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Damien Ryan: speaking up for workers with a disability

GIVE people with a disability a chance.

That’s CPSU Member Damien Ryan’s message. This long term Tasmanian Public Sector employee’s keen for employers to give people a disability a chance and to challenge perceptions about what having a disability means.

“Just because someone’s in a wheelchair or has some sort or disability doesn’t mean they can’t do the job,” Damien said.

“The message is just because there’s a disability there, if they’re the right person for the job give them the job or at least give them a go. Skills and knowledge is what it comes down to.”

Although not a huge fan of public speaking, Damien, who’s in a wheelchair as a result of Spina Bifida, recently talked to a group of CPSU Members about his experiences. “My talk was all based around challenges that you face with a disability, I gave them a bit of background about myself and then opened the floor so they could ask questions.

“I thought if there’s a chance to help out in that way and speak to groups who are interested, I’d put my hand up to speak with other groups as well.”

Over his working life Damien’s had both good and bad experiences.  He’s keen to share these with groups of CPSU Members so they can better understand what it’s like to have a disability in the workforce. He also wants to promote equal opportunity for people with a disability.

Damien said one of the major challenges were people’s perceptions. “They see the chair and think it’s too hard or too much hassle in some cases.”

Entering the workforce, Damien experienced difficulty because of people’s perceptions of him because he’s in a wheelchair.

When I was looking for a job straight out of college, I applied for a position within private enterprise and got the interview and when I got there you could tell by the look on their faces that they were shocked. I went for the interview and I could tell they weren’t interested as soon as they saw the chair. I hadn’t heard anything for months and they told me the job had been withdrawn but I knew it hadn’t and someone else had got it. I think that it came down to them being uncomfortable and perhaps thinking I’d ark up and possibly even sue them for not giving me the job, which is not who I am at all.. After several knockbacks I found it easier just to submit the application without mentioning my disability. The reason for this was if when I did mention it I either got a letter saying I was unsuccessful or no reply at all.

“I kept bashing on doors and a position with the State Service came up for a temporary switchboard operator, I applied for that and I’m still here.”

Since then, Damien’s had a largely positive experience. October 20 marked Damien’s 16th year in the Tasmanian Public Sector, working in various parts of the state in the Government Contact Centre and HR Systems looking after the IT side of things before moving into his current role, Coordinator of the Service Management Centre at TMD.

“At the centre, I’m part of a team that is the first point of contact for TMD. Within the team we’ve have people on the phones answering enquiries. One of my roles as one of the Coordinator is to make sure the work is being responded to and allocated out in a timely way for our staff to action and then followed up.”

“The workplace is very supportive. With my Spina Bifida I do have periods of time that I’m not well. I mean everyone does, they have sick leave but I seem to have a bit more than the average person. In that regard, it’s never an issue, they’ve been very supportive.”

Damien said people who lived with a disability often didn’t see themselves as having a disability. “I know I don’t.”

Like anyone, this married St Kilda supporter goes about his life, and occasionally encounters someone who is uncomfortable because he’s in a chair.

“Ages ago when I was growing up it was a big issue.  There was a real stigma around “he’s got a disability, he can’t do anything for himself”. I still get it every now and again and it frustrates my wife something chronic. We’ll go out, say to a hardware store, and I’m looking for something and the staff will come over but they’ll talk to my wife and not to me. And my wife needs to tell them to talk to me.

“It comes back to getting it out there that just because we have a disability or we’ve in a wheelchair, we’re not different, we just can’t use steps, that’s all.”

If you’re keen for Damien to talk to a group about working with a disability, the perceptions, challenges, email j.clydesdale@as.cpsu.com.au.

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