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Working towards an inclusive future


Working towards an inclusive future

A Sunshine Coast employment support service is helping employers see ‘the ability’ and changing lives for the better. WORDS: Ingrid Nelson.

Imagine a world where every person is included and made to feel valued and important in the workplace, regardless of their ability or disability.

Thanks to a new project run by a Sunshine Coast not-for-profit organisation, that dream is becoming a reality for many employees in the region. Equity Works is a disability support service that has been supporting people with a disability and their families for more than 20 years.

Recognising a need for change within the disability employment sector, Equity Works CEO Steph Whelan in 2020 was successful in receiving funding to help young people with a disability find employment. The Here Now Next (HNN) pilot project was launched.

“There was too much focus on the specific job title and not on the person, which makes it almost impossible for a person with disability to compete in the traditional job market,” Ms Whelan says.

Project leader Cobi Burrell says the HNN project supports young people, aged between 14 and 24, with a disability to access real, meaningful and sustainable open employment. The project will assist at least 25 young people to find casual, part-time or full-time roles.

“We do this through the person-centred approach called customised employment,” Ms Burrell says.

“We focus on the individual rather than a job title and work towards identifying that person’s ideal conditions of employment.

“Another part of the project focuseson our community. We have a small team of work facilitators who provide workshops around the Coast for businesses who are interested in hearing more about the project.

“We believe it is time that employers start to think about employment in a different way, to know that everyone is employable. By matching a young person, their skills and interests with the business needs of an inclusive employer, we are able to support the development of this relationship and its ongoing success.”

And while businesses on the Coast have battled to find and retain staff, Ms Burrell says it’s a matter of reminding employers there is an untapped resource of people with disabilities in the community who have very valuable skills and abilities.

“It’s getting people to understand that standard roles that exist may not work for someone with a disability. If employers can think outside the box about customising the role, then they may be able to have someone join their team who really wants to be there and wants to work,” she says.

“People feel like they are taking a risk, but statistically there is no more of a risk hiring someone with a disability than without. The employment rates for people with a disability hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. So, something has to change.”

Equity works has recently opened a retail shop at Sunshine Plaza in Maroochydore for people with disabilities to sell their art and handcrafted items, with 100 per cent of the proceeds going back to the artists. The HNN team has relocated to an office at the back of the store.

“It’s an opportunity to be part of the social networks in the Plaza, providing jobs for people with a disability, with the aim to move to full-time employment,” Ms Burrell says.

With plans to take the message into the school system, Ms Burrell says they hope to change the mindset of future employers.

“We hope to start educating kids in mainstream schools about the program,” she says. “They are our future leaders and our future business owners. So, if they are aware now and they can understand the need for change, then it’s only looking up for the future of the Sunshine Coast.”

To register or hear more about HNN, email at or phone 1300 486 440.

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