What are Disability Employment Services (DES)?
Disability Employment Services (DES) are funded by the Australian Government. The Department of Social Services, describes them as:
"Disability Employment Services help people with disability find work and keep a job. Through Disability Employment Services, people with disability, injury or health condition may be able to receive assistance to prepare for, find and keep a job.
Providers of Disability Employment Services are called DES Providers. DES Providers are a mix of large, medium and small for-profit and not-for-profit organisations experienced in supporting people with disability, as well as providing assistance to employers to support employees with disability in the workplace."
Young people's DES experiences
DES Providers do not always provide this help in the most accessible or effective ways. In 2022, YDAS gave a witness statement to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation into People with a Disability (or Disability Royal Commission for short), explaining some of the issues we have seen with the DES system. We centred the experiences of disabled young people as told to us directly, and through our work in the community. This blog collects some of these stories directly from disabled young people who used a DES. We hope there can be positive change to help young people find work, and that these stories can act as a guide for anyone working in those systems to implement these changes.
Disabled young people’s initial reaction to engaging with DES providers were that it was an exciting opportunity for work that aligned with their career goals:
"When I was first assigned to a disability employment service, I thought it was a dream come true. While I was living with mental illness (bipolar and anxiety) and experiencing severe chronic pain and fatigue (which I now know is fibromyalgia)….I loved the idea of additional assistance and less barriers. Having recently moved to Melbourne, I was hopeful it would help me land a writing job and build my career." – Zoe
“I was very excited in the beginning. I’d never had a proper job before, or even experienced a job interview. I was hopeful that I would be able to get support with resume writing and job interview tips to help me gain meaningful employment.”–Chloe
Unfortunately, this initial excitement was turned into disappointment at the lack of DES providers’ understanding around disability and diverse needs. This was often at the expense of the disabled young person’s health.
“I was pretty much belittled at every turn… and had a huge impact on my self-confidence and mental health.–Zoe
"Even when I was struggling to walk as a result of an agonising pain flare, I was still forced to attend in-person appointments, with no consideration for my health. I wasn’t given a choice in what jobs they (incorrectly) applied for on my behalf, which made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. I was also pushed into applying for double the number of jobs I was required to apply for, which exacerbated my conditions, and made me feel like an outcome, rather than a person.” – Zoe
“In one instance, I disclosed my story in traumatic detail, assured it would mean I may be able to make it onto the Job Provider’s DES services, and assured my information would be kept confidential on my file. The worker clacked away at the keyboard, writing up every dark, triggering detail of my life – expressionless, asking probing questions, judging without understanding, without supporting, without considering how gutted I felt giving away a huge part of me… I would work 7 days a week, 12-hour shifts some days, and come home to cook, clean, and look after my family emotionally and financially whilst also trying to find time to look after myself. Yet these job providers showed no empathy, and there was no support, I found and worked these jobs alone whilst your systems made money off me re-entering the cycle of finding a job, it ending and moving to job, after job, after job.” – Renae
“Not only was my DES person’s disability knowledge entirely lacking, but combatting their stereotypical understanding of my disability felt like an uphill battle.” – Chloe
Jobs that were given to the disabled young people that did not match with their previous education or their career goals:
“I was sent pick packing jobs, traffic control jobs, warehouse work, call centre work – hello phone anxiety, cleaning jobs. All despite my resume and what I told them I wanted to do – work in social services and support. “ – Renae
“I was quickly told that engineering was a ‘dream job’ and that I needed to ‘keep my options open’. This was despite me being one unit away from completing my Bachelor of Engineering with Honours. I was told that the government doesn’t care if I’m an engineer or a toilet cleaner, they just cared that I had a job.” – Chloe
These young disabled people were eventually able to get the support they needed but this was because they were able to find a DES provider that knew more about disability. The provider also took into account the situation of each person.
“My DES paid for ergonomic office equipment and topped up my Myki to support me. And despite their lack of knowledge, my DES person really did work hard to try and find solutions for me. Their lack of training was the issue, not their attitude.” – Chloe
“Thankfully, my second DES provider was wonderful. They were kind and understanding, especially when it came to my pain. They were flexible, even allowing phone appointments. They provided me with the documentation I needed, explained my obligations, and helped me apply for jobs that genuinely interested me…They helped me with clothes, comfortable shoes, heat packs, and even helped advocate for workplace adjustments, like a sit-stand desk. It felt like we were a team—it was a truly wonderful feeling. – Zoe
“The right DES provider makes a huge difference. It’s incredibly disappointing so many of them aren’t up to scratch.”–Zoe
“After applying to be moved onto Disability Employment Services I received a phone call. There was a man on the other end, he introduced himself, not as a worker first but as someone who also identified as having a disability. Someone who found joy in their job speaking on the phone with other disabled people like me and reassuring them that the career they are wanting isn’t so far away if he was able to have the job he has.
I felt hopeful, someone who got me, who got the struggles, who understood my anxiety, someone who gave me time and reassurance, someone who in just a few words [said] “Hi my name is _____ and I also identify as someone with a disability” meant a fairer system that saw ME.” – Renae
Recommendations for DES Providers
YDAS made a number of recommendations as part of our witness statement to the Disability Royal Commission. One of the most important was that DES providers use a person-centred approach.* Zoe, Chloe and Renae’s experiences show that it is important to consider each person’s strengths and needs, instead of assuming every disabled person is the same. By focusing on a disabled person’s strengths, instead of their deficits, DES providers can better support everyone in long-term employment, and disabled young people can thrive in their careers.
The disabled young people in these articles also noted that it is helpful to have DES providers that are also disabled or have more training about working with disabled people. DES providers are very important for making workplaces accessible for disabled people, so they need to take disabled people’s access needs and their lived experiences into account. DES providers would also be more able to provide better services and outcomes for disabled people, if they worked with youth workers or disability advocacy services like YDAS.
If DES providers put these recommendations into practice, disabled people will be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve: as employees with valuable contributions. Implementing these recommendations also means meaningful and long-term employment will be easier to achieve for disabled people. Multiple studies have proven that employing disabled and diverse staff has resulted in improved productivity and creativity, higher employee engagement and the ability to reflect a wider customer Australian base. Australian workforces will benefit from the skills that disabled people have to offer.
*Person-centred approach: A way of working with people that makes sure that they are treated as a human first. Services are shaped to fit the person’s unique needs and wants.