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Disability employment - from willing to hiring

Photo: Disability employment - from willing to hiring
Op-ed by Dr Dinesh Palipana, Senior House Officer in the Emergency Department at Gold Coast University Hospital

I work as a doctor in the busiest emergency department in Australia, at the Gold Coast University Hospital. I work 10 and a half hour shifts every day, in four to eight day runs.

I also live with disability.

Nine years ago, I had already embarked on my career at medical school when a car accident caused a spinal cord injury and quadriplegia.

This meant that I lost sensation and control in everything from the chest down, half my arms and my fingers.

The recovery process took four years, during which I underwent a number of surgeries and completed months of rehabilitative exercise.

Six years on from the incident, I became the second person in Australia to graduate as a doctor with quadriplegia.
My next challenge was finding employment as a person living with disability.

The Building Employer Demand Research Report released by the Australian Government for the Employ their Ability campaign shows that 79 per cent of Australian employers in the healthcare, social care and education services are open to hiring people with disability.

While these numbers are encouraging, only 58 per cent are actually employing someone with disability.

The statistics suggest that while employers recognise the value that people with disability bring to the workforce, many remain unsure about what is involved in the disability employment process at a practical level.

Just 45 per cent of employers believe their business is equipped to employ a person with disability, and 38 per cent admit that employing a person with disability is a step into the unknown.

When I was finishing medical school, I felt this first hand.

When you graduate as a doctor, you are guaranteed a job. While my peers around me received their offers, I heard nothing.

For me, it wouldn’t be so easy - it took months of work to get my job. But when I did, I didn’t look back.

The Gold Coast University Hospital has been a fantastic place to start my career, and they were well prepared when workplace adjustments were required to cater to my physical needs.

My employers knew about services like JobAccess and the Employment Assistance Fund (EAF), which provide support in making required changes or acquiring new equipment.

For me, the outcome of this was new electric wheels installed on my wheelchair. This made a huge difference to my daily tasks, and the assessment itself was simple and painless.

While my quadriplegia means that I use a wheelchair, 90 per cent of what any other doctor does, I do myself. For the odd job that I cannot complete, my colleagues are happy to step in.

The Gold Coast University Hospital is a relatively new development, and as such my workplace is wheelchair accessible and deemed “digital”.

There have still been hurdles, and navigating the hospital has its challenges, but these are not insurmountable.

Technology in general has been very important for a seamless integration, and I have access to an iPad that connects me to the hospital system along with voice recognition software.

These are invaluable to me.

Now, I arrive at the emergency department without knowing what kind of patients will come through the door that day.

From someone who’s suffered a stroke, to a person who’s critically ill, to a kid who’s broken a bone – it could be just about anything.

The variety in the cases that I face every day is one of the reasons I love my job.

I feel constantly challenged, and truly in a position where I can reach my full potential as a doctor.

My physical capabilities have not defined me. I had the opportunity to thrive and the tools at my disposal to succeed.

We can all benefit from disability employment. Employers and employees alike.

So, let’s not just think about the benefits. Let’s not only be willing. Let’s start hiring.

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