Navigating the maze (disability access)

To give the below post context: I am disabled, vision impaired.  I have 6/18 functional vision, meaning that what you can probably read at 18 metres I can read at 6.  I’m an albino, so I have photophobia – bright lights blind me – and other charming vision defects with even more impenetrable names.  I was diagnosed when I was 6 months old.  My disability is permanent and untreatable; the only surgery available is cosmetic with risks.

Today has been an exhausting roller coaster ride, but at least it’s gone the right way: down then up.

This morning I had a job capacity assessment with Centrelink (Australia’s Department of Social Security) to determine whether or not a potential employer would be eligible for the wage subsidy if she employed me part-time.  The answer was ‘no’ then it got worse.

Centrelink told me that the uppermost limit for a disability access grant is $1000, and my best hope for more funding would be low-interest loans of less than $1000 each from various sources.  To give you some context: in an administrative assistant (office worker position) I will need a desktop magnifier that will cost around $5000 to $7000 in order to do data entry.  Disability access to a computer is separate.  I sat there and cried.

I couldn’t believe it, I’m stuck on unemployment benefits because I lost my job working for SA Health (the South Australian department of health).  I needed disability access when I was employed there as a Community Health Worker (ASO4), and although the OH&S officer refused to sign off on my induction because I was unable to sit ergonomically without disability access, no disability access was forthcoming.  After a change of manager, the new manager/s decided to bully me into sitting ergonomically at a computer screen without disability access.  When that didn’t work and I sent an email to both co-managers with a request for disability access, I was refused disability access in email then humiliated in a team meeting, which I left in tears. A week or two later my job was advertised; the job selection process was delayed until a student social worker completed her first undergraduate degree about 4 or 5 weeks later, and I was replaced.

I complained: the investigation found that I did not have a disability, I had not declared a disability (in spite of numerous forms and emails showing otherwise), I had not asked for disability access (in spite of email requests and refusals) and this report found that I did not need disability access.  When I pointed out that the middle manager who ‘assessed’ my disability had no medical qualifications, I was ignored.  The Equal Opportunities Commission in South Australia found that I have a disability, I had declared my disability and I requested disability access, but the Equal Opportunities Commission found that I did not ask for disability access enough times.  They didn’t specify how many times SA Health was allowed to refuse disability access.

So here I am, after a period of long-term unemployment doing my damndest to get a job and I’m told by Centrelink that I have to apply for jobs but I won’t get assistance with the barest minimum necessity to enable me to work.  The woman sat there and told me that my employer would be required to fund disability access.  I was absolutely aghast.  No employer is going to take on a disabled employee if that means they’re going to be out of pocket by at least $5K.  I tried to explain this to her.  I told her how employers have abused me in the past for daring to apply for work, how they’ve been aggressive about how I would not be considered if I cost them any money at all.  Centrelink told me that there was no funding for a CCTV and asked me who I thought should pay for it.  As hubby and I are both on unemployment benefits at the moment, getting a loan for a job for which I’d be on probation is out of the question.

I sat there with tears streaming down my face, while Centrelink somewhat aggressively informed me that I am required to apply for jobs regardless of lack of funding for disability access.  I was trying to decide whether the best option was to walk under a train immediately or go through the hell before me, suffering the humiliation of applying for jobs and being abused by employers over and over again, never being considered for a job.  My only consolation is that if hubby gets a job we should be able to extend the mortgage to purchase a CCTV.  Forget replacing the 15 year old car, my only hope of working ever again rests on being able to purchase my own disability access.

I left Centrelink absolutely devastated.

Upon arriving home, I emailed the employer who advertised the job I have been hoping to get, informing her of the bad news regarding both the wage subsidy and the lack of disability access.  I told her that I’d purchase all my own equipment at my expense if I got the job, hoping that it would be possible.

After sending off that email and feeling completely wretched, I decided to ring the Job Access people just in case.  The first person I spoke to gave me some information, which seemed to largely contradict Centrelink, but she was a customer service officer so only able to answer limited queries.  She transferred the call to Camille, my knight in shining armour.

Camille asked me what my disability is, to which I replied that I’m an albino with functional vision of 6/18.  This actually meant something to Camille.  (Now it gets hard to tell the story because I want to start crying again, but in a good way this time.)  Camille talked about needing a medical report, which I have but I don’t have something that says ‘I need disability access’ dated within the last two years.  Back in South Australia I had an ophthalmologist and the Royal Society for the Blind who provided reports to whomever wanted them.  (SA Health received these medical reports but refused to consider these medical reports for their internal investigation, favouring the non-medical middle manager’s assessment of my disability instead.)  Sadly these reports are now more than two years old, and my current reports from Vision Australia and the ophthalmologist here in Melbourne don’t specifically state what kind of disability access I need to work.  Camille said that if I have medical reports that state what my disability is, then they know what I need and can work with that.

Camille wasn’t just talking about spending $5000 on a CCTV, she was talking about spending $10,000 to $12,000 on providing me with disability access.  A voice in my head said, ‘This is too good to be true, they won’t provide you with that kind of access,’ but the news was good enough for me to send a follow up email to the potential employer telling her the basic good news so that she might still seriously consider me for the job.

 

Next port of call was Quantum Technology to look at a CCTV as I hadn’t seen new models in years.  (Above is a slightly older model CCTV: you put the reading material in the tray at the bottom and it’s magnified onto the computer screen.)  If I’m going to get a one-off grant – or pay a shit load for one myself – I want to make damn sure I get the best one possible so it lasts as long as possible.

If Camille is my knight in shining armour, then Trevor of Quantum is the wise man sitting by the crossroads, ready and willing to enlighten travellers prepared to take the time to learn.

Technology has come a long way since the last time I looked – longingly and forlornly – at disability access technology.  CCTVs now come in fully digital models, not even just digital screens but actual digital cameras so that the definition is much better than the one I borrowed for my temp job in Comcare.  In Comcare I had to use a handheld magnifier several times a day because the CCTV I borrowed pixellated and distorted some small text beyond recognition; the CCTVs available now are new and improved.  But it gets better.

Pearl (above) is a little beauty: it’s a portable camera mounted on a stand that takes A4 photos.  These photos are then scanned with optical character recognition (OCR) software and the result displayed on the computer screen.

Yeah, yeah, you say: big bloody deal.

You have no idea.

This OCR software really works for starters.  It can recognise columns of text and interpret the page so it shows on the computer screen as one long column, including italics and font changes, enabling the text to be displayed at varied font sizes.  It can be shown in various display modes including ‘realistic’, black & white, reverse black & white, other colours like yellow text on black background etcetera.  The software can even read the text fairly well, with a choice of voices.  This total package – camera and software – comes to just under $2000.

Another uber-shiny option is a special computer screen with an adjustable stand that gives the option of hooking up the CCTV and the computer (with Pearl or Word or whatever) in dual windows.  These windows are fully customisable:  side by side or one over the other, percentages of the screen are adjustable etcetera.  This would have been absolutely fantastic in my job in Comcare where I was doing data entry from forms under the CCTV beside the computer and turning to the computer…. Let’s just say my shoulders and back started to ache by the end of the day from twisting back and forth all day.  Reach over to adjust the page, look at the one screen for the data entry, then move on… Awesome.

Trevor also showed me a digital electronic magnifier, similar to but better quality than ones I’ve seen before.  This kind of technology I’ve personally put in the ‘fluffy bunnies and rainbows’ basket because I can manage crouched over a hand held magnifier like this one, which is not ideal, but as I already own two magnifiers built along these principles, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.

We also looked at Zoomtext, which I purchased and used myself for some time but that version – version 6 – caused my computer to crash so I found alternative means of using the computer (even if I haven’t been sitting fully ergonomically, I have been getting by).  Now Zoomtext is up to version 10 and is a lot better.

I was running up an awful bill in my head, trying to work out which pieces of disability access technology I would select if given a choice.  The total package was definitely coming in at around $10,000 to $12,000, the figure Camille had cited, but I just didn’t believe that I would get that amount of funding.

Trevor said that what he had shown us was the normal starting package for a vision impaired person starting work.  

Of course the workplace modifications people don’t want to purchase unnecessary equipment and workflows need to function so that I am at least as efficient as a non-disabled person in the same job, but apparently this is the normal package for someone like me.

I still find it extremely difficult to believe.  Firstly, it’s difficult to believe that the government would fork out all that money to get me into a job after SA Health (state government) trashed my career so utterly and completely just because I asked for disability access.  Secondly I find it difficult to believe that, after all these years, I’ll get a job at all.

The icing on the cake was Trevor telling me that I could get a brief trial period of the technology in the workplace because once the workplace modifications people have signed off on it, I can’t get any replacements or new technology for a whole year.

Wha-at?!

Yes, a whole year.

I had assumed that no further technology would be forthcoming ever, not even when expensive equipment died or it’d be at least 5 or 7 or 10 years before new technology would be funded.  Nope, apparently it’s annual.  If I got this kind of package I wouldn’t need much if anything for years, but knowing that modest funding is available for replacements or change of workflows is reassuring – if only I could really relax and believe it.

I feel like Alice, who’s had this awful, prolonged fall down the rabbit hole, landing with a bruising thump.  Feeling quite battered and traumatised, slowly, apprehensively, I pick myself up and look around.  I spy cake on the table with a note saying ‘Eat me.’  If I eat the cake, will it be more poison or will it be the means of my escape into Wonderland where I can be as ‘normal’ as the next person?