Body organised a an occupational therapy assessment. Such an assessment is not normally required for people entering this profession, but it was deemed necessary because of Mel’s sensory disability. To her horror, the assessment seemed to be entirely based on measuring her perceived weaknesses rather than looking at the considerable strengths that she obviously possessed in order to have come this far. 

‘The assessment was humiliating,’ says Mel. ‘It was insulting, it was embarrassing. I was assessed without any of my assistive technology (see box) I was asked to perform certain work duties without any prior notice, on the spot. I was asked to use a computer without any assistive technology, in front of other people. Basically it felt like I was set up to fail.’ 

‘Some of the things that were said to me by the occupational therapist I thought were really inappropriate. They had no prior experience assessing someone with a sensory disability, they’d only assessed people with physical disabilities.’

mel supporter.jpgABOVE: Mel with one of her chief supporters. PHOTO WARREN HEGGARTY 

In the end, however, Mel’s persistence prevailed. The Government Body acknowledged that the occupational assessment had not been ideal. Although it did not admit any liability, it made a small ex gratia payment and agreed to approve her for permanent employment. 

‘I’ve gained a sense of achievement,’ says Mel. ‘I won’t deny it was an exhausting process and at the end of it I was broken for a little while. But once I gained more ongoing employment (and I’ve been in long term employment now for a number of years and have been excelling in my profession) I’ve felt really empowered.’ 

‘I’m incredibly happy that I fought the process because I know what I did was right. I knew that what was happening to me was completely wrong and I also wanted to make sure that this wouldn’t happen to other people along the way.’ 

‘I know that at least one person with a similar disability to me who has applied for registration in the same profession and has gone through without any difficulties within the past few months!’ 

‘It was absolutely worth the effort and I would definitely do it again. If anything like this ever came up I would keep fighting because I’m really passionate about issues of social justice and fighting for what Is right. I don’t believe in discrimination and I will fight for non-discrimination as hard as I can, always.’ 

In June Panorama we will return to Mel and discover that her Anti-Discrimination adventures weren’t quite over yet! But first, on the next page, we will look at Jessica’s desire to be an advocate for people living with mental health issues. 

What are Reasonable Adjustments, and what is Assistive Technology? 

Under the Anti-Discrimination Act, employers may not refuse employment simply because of a physical or sensory disability or mental health issue. Employers must make any reasonable adjustment to the workplace required to accommodate them. Government funding is available to cover the cost of this reasonable adjustment. 

In Mel’s case, for example, she required assistive technology related to her sensory disability. As you can see from the photo, she even has some of her own equipment! Other types of reasonable adjustments might include variation of work procedures, flexibility of work hours, or modifications to the work place. 

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