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Thursday, 25 November 1965

Mr O'CONNOR (Dalley) .- I wish to spend my time speaking of the disadvantages that people with disabilities experience in obtaining employment. It is perfectly true that the situation is far better now than it was 30 years ago when, generally speaking, the person with a disability did not get beyond an interview for employment. If he concealed his disability, when it manifested itself subsequently he was immediately discharged from employment. With the coming of the war and the necessity to utilise all available manpower these strictures were in many instances lifted. As a result of the experience gained during the war years many of the prejudices that formerly prevailed against handicapped people getting jobs disappeared. The position is better today than it used to be but unfortunately there is still in the community a great deal of prejudice and indifference towards the employment of handicapped people.

Following the war a report was presented to the Government by what was known as the Boyer Committee. That Committee investigated this problem. The Committee's recommendations received the consideration of the Government. The purpose of the Committee's inquiry was to enable handicapped people to be placed in employment in the Public Service. I do not know to what extent the Committee's recommendations are being implemented but I feel that the approach of government medical officers to this problem leaves a lot to be desired. Those people who watched " Four Corners " at the weekend could not fail to be impressed but also a little distressed by the circumstances of an epileptic who found his job in jeopardy. The programme should have removed completely from the minds of people any idea that epileptics have no trouble obtaining and holding a job. Many people have been deeply moved by the plight of these people. What can be said about epileptics may also be said about many other people who suffer physical disabilities and who as a consequence are handicapped in their efforts to obtain employment. As was pointed out during question time this week, the Government has one policy regarding the payment of unemployment or sickness benefits to epileptics and its departments are bound by such a rigid code that they are almost prevented from offering employment to these people. The attitude of government medical officers to this problem, as well as to others, needs a little tidying up. We are not impressed by Ministers coming into this House and giving us the advice they have received from medical officers. When Ministers do this they are virtually abdicating in favour of such officers. If this is the attitude of Ministers they might as well hand over to their medical officers.

Other matters also in this field call for greater ministerial direction and authority. Take the case of a government employee who has contracted tuberculosis, been treated by the State authorities and subsequently discharged by those authorities as being cured and as representing no risk to the public. The authorities virtually say: "You are now well. You may go out into the world and lead your usual life." But this is not sufficient for the Commonwealth's medical officers. They say that before that man may return to his work he must wait another six months. It is highly contradictory to have on the one hand the State health authorities saying that the man represents no risk through contact with the public and on the other hand the Commonwealth's medical officers saying that he must wait another six months before returning to work. This contradictory state of affairs can react only to the detriment of handicapped people.

I feel there may be greater opportunities for handicapped people in government service than in private industry. It is true that in some instances private industry makes a contribution by providing employment for such people, but I regret to say that there is still in the community far too much prejudice and indifference which operates to the hardship and detriment of these people. Perhaps public reaction to this problem is a little more enlightened than it was a few years ago. However, a great deal of prejudice still remains to be banished. A person with a disability or a handicap of some kind who is trying to keep the home front going faces tremendous problems, particularly if he is married. I appeal for a more compassionate, understanding and tolerant approach to the employment needs of these people. The provision of some kind of work for these people has been left principally to religious organisations and to some types of commercial organisations.

As I have said, experience has shown conclusively that when these people are given an opportunity to work they have proved themselves as reliable and as capable as other people. There must be many industries where more of these people could be employed than are employed at the moment. All that is needed is that a little more consideration and understanding be extended to these people. All we want is a more compassionate approach to their problems and more tolerance extended to them. If the community adopted such an approach to this problem, many of these unfortunate people, who are today denied jobs simply because there is a lack of understanding on the part of employers or even an attitude of indifference and prejudice, would have removed from their shoulders the tremendous responsibility of continually seeking jobs. At present they invariably come up against brick walls.

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