A creative solution: employing people with disabilities

July 2, 2016

Creative Opportunities in Brunswick is an Australian Disability Enterprise with The Salvation Army. It aims to increase the work skills of people with disabilities while ensuring ongoing business from satisfied customers, writes Bron Williams.

 

The mission of Creative Opportunities is to secure meaningful employment and training opportunities for people with disabilities by developing a viable and sustainable community business.


Just under half of the employees at Creative Opportunities have intellectual disabilities, while others have psychological or physical disabilities or are vision-impaired. The majority are part-time employees who average two days per week, but there are 60 people on the books and an effective employment of 30.


Although the target group for employees is those with mental health disabilities, it is important that these individuals are not defined by their illness, says business services manager, Alex Straubinger. Given the episodic nature of their disabilities, employees are able to stop work while they recover and then, when they feel able to return to work, are able to do so. 


This allows people to come to work because they want to.


Through the introduction of a variety of social activities ‘a real sense of community has been developed’, says Straubinger. ‘Each morning, at the 7.30 am briefing, there is opportunity for employees to tell stories from their lives, bring in food to share, or relate a random act of kindness that they have done, such as giving up their seat on the tram or helping someone in the supermarket.’


Creative Opportunities recognises the contribution that all employees make to the future of the business and employees’ opinions are valued. In this way, the work environment is fulfilling, with respect and acceptance both given and received.  


Each prospective employee goes through the normal application process, including an interview. ‘An assessment is also done to ensure that this type of employment is a good fit for the individual concerned,’ adds Straubinger. 


There are performance criteria in place that give regular structure to the workplace. ‘All our employees must comply with the usual workplace processes and procedures, including OH&S, being punctual, and wearing appropriate clothing and safety gear,’ notes Captain Lynn Jones, corps officer (minister) and general manager of Brunswick Salvation Army. 


The business manufactures a variety of timber products including furniture components and specialised timber packaging, and its income comes from two main sources—55% is from block grants from the government and 45% comes from sales of products.


Having been involved with the disability sector for almost 20 years, Straubinger was looking for a greater level of work satisfaction when the opportunity to work with The Salvation Army arose. 


‘I knew that the Army had an enormous presence in the community and was held in high regard for its hands-on work in the community,’ he says. ‘It is very satisfying to provide a workplace that brings balance between employment and giving people the support they need.’


This month, the National Disability insurance Scheme (NDIS) will start to roll out across Australia. When it is fully operational, funding will transfer from service providers to individuals. Individuals will be empowered to make choices regarding their employment and work environment rather than having those decisions made for them. 


As this shift takes place, Creative Opportunities is confident that the environment which has been created for employees will see individuals choosing their service. 


One person who has benefited from employment at Creative Opportunities is Craig, who has mental health issues related to psychiatric problems and acquired brain injuries. Beginning work there in 2012, after completing a job readiness course with specialist employment agency Northstar, this was his first step into real employment. 


‘I love working at Creative Opportunities,’ he says. ‘I’ve made lots of new friends and learnt new skills. If I didn’t have this job to keep me busy, I don’t know what I’d be doing. Getting paid helps me keep a roof over my head,’ he adds.


Since beginning work, Craig has increased his hours and now works three days a week. His self-confidence and motivation to take on responsibilities have flourished—he is now an active member of both the employee representative and the occupational health and safety committees.


Creative Opportunities is the only service of its kind provided by The Salvation Army. Captain Jones says that ‘while the Army has been involved working with people with disabilities, it has often been in psycho-social support, accommodation or welfare areas’.


It was former corps officer of Brunswick Salvos, Major David Eldridge, who wanted to see Salvo involvement in this field continue, as many of the people who come to Brunswick Corps and Community Centre are a similar cohort to those currently employed at Creative Opportunities.


‘This service,’ Captain Jones adds, ‘has had an interesting genesis, with several iterations over the years. It started not so much as a disability program but rather as an employment program for people with disabilities as well as long-term unemployed and youth.’ 


Although there are some private Australian disability enterprises, Captain Jones notes that ‘most are directly linked to disability-specific organisations who often work with a defined cohort, such as intellectual, para- and quadriplegics, sensory and psychiatric’. 


She adds that, ‘Creative Opportunities is a value-added employment service that meets all the mission values of The Salvation Army, including chaplaincy and links with the corps (churches).’

 

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