2016 Harkin Summit inspires action

Wed 14 December 2016

Stephanie Gunn, Kevin Figueiredo, Tom Harkin, Suzanne Colbert, Damir Kucan and Nicole Vongdara at the 2016 Harkin Summit

The Australian Network on Disability’s (AND) Chief Executive, Suzanne Colbert AM, as well as Chair, Peter Wilson AM and board members Stephanie Gunn (General Manager, Community Linkages at the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and Kevin Figueiredo (General Manager Safety, Health and Wellbeing at Woolworths Limited) were delighted to attend the inaugural Harkin International Disability Employment Summit in Washington, DC last week. We were joined by fellow Australians Nicole Vongdara from PWC and Damir Kucan from Crown Resorts.

The Summit was an invitation only event hosted by the Harkin Institute led by Senator Tom Harkin. Senator Harkin was a proponent of the Americans with Disability Act and has been an advocate for people with disability for over 40 years. 

The inaugural Summit was attended by 31 countries with representatives from corporations, Civil Societies (NGO’s), Disabled People Organisations (DPO’s), funders, and policy makers. The goal of the summit was to accelerate the employment rate of people with disability globally.

Many speakers talked about being at a ‘tipping point’ as a result of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), recent technology, better training, and improved awareness of the business benefits of inclusion of people with disability. In the United States, an incredible 19% of federal employees have disability, demonstrating that these numbers are indeed possible in the private sector. However in Australia, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is also a powerful change agent for us.

Speakers also talked about the realisation that many philanthropic donors and foundations have come to the realisation that investments in overcoming poverty must also focus on employment for people with disability. Globally, 80% of people with disability live on under $1 per day.

Governor Markell who, as Head of the National Governors Association, used his position to garner bipartisan support to improve employment of people with disability. He identified four must haves:

  1. The role of vocational placement agencies (or Disability Employment Agencies in Australia) ought to be to support and develop talent and be a resource to employers.
  2. The private sector must be mobilised in order to scale. Business leaders need to be talking to other business leaders about the business benefits of employing people with disability.
  3. The government needs to ‘walk the walk’. They cannot simply reach out to the private sector.
  4. We need to do a better job of preparing young people for a lifetime of work. We need to get young people exposed to work at an early stage and learn what to expect in the workforce.

These themes are absolutely consistent with our experience in Australia. Speaker after speaker who talked about what worksstated that the most valuable practice is internships; which set people with disability up for a lifetime of work.

Other successful practices include microfinancing for self-employment (especially in developing countries), company networks (such as AND), specialised training (such as the Dandelion Program in Information Communication Technology (ICT)), flexible work practices, multi-nationals having a global strategy, and matchmaking platforms for recruitment. 

There was overwhelming agreement that what we need more of is:

  • Disseminating information about successful programs
  • Knowledge to be curated and shared
  • Training provided to companies on inclusive employment
  • Assistance to enable companies to provide training and career progression to employees with disability
  • Constructive partnerships
  • Better frameworks rooted in dignity and respect and
  • Reciprocal determination

While none of these practices were ‘breaking news’ to AND, the Harkin Summit reinforced the programs and approaches that we are developing in partnership with our members. The next breakthroughs will come from how to create scale and sustainability to truly accelerate the employment of people with disability in Australia and globally.

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