Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

NEW ZEALAND AND DISABILITY EMPLOYMENT POLICY IN THE 1990s(1)

Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

NEW ZEALAND AND DISABILITY EMPLOYMENT POLICY IN THE 1990s(1)

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In this paper we examine the range of policies within New Zealand that aim to integrate and reintegrate people with disabilities(2) into the workforce. During the 1990s there has been growing interest in the participation of people with disabilities within the workforce. We attempt a critical assessment of the directions disability employment policy has taken in recent years and ask whether this direction has benefited people with disabilities.

The paper is structured in three parts. First, we outline the recent history of the pressures and rationales that have encouraged policy shifts, including the wider socio-economic trends and associated policy developments of the last decade. Second, we describe the themes that have emerged from disability employment policy and use specific policy examples to illustrate the changes. Within this thematic approach we critically examine a range of such policy initiatives as the inclusion of disability in the Human Rights Act, incentive-based employment approaches, policies for service provision (training, placement and rehabilitation), and persuasion policies. Third, the paper examines the existing research evidence on outcomes of these policy initiatives, and concludes by suggesting a series of key research questions.

RECENT HISTORY OF DISABILITY AND WORK

Ensuring employment opportunities for disadvantaged groups has taxed the minds of policy makers across industrialised countries, particularly since the economic tribulations of the 1970s. Initially, attention focused on the impact of recession and restructuring on the labour market position of women and ethnic groups (OECD 1976, Maori Economic Development Commission 1985). The position of people with disabilities was slower to gain policy attention but, in common with other OECD countries, is now firmly on the New Zealand policy agenda (Thornton and Lunt 1997). Initially, policies for people with disabilities were regarded primarily from a health perspective. Thus policy concern focused on issues such as containment and compensation in the form of segregated sheltered employment, day centres and long-term benefit provision. The Department of Social Welfare had primary responsibility for vocational programmes for people with disabilities. In recent years there has been support for mainstream employment, and disability employment policy has shifted to being a labour market concern of ensuring opportunities and participation.

A number of reasons explain this recent policy shift. First, organisations and coalitions of people with disabilities have highlighted disability issues and critiqued the ways traditional organisations and charities have represented people with disabilities (Hawker 1996). Second, previously invisible sectors of the disability community, including individuals with psychiatric illness and learning disabilities, have demanded the right to speak for themselves and for policy debates to be inclusive of their needs and aspirations (Tennant 1996).

Third, research has highlighted the particular disadvantage that people with disabilities face across a range of spheres -- social, economic, cultural and political (Statistics NZ 1997). In relation to employment for example, paid labour remains central to an individual's self-worth, provides the most likely route out of poverty, and enables participation in wider social life. The 1996 Household Disability Survey has documented the fact that people with disabilities are over-represented in statistics on low income and unemployment (Statistics NZ 1997).

Fourth, and more fundamentally, there has been a questioning of how disability should be conceptualised and defined. In this reappraisal of disability it is suggested that disability is a relationship between individuals and their society (Oliver 1990, Sullivan 1991). Hence disability is not something that any person "has", rather disability and the social disadvantage it entails are created and/or exacerbated by the social, economic, cultural and political organisation of society. …

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