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“We need a complete paradigm shift”: A social worker’s tips for creating more inclusive societies

Karene Gravener

KARENE Gravener is passionate about inclusiveness, smashing through stigma and barriers for people living with a disability, and creating change.

Karene has been a social worker for the past 17 years, and wants to see a future where all people can shine, show their skillsets, and share their most authentic selves.

Karene, who is based in Townsville, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 12 months of age. Over the years, she has connected with Feros Care Community Development Coordinator Catherine Murphy, who extended an invitation to a Feros Care focus group looking at how employment and education are managed in the disability sector.

“I’m always very happy to lend my voice wherever possible in the hope of changing attitudes,” Karene shares, “or,  even better, influencing the community in order to create more positive and beneficial outcomes for people with a disability.” 

Through the focus group, Karene shared that a “complete paradigm shift” is needed to encourage and inspire change for people living with a disability.

This means a shift in the mindset of society, a revolution in how employers and society do business, and a bold new approach – or complete shake-up – in every organisation’s recruitment ethos.

Inclusion from the beginning

“I believe that if you include people with disabilities from the onset, not only are you giving them a chance to participate fully in life, but you are also giving able-bodied people and the general populace the opportunity to understand that we – people with disabilities – can and should be a part of our communities,” Karene says. 

Karene’s mother and father have been instrumental in the success of her life. Karene says that she would not be where she is today without her family support.

“I’m one of the lucky ones because I got intensive early intervention and without that, I don’t believe I’d have the capacity that I do today.

“I feel blessed that I’ve been supported by my family, and I was encouraged to go to university, but often people with disability accept so little in their lives. It hurts my heart.”

“My mum understood that for me to have a chance in life, education was key. For me, at primary school, they were very ill-equipped to meet my needs, so she fought for that.

“She could see that having an education was my chance to have a voice. If you have someone supporting you and believing in you, you can achieve things. Mum always saw me as ‘able’ and just as good as any other person in the world. That meant so much to me. She taught me to believe in myself first.

“So, it is imperative that we are supported and equipped to have what we need to succeed – what you get in return will be invaluable.”

A new business model

Karene has been a social worker for the past 17 years, and she’s currently working on projects with the organisation Queenslanders with Disability Network whose motto is ‘Nothing about us without us’.

Karene is also involved with Head to Health, a mental health support organisation.

She will never forget hearing a speaker at a function in 2002 talk about national gross domestic product. The speaker, who has a disability, said Australians should think about the productivity and benefits being missed when people with a disability aren’t included in the workforce and education sector.

“If you look at the stats for employment, the percentage of unemployment for people with disabilities is still at a staggering and unacceptable level.

“My perception is, that people who own businesses or run services, believe that it would be too hard for them to understand what is required for people with disabilities to be gainfully employed. But I disagree vehemently because what we can give back is exponential.”

Hopefully, Karene says, the growing number of people who are working to raise awareness and motivate change will be the catalyst that drives innovative new approaches and transformations in employment and education.

“It could help people understand that it’s not that hard – there’s resources out there to help and guide businesses and companies in the area of best practice and inclusiveness.”

“I knew that being part of the focus group would be emotional for me.

“Policy and procedure are one thing, and KPIs are important, but if the employment sector continue to focus on these areas on their own and see them as the ultimate goal overall, how are they are ever going to embrace all the diversity that’s out there.”

Changing up our views on productivity

She says there needs to be an “absolutely fundamental reshaping” of how society views productivity and the power of collaboration, where employer and employee build a working relationship and discover both the expectations of the employer, and the unique skill set of an individual”.

“What always was, doesn’t always have to be. Say, a KPI means you need to see eight clients a day in a face-to-face counselling role. “What if the person with a disability says, ‘I physically and mentally can’t do eight – I physically wouldn’t have the time to get to each one – I can only do four?

“If, as an employer you’re not willing to be flexible around that, then you’re going to lose a valuable employee.”

As an employee, Karene says people with a disability can feel “pushed into a box where you can’t meet the criteria”.

“Then you retreat and can easily find yourself in a destructive cycle of depression and anxiety, where you are not feeling capable of “trying again.”

“Imagine…we start seeing conversations between employer and employee play out like this ‘It’s clear that you have the skills and experience required for this role, so can you describe to me what it is you believe you can contribute to this company/organisation? let’s work together to see what you need to make that happen for you?’”

One big picture …

Karene says it’s essential that people with disabilities are included in the process of change, which is why she was keen to embrace the Feros Care focus groups and the model of co-design which are led by the experiences and wisdom of people with disability from a range of backgrounds, cultures, and communities.

People with disabilities want to give to their communities but they’re scared of not being good enough for the world out there, she says.

“And that’s why they need to have a say in how it’s done.

“We’re talking about seeing it as one big picture and understanding that co-design doesn’t just mean listening to what someone with a disability has to say and thinking, ‘oh, that’s nice’. It means literally changing the way employment is approached and involving us in the process from the start.

“It means being a question-asker and finding out how to find out.”

Faith in the future

Tackling stigma is tricky as it’s so ingrained. The deinstitutionalization of people with disabilities only took place in 1974, and there’s been a vast lack of resources in the community since.

“We haven’t had a powerful presence in our community until the NDIS which was only established in any significant way in 2013,” Karene says.

With the love and support of her husband, 12-year-old son, six-year-old daughter, her sisters, her mother, father, and the NDIS, Karene is well aware of the power of connection and community.
She has a voice.

“Sincerely, if you feel disempowered as a person with a disability, you feel like you don’t have a voice. It is fundamentally tragic.
“The spiritual and sociological impact for people with a disability when they don’t have a voice is devastating – it can lead to bullying, abuse, and coercive control.”

However, if the feedback from the focus groups and other organisations around Australia advocating for a social model of disability – or a change in society which allows inclusion – is used to make policy that is enforced and implemented, the future looks more promising.

“I can see that we really, genuinely stand a chance to be contributing members of our communities,” Karene says.
“Some mental health concerns will diminish, people will feel less ostracised and isolated, and if you as a person with a disability have economic capacity, you have the power of choice.

“And when you have the power to choose, you have the power to say what you really want instead of what you feel you should.”

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