You could say I’m ‘one of the lucky ones’.

I scraped through school, just passing School Certificate and spending two years in sixth form. My university experience was a similar story.

It was easy for people to assume I was struggling because I had spina bifida — but the fact was I was struggling because I had so much time off. By the age of 13 I’d had 27 major operations. My hospital stays and the time recovering at home kept me out of school for weeks or months at a time. My university study was interrupted with six months in the Burwood Spinal Unit.

It would have been easy for employers to see my disability, see my grades, and overlook me. But they didn’t. Instead I had employers who could see my potential and were willing to give me a chance. 

One job led to another, and another — and ultimately a fulfilling and rewarding career. 

My only wish is that I wasn’t ‘one of the lucky ones’ — that there were more employers willing to see the potential in and take a chance on young people.

The statistics are not good. Disabled people are twice as likely to leave school without a qualification — not because of their disabilities but, like me, because of the impacts of their disabilities on their education and experience.

Disabled people are also less likely to be employed than any other minority group — not because they’re not willing and able, but because there are still not enough employers who can see their potential and are willing to give them the chance to show what they are capable of.

In my nine and a half years as Chief Executive of Workbridge we worked hard to fix that and we have come a long way.

Workbridge now has programmes to give work experience to disabled students in schools, partnerships with tertiary providers to match their graduates with employment, and partnerships with employers to build their disability confidence and bring them candidates with potential. 

Workbridge is working with more employers (1800 each year), a broader range of employers, and bigger employers, who can see the potential in disabled people and are bringing more skilled and varied roles. 

Workbridge’s aim is to have a ready supply of work-ready candidates, and a ready supply of roles for those candidates, and to make it easier for school leavers and graduates to be linked up with employers — not only for low skilled roles but for highly skilled roles. 

There are many employers who are theoretically willing to employ disabled people, but many are still looking for something Workbridge can’t always give them — and that’s experience. 

There are still too many disabled candidates missing out on roles because they don’t have the experience that able-bodied candidates do.

But for the reasons I’ve talked about, that’s not an even playing field. The simple fact is that students with disabilities often don’t get the opportunities that others have to get that experience through roles such as working in bars or cafes — but that doesn’t mean they have any less potential.

The changes over the past 10 years mean Workbridge has the skilled candidates, and has the services to support employers who are willing to give disabled people the experience that the need. 

Now we need more employers to see the potential that is there in disabled people, and to step up and give disabled candidates the same break that I had. 

Grant Cleland was Chief Executive of Workbridge from June 2009 until March 2019. 

Blog published April 2019.

Written by Grant Cleland, former Chief Executive of Workbridge.