The challenges faced by people with disabilities in engaging in employment are well documented, as are the benefits to the individual that come from employment participation. Unfortunately, the support system for disabled individuals has a ‘one size fits all’ model that doesn’t take into consideration the needs of people with varying degrees of disability, and often declare those who are significantly disabled as “unemployable”.
In response to current state of Australia’s disability support sector, Fighting Chance has created an innovative and inclusive model with approaches this problem holistically, providing people with significant disabilities with employment opportunities and helping them develop the skills and self-confidence necessary to transition into the mainstream workforce. The brains behind the grassroots organisation is brother-sister team Jordan and Laura O’Reilly.
Although Fighting Chance was originally founded by their mother in 2009, Jordan and Laura decided to reinvent the organisation in 2010. They were inspired by the circumstances of their brother who has severe Spastic Quadriplegia Cerebral Palsy and reached the start of his adult life with no opportunities for employment or social participation, therefore little chance of living independently. With the financial support of Deloitte, Fighting Chance essentially teaches skills and provides employment opportunities for people living with significant disabilities.
“We wanted to create an organisation that could have a significant impact on a local level by providing services for disabled individuals in the community, whilst also contributing to innovation in the disability sector,” said Jordan, a University of Sydney Occupational Therapy graduate.
But how do they do it exactly? Fighting Chance runs a working hub for individuals living with disabilities. The organisation owns two small social enterprises, fair trade retailer Avenue and outsourcing service provider Jigsaw, both of which specifically hire disabled individuals. Jordan acknowledged that Fighting Chance couldn’t have the same impact if it operated solely as a charitable organisation.
“We realised that we needed to create social enterprises that provided work each day. We thought laterally about ways that we can set up ventures that not only offer work opportunities but also places people in an environment where they feel like they’re part of a team and contributing to the community. It gives people with disabilities a purpose in life and a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” said Jordan.
Fighting Chance is partnered with a number of organisations in developing countries like Nepal, India, Cambodia and Laos, and supports them to produce and distribute handmade home decor and clothing accessories. These items are created by the individuals who work out of the Work Hub, then sold at community markets as well as through Avenue’s online store. Jigsaw, on the hand, provides outsourcing services to corporates and the government, specialising in data entry, document auditing and other paperless office services.
Fighting Chance has recently moved into new premises in Frenchs Forest, and has taken on double the amount of interns and work experience students, currently housing about 40 individuals.
Work Hub is very much akin to a startup coworking space. Jordan said there’s a great model behind coworking communities, and that more of them should be made accessible to people living with disabilities.
“If you can make these spaces accessible, you can create an environment where people with disabilities can also engage in. We’re currently talking to people [who run] these coworking spaces about how to make them more inclusive, and reverse the negative statistics around disability employment,” he added.
Fighting Chance is not simply about creating employment opportunities; it also helps disabled individuals develop the skills necessary to transition into the mainstream workforce.
“We engage students with significant disabilities who are usually left sitting in the library when all their peers are going out and getting work experience. We bring them into our programme because otherwise they’re [faced with] isolation and rejection. These students get involved in work hub through paid internships, which means they have access to work opportunities which not only pays a wage but also helps them develop the skills and confidence they need if they ever wanted to transition into the mainstream,” said Jordan.
“We also offer open employment opportunities. There’s a lot of work that goes into running two social enterprise startups, so we look to employ as many people with disabilities as possible on regular open employment contract.”
When confronted with the question of how much these individuals are being paid, Jordan first points to the Australian Disability Enterprises model which has come under public fire for underpaying individuals.
“Disabled people are being paid a few dollars an hour for the work they do, which we don’t believe is right,” he said.
Fighting Chance, on the other hand, has implemented a dividend profit sharing model so that all the profits made in Avenue are then distributed 100 percent back to the individuals. The profits are distributed based on how much work they’ve done.
“This is a fantastic model for some individuals in our internship programme who can’t earn full-time wages and have otherwise been written off and categorised as unemployable. This is a way to get those people working and being paid according to their productivity each month,” said Jordan.
In Jigsaw, individuals are paid $20 to $25 an hour depending on the task they’ve been assigned. Jordan admitted that it disability employment is complicated, and that the ‘one size fits all’ approach is futile. Currently, there are 30 individuals being paid each month through internships and open employment.
Jordan made sure to point out that Fighting Chance is more a ‘halfway house option’ for people with disabilities. It’s an entry point into the workforce. The status quo model – which essentially places an individual into a mainstream work environment – is not suitable for a proportion of the disability sector. It works for those who are moderately disabled, but not always for people who are significantly disabled.
“In the next couple of years we plan on developing a really strong pathway to mainstreaming individuals. If they have the capacity to work in a mainstream work environment, then we will support them and help them transition,” said Jordan.
Fighting Chance plans on establishing strategic partnerships with companies that recognise the value in its model. With the National Disability Insurance Scheme being introduced gradually, which will support “a better life for hundreds of thousands of Australians with a significant and permanent disability and their families and carers” through various policy changes, Jordan believes there is an exciting opportunity for companies and organisations to provide the services that individuals with disabilities and their families want.
The biggest challenge for Jordan and Laura to date has been defining Fighting Chance’s model. “Whenever you are doing something new, explaining it others is inherently challenging,” said Jordan.
“But what we have is genuinely innovative. The current support system isn’t working at its maximum capacity and it’s not supporting everyone equally or appropriately. We believe our model solves this problem, and we want to expand our solution across Australia.”
That said, Jordan is proud to be working with individuals with disabilities every day who were declared “unemployable”, saying it keeps him “grounded”.
“We’re working with individuals who would otherwise spend their lives just going to the movies or watching TV. They have perfectly active minds and are desperate to contribute to the world. I’m incredibly proud to see individuals flourishing in the Fighting Chance environment and I hope that we have created something that can make a real impact in the disability sector,” Jordan said.