“We never thought that I wasn’t going to get better.” Dawson Ko, the Sydney-born son of Chinese immigrants, is talking about how he and his parents came to terms with his degenerative illness.
When he was 15, Ko was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder, Behcet’s disease. By 20 he was completely blind. “I felt trapped in my body and so depressed that I had no control over my circumstances.” Unable to contemplate a future, Ko attempted suicide.
Despite these setbacks, he completed undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and secured a job in human relations.
Like many others, Ko’s story is a combination of personal determination and support from family, friends and the disability sector, in his case, Vision Australia. The organisation helped him accept his blindness, learn how to walk with the aid of a cane and learn braille.
Ko’s experience underscores some of the findings of UTS researcher Jennifer Green that, among other things, show that the overriding personal characteristic of high achievers with a disability is grit.
Program Director of the Postgraduate Community Management Program at UTS, Green has been researching ways to improve the employment chances for the estimated 15 per cent of working-age Australians affected by a disability.
Instead of taking a traditional approach and exploring barriers to employment, she sought out high achievers in the disability community to see if there were common factors in their experiences.
“I came across a study in the UK that interviewed people with disabilities in high-level public services. It piqued my interest. Maybe a top-down approach would be revealing. I already knew of several individuals with disabilities who held very responsible jobs, such as a human rights commissioner and another in a top job at the ABC.”
Identifying 30 people using a “snowball sampling technique” – contacting people she knew or knew of through referrals or cold calling – Green selected people with a range of ages and disabilities, including mobility, vision, hearing, communication and chronic illness.
The overriding personal characteristic they shared was determination, she says. “They were persistent, saw employment as their right and had a long-term plan for achieving that.”
Significantly, they often had someone in their young lives who believed this was an achievable outcome and offered support.
But the most interesting revelation for Green was that out of the 30, 27 worked either paid or unpaid for disability organisations.
“The nitty-gritty of where change is happening is people with disabilities doing it for themselves from within,” she says.
Those who began as volunteers with these types of organisations, gained experience and skills that took them into paid employment.
From the launch pads of disability organisations, Green found people stayed connected, developed networks and derived support from others who understood the problems and attitudes that people with disabilities encounter at work.
Australia ranks only 21 out of 29 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for labour force participation of people with disabilities, says Green. “In Australia we are not making gains in this area statistically.
“There’s huge goodwill in some workplaces but a lack of understanding among managers,” says Green. “And, as a person with a disability, you are the constant educator.
“What the research shows is that, although it’s not part of their brief, disability organisations are instrumental in creating employment opportunities.”
Ko [who was not part of Green’s study] says that when he was losing his sight, his parents sheltered him and took him out of school.
“Thinking about it now, what held me back was not giving things a go – and what freed me was having the mind set to attempt things and not to plan too far ahead.”
His mastery of karate illustrates this perfectly. “I thought, ‘I’ll go to the first class and see if I like it’. One thing leads to another and you gain more confidence to try bigger and more outrageous things. Eleven years on and I’m one of the highest-ranking blind black belts in the world.”
Still, even daily routines such as his journey to Transport for NSW where he works in HR, are never easy. But, he says, “you keep pushing and don’t let things hold you back from living a full life”.
He says the greatest identity he has of himself is having a job. “Feeling like you’re doing something worthwhile with your time – that all comes down to UTS and further education,” he says.
Green says her findings raise the possibility of disability organisations collaborating, forming strategies and potentially seeking resources to expand their activities in employment.
“Often disability organisations’ funding is insecure and reliant on government. But they are having a big social impact and it needs to be measured, as it’s not recognised now. Yet they are the beginning of a supply chain into the employment market and that’s a very important role.”