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Working below the poverty line: Jacy’s Australian Disability Enterprise Story

How did I wind up at an Australian Disability Enterprise (ADE)?

Like many young adults, I moved from a small town to a big city looking for work. I completed endless computer courses and became pretty proficient, but struggled to be employed for many years.

I volunteered, but volunteering doesn’t pay bills. Being on the Disability Support Pension was just enough to survive, but I wanted more. Like everyone, I wanted a life, a holiday, a new car, nice clothes and a social life.

I had my first job interview at a place that mostly hired people with intellectual disabilities.

At the interview, I was treated like a child, so I refused to go back.

Eventually I gained employment with a small ADE. A graphic design studio. I felt important. I made friends and I was really good at my job.

My first paycheck was minimal (ADEs are allowed to pay below minimum wage, and I was hired at around $1.30 an hour), but also mind-blowing. I, Jacy Arthur, was getting paid to do a job (oh my God!).

Years later, money became much more important to me, as I had a baby boy to provide for. We were living with my mother, but I wanted the ability to look after my newborn son myself, to buy him toys and go on holidays. It meant everything to me.

I asked my boss for a pay rise, which led to a secret meeting with HR. No one talked about their pay (it was taboo!), and I was told in that meeting to never ever tell anyone about my pay rise.

My wage never went up again, but $9.50 an hour was enough for me to have a yearly holiday and nice clothes for my son and myself, so I didn’t complain.

Every year, we had a wage assessment using the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool (BSWAT).

We all hated it. It involved a number of tasks, each performed three times. It was not about the quality of your work, but how fast you were. Each attempt was timed and an average was taken. The score was then compared to what an able-bodied worker was supposed to be able to do.

This was very stressful, and I found out that this was not something that happened in the real world. Talk about discrimination.

When a bigger company took over, they tried to cut everyone’s pay to $1.80 an hour, including mine. By then, I knew I was making good money for the company. A co-worker and I took them to court to stop them from cutting our pay. Our pay was ‘grandfathered’ and stayed the same, while the others still got their pay cut.

We tried to encourage the others to join the fight, but they were scared. I’ll never forget what one girl said (she was spot on!):

‘It’s not about getting a better wage. I’m just grateful I have a job, better than day options, volunteering or studies. What can I do if I lose this job?’

You may ask: Why did I stay for so long?

Well, it took me almost seven years to get this job, to be accepted and actually enjoy my work, so I wasn’t keen to be unemployed again. I own a car and it’s costly to keep driving.

Driving is one of my happy places.

I tried to find a second job – many people have more than one job, right? – but the agencies told me that I had to be unemployed before they would even look at me. I was just funding to them. After three agencies told me the same thing, I gave up. My confidence hit rock bottom.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the disability sector is for people with disability.

I trained myself to be as quick as I could be at the wage assessments. I knew every shortcut, but I have limitations with my hand movement and I use a stick to type with. Just imagine if I could do my work by eye movement! I’d be rich!

I finally left once my son turned eighteen and child support payments stopped.

Encouraged by my partner and son to take the next step, I became a driver and mentor for Mable and Hireup (NDIS registered services that connect people with disability to support workers). The money was quadruple what I was getting paid at the ADE. I was gobsmacked!

I have been capable of this kind of work for a long time, but I was never encouraged by anyone at the ADE to move on to open employment.

About Jacy Arthur: Jacy is a very strong, independent, positive woman with CP & Severe Deafness, has a 21-year-old son, self-published 2 books, and is a self-employed driver/mentor and self-taught WordPress builder. She says: “I believe I should have a life just like everyone else – simple.”

Editor’s note: While the BSWAT has been discontinued, there are still other discriminatory wage assessment tools being used in ADEs, where employees with disability are paid as little as one dollar an hour.

Segregated employment continues in Australia through ADEs, where less than 1% of employees with disability will have the support and opportunity to move into mainstream employment.

PWDA has been advocating for many years for the Australian Government to phase out ADEs, and for the people working in them to be paid fairly in the meantime. We will continue to advocate for fair wages and working conditions for all employees with disability.

Find out more about Australian Disability Enterprises from Everyone Can Work.

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