10 min read

Poverty wages

I had a lot to learn about what it is like to work in an ADE, what makes a transition to other jobs work, and what barriers people with an intellectual disability face at every turn.
Poverty wages
a tiny pile of coins with text saying poverty wages

Over the last few years, my understanding has shifted about the future of sheltered workshops and the priorities for change, after listening to the people most affected by the issue, really listening, focusing on what they said was important and what needed to be fixed.

Before this, I had a pretty standard disability rights position about sheltered workshops, or Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs), where people with an intellectual disability work for subminimum wages as low as 12.5% of the minimum wage. I believed they should all be shut down right now, and that people with an intellectual disability should be working in regular jobs in the community. 

That seems self-evident, doesn’t it. After all, the only people I knew of who were supporting ADEs and paying people with an intellectual disability subminimum wages were ADEs themselves. But that wasn’t actually the case, and I had a lot to learn.

During 2022, I was lucky enough to work with a wide range of people with an intellectual disability who had worked in ADEs. We shared many experiences - discrimination, not having adjustments at work, prejudice, finding it hard to get a job with our disabilities - but I have never been paid $2.50 an hour as an adult, nor been told I can only work with other disabled people, shut away from the community. 

Together, we developed a five year blueprint for change for Inclusion Australia, called Equal Pay, Equal Rights. This huge piece of work went into the Disability Royal Commission (DRC) and to the NDIS Review and had an impact on the DRC final report recommendations.

I had a lot to learn about what it is like to work in an ADE, what makes a transition to other jobs work, and what barriers people with an intellectual disability face at every turn.

The number one issue that those who had worked for subminimum wages raised was wages. They wanted wages changed so they earn the same as the other people they work with. People told us how disrespected they felt when they knew they weren’t getting the same pay as other workers, and how they spent more catching the bus to work than they got paid in a day. People with an intellectual disability said how important it was for them to get the same wages as other people in the jobs they had now. They coined the phrase ‘equal pay, equal rights’.

The next biggest issue was the need for more and different jobs, with the right support. People with an intellectual disability are mostly totally shut out of employment altogether, and of those who do have a job, most work in a sheltered workshop. Most. There are huge barriers to getting any job outside of a sheltered workshop and it’s really hard to get any support for those jobs.

Neither of those big issues was about shutting down ADEs at all. People with an intellectual disability were really clear that this wasn’t a priority for them and that there were advantages to working in an ADE that I didn’t understand.

I didn’t know much about the barriers to getting support at work for people with an intellectual disability, and how there were cumulative barriers that only apply to them that make the whole idea of getting a job impossible.

I’ll give you an example. When a person with an intellectual disability goes on to the DSP, which most people get, they are often assessed as being able to work less than 8 hours a week. This means they can’t use Disability Employment Services (DES) without a complicated self-referral process. Less than 3% of the DES caseload are people with an intellectual disability, despite them having the biggest barriers to work. So even the first step to getting support to get and keep a job is bloody hard.

DES and the NDIS don’t always play nicely with each other, particularly about getting supports at work, and even if a person with an intellectual disability gets NDIS supports, trying to find an employer or supports that are not an ADE is damn hard.

The evidence about what works to support a person with an intellectual disability at work is really clear, but little of that is used to drive what is funded. Instead, practices that have no evidence, such as classroom based learning, get NDIS funding. Again, another barrier in the way of getting into employment.

Every single system that we looked at for this project has specific barriers that often only applied to people with an intellectual disability. Not to me, but to people with an intellectual disability.

When a person with an intellectual disability gets through all these barriers and lands a job, they then can face the NDIS turning around and removing the very supports that got them in the door, and they are right back at the start of this rigged game of snakes and ladders.

At the same time, people with an intellectual disability talked about being bullied, excluded and treated appallingly in regular employment. And being very lonely because no one included them, or talked to them or make any work materials accessible. They ate lunch alone, were excluded from training, from social events, from everything.

These barriers to work for people with an intellectual disability are particular and enormous. Removing them are essential to ensuring that people don’t have to live their entire life in poverty, which leads to so much of the exclusion that so many people with an intellectual disability face, at work, and in the community.

Changes to the wages of disabled people who earn subminimum wages isn’t some fanciful ideology - it is about saying that if you are working, you should earn enough to lift you out of poverty. No one should work for poverty wages, no one.

In the series so far, I’ve talked about poverty for all disabled people, but it is vital to understand that for people with an intellectual disability, this poverty is much deeper, more likely to be lifelong and has an appalling impact. People with an intellectual disability rarely work or own their own home, and worst of all, die decades earlier than other people.

None of this is natural. Every single one of the barriers in the path to employment for people with an intellectual disability has a solution, and we found those solutions.

What urgently needs to change is the deep prejudice against people with an intellectual disability, baked into every single part of all our systems.

So, what did the Disability Royal Commission and the NDIS Review say about all this? After all, more than half of those who get NDIS support, and most of those who live in group homes, are people with an intellectual disability. Does the poverty they live in, and the reasons behind that, get any attention?

And does the link between that poverty, and their exclusion, also get addressed? Living on income support means transport is hard to afford, as is fresh food, medical treatment, clothes, hair cuts, sport and leisure activities. For people with an intellectual disability who live in group homes or boarding houses, they often pay a large amount of their DSP to the housing provider (75-90%) for rent/board, food and utilities, leaving them with a few dollars a week. For decades.

All of the current discussions about reform hinge on this issue - the generational poverty of disabled people, particularly people with an intellectual disability. At the same time, there are organisations making millions from providing support for disabled people, with not a single obligation to address the poverty those very disabled people live in.

Disability Royal Commission and NDIS Review

Much of the media coverage about the Disability Royal Commission final report focused on the calls to end segregation in housing, employment and education, particularly the last one. Media outlets were full of pieces from non-disabled people talking about what a terrible idea it was to say that disabled kids should go to school with everyone else. 

What got much less attention were the other two sections. I’ve already written about housing and mainstream employment, so now time to look at what was said about closed employment, particularly in ADEs.

This is one of the sections of the DRC final report where the Commissioners disagreed, with four of the Commissioners believing that ADEs are segregated workplaces, where people with disability are grouped together for work, but the Chair and Commissioner Ryan saying there’s nothing wrong with that.

The DRC final report gives the background to ADEs and the key public hearing held that heard from folks who work there - again, as in other DRC sections, summarising the publicly available material about ADEs, with little evidence they ever used their powers to find out new or different information. 

At the public hearing, people with disability talked about valuing their work in ADEs and the people they worked with, but found the low wages really hard. This is pretty much what we also found in our stakeholder interviews for the Inclusion Australia submission.

And despite hearing significant evidence that people don’t move into other kinds of jobs for higher wages once they go into an ADE, and that there is an increased risk of violence and abuse, the Chair and Commissioner Ryan didn’t think that there was a lack of ‘choice and control in relation to the nature of their employment’. 


There is a good detailed discussion in the report of the kinds of risks that workers in ADEs face, including power disparities, bad working conditions, violence and abuse at work, inaccessible information and communications, including on their rights and a lack of legal protections. 

When in comes to wages, to that pathway out of poverty for people with an intellectual disability, the DRC endorsed one of the key ideas that we worked on, if not in total.

We modelled a Federal Government wage top-up to the minimum wage equivalant that would end subminimum wages in a timeframe of five years before people with an intellectual disability would be paid full minimum wages from their employers.

All the Commissioners agreed (recommendation 7.31) that ‘the payment of subminimum wages to people with disability is inconsistent with the principles of inherent dignity and respect for difference and human diversity’ (p485) and recommended that the wages are lifted to at least half the minimum wage now, and full wages by 2034.

Commissioners Bennett, Galbally, Mason and McEwin also wanted a concrete timeline to end all segregated work and to see ADEs transform into something different.

Many of the recommendations about removing barriers that we included in our submission last year have been picked up, such as the interactions between DES and NDIS, changes to the NDIS employment strategy, the extension of the DSP transitional period and information about DSP and wages. 

The DRC used their fave economists at Taylor Fry to do modelling that has some curious assumptions embedded in it, including that no changes are made to open employment to make it more accessible for people with an intellectual disability. This means that the Commissioners were ‘concerned with significant job losses identified by Taylor Fry’s modelling as a potential unintended outcome of the Full Minimum Wage Option... Job loss would leave people financially worse off if they have to rely on the DSP alone.’ 

So why didn’t they make any recommendations about how to fix open employment so it wasn’t so shithouse for folks with an intellectual disability? Part of the Inclusion Australia submission was a detailed set of proposals about exactly how to avoid this, and the scale of employment required. Again, if we could do this in three months, why couldn’t the DRC in four years?

The remainder of this section are the recommendations from the majority of Commissioners about ending the segregation of work in ADEs and transforming them into ‘social firms’ which ‘are businesses that prioritise social impact’ and pay a fair wage.

While the DRC engaged with ADEs and subminimum wages in detail, the NDIS Review didn’t much at all, and neither really address the issue of service capture, where disabled people get housing, recreation and ADE work from the same disability service provider. What’s the incentive for those providers to change anything if they can’t even name that this is a problem?

The general employment recommendations that I covered in the previous piece don’t deal with the specific barriers experienced by people with an intellectual disability. And so there are no solutions to those barriers proposed.

The complex interplay of all these barriers makes getting out of poverty incredibly hard for people with an intellectual disability. And the inability of both reports to grapple seriously with this is galling.

Both reports deal with the what but don’t deal with the why of disabled peoples’ exclusion from work and insistence that our place is living on income support. And so the recommendations follow that pattern, with changes recommended to address some of the barriers, but not to deal with the whole system. There is a faith in the existing structures to implement change, when those are the very structures that have delivered the exclusion in the first place.

The people with an intellectual disability that I worked with for our project were often a similar age to me, and yet our lives had been profoundly different. Even though I had also lived on income support for long periods of time, there had always been the expectation that I would get a job again. For them, not only was there little support to get paid the minimum wage, but there was little to no support or expectation to be in a regular job, in the community, alongside everyone else.

They were firm that where to start with getting change was to fix the poverty that people with an intellectual disability live in, by fixing the wages in ADEs. Only after that was other change even possible, but it would also take time. The inclusion of people with an intellectual disability, the real, full inclusion, is worth doing right, and without causing other harms.

I still don’t like ADEs, and I sure as hell think wages need to be changed now, but I also have learnt from those who have actually worked there how hostile other employment is for so many people with an intellectual disability. And that matters. Closing down some of the only places that employ folks with an intellectual disability, before any other changes are made to open employment, would mean people would lose work altogether. And there would be no changes for the 60% of people with an intellectual disability who aren’t in work at all, often stuck in day programs or doing nothing at all. But there is no reason to keep people on subminimum wages while other changes are made. That needs to be fixed right bloody now.

This moment in disability policy is one of big changes and reforms as both the DRC and the NDIS Review reports are responded to by governments. Disabled voices like mine get a say around many tables and I am very conscious of who isn’t there, who isn’t being heard, and who is most affected by the very reforms being proposed. I am very grateful to all those on the employment project that took the time so I really understood what changes were wanted and needed, by the very people at the heart of those changes. I hope I can remember this always.

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