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Disability Action Center NW

Disabled get a start from Shags

Barbara Miller reported this story on Monday, January 23, 2012 12:18:00
ELEANOR HALL: The Federal and state governments say their plan to introduce a National Disability Insurance Scheme will dramatically change the lives of people with disabilities.

Studies show the new scheme should help several hundred thousand more Australians with disabilities to enter the workforce – but one young disability advocate isn’t holding her breath.

Laura O’Reilly has set up her own company specifically to employ people with disabilities. It’s a venture that was inspired by the experience of her brother Shane, who had cerebral palsy.

Reporter Barbara Miller visited the start-up in Sydney’s northern beaches.

GEORGIA COOPER: We’re getting different numbers from different schools and basically there is…

BARBARA MILLER: Eighteen-year-old Georgia Cooper, who has cerebral palsy, explains what her work for the day will be. She’s one of 10 people with disabilities working at the Sydney start-up.

GEORGIA COOPER: I’m really loving it here. It is great. I love all the people here, I love socialising. It is fantastic and it is good to get, you know, those internet skills on the computer. It is fantastic.

BARBARA MILLER: Georgia’s mother Michelle Cooper is loving it too.

MICHELLE COOPER: She is just happier and she seems to be more positive and she is learning. Even at home she said I’ll problem solve that. Now that is a big thing for an 18-year-old to say I’ll problem solve something so that is obviously something they do here. So she is bringing those skills into the house as well. I think this is going to be fabulous for Georgia and anyone else that is involved with it.

(Sounds of general talking)

BARBARA MILLER: The first initiative of the start-up is a product called Shags. That stands for shoe bag – a brightly coloured cloth bag for women to carry their heels in while walking to work. It’s a cheeky name for a bold venture.

It’s born out of the Fighting Chance charity, and run by 25-year-old Laura O’Reilly.

Fighting Chance was set up to give people with disabilities opportunities to enter the workforce and was inspired by Laura O’Reilly’s brother Shane.

LAURA O’REILLY: So Shane was assessed as unemployable. He was very profoundly physically disabled despite being very smart and very bright and switched on and he loved computers. So he was at a day program but he used to say that he found it quite boring and it wasn’t stimulating or challenging for him and as a young person with two siblings who were both going off into employment he wanted that option.

BARBARA MILLER: Shane died suddenly last year, but Laura O’Reilly pushed on.

LAURA O’REILLY: Yeah, the day that he died me and my other sibling Geordie who I run this project with, we did look at each other and we had just signed the lease on the building, we’d just got the computers in. Shane actually did see his desk and where he would be working although we hadn’t yet got to the stage where he could start and Geordie and I did look at each other and think what are we going to do now. For about 30 seconds that thought crossed our mind.

But then our resolve came back and we just haven’t really looked back since then and we continue to do it in his memory but we continue to do it for the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people just like him who need the same opportunities and the same chance.

BARBARA MILLER: The office is tucked away at the back of an industrial estate near a shopping mall. It was here that Laura O’Reilly finally found a space that was totally accessible for people with disabilities.

Even then they had to modify the bathroom.

LAURA O’REILLY: It is a, I guess, a reflection of the struggles that people with disabilities have which is that if you can’t even find an office to start your business how can you work?

BARBARA MILLER: There are other challenges too.

LAURA O’REILLY: Some of the younger people with disabilities don’t come into the office space work ready in the sense that many of them haven’t been socialised around the expectation of ever getting employment. Many have sort of been told that that is not the path they are going to go down and so they haven’t had any of the training that the rest of us just sort of almost take for granted as we go through our teens.

So there was work to be done around just explaining what the work environment is, the code of conduct, how you behave.

For example, you can go on social media in your lunch hour but you can’t do that when we are working.

(Sounds of general talking)

BARBARA MILLER: Mark Wadsworth describes himself as the elder statesman of the business. A builder by trade, the 52-year-old has been in a wheelchair since the age of 40, due to the effects of a rare genetic disorder. He’s optimistic about the project’s chances of success:

MARK WADSWORTH: I do think it’ll work because nobody else is doing it. There are activities for disabled people to go to to fill in their time. This is making them feel worthwhile because even if they’re not earning a great deal of money, it makes you feel worthwhile if you are earning something. Makes you feel as though you are contributing.

BARBARA MILLER: The business started just before Christmas. Georgia Cooper is looking forward to her first pay cheque.

GEORGIA COOPER: When I get my first pay I would like to go on a trip overseas or something, to Paris, Italy, Europe or Rome. I’ve actually been to England and New Zealand and it is fantastic.

(Sounds of general talking)

BARBARA MILLER: Laura O’Reilly’s been working round the clock. She has no illusions about the task she’s set herself – and no regrets.

LAURA O’REILLY: I read a quote recently that if you do something that you love you will never work a day in your life and that’s how I feel. I suppose you could say I work 15 hours a day but really I don’t work at all because I love what I do.

ELEANOR HALL: Good on her. Laura O’Reilly from the Fighting Chance initiative. That report by Barbara Miller.