Martin Wylie is the CEO of Altus Enterprises, a nonprofit organisation that’s been around for 55 years. Altus provides work for people with intellectual disabilities or mild mental health issues.
Under Altus is Will & Able, a company where people with disabilities produce eco-friendly household products. It recently featured on Seven Sharp, after COVID-19 forced a number of job cuts. Following the story, Will & Able received 14,000 orders over a few days, putting people back in their jobs and creating new ones.
We rang Martin up for a yarn about accessible workplaces and how your company can become more inclusive.
What advice do you have for creating an accessible workplace for people with disabilities?
You’ve got to figure out what work realistically that person can do, then put in place a support structure to ensure that they’re coping for the first six or 12 months at least. It might be a simple repetitive job but there are jobs there. The employer and employees have got to make some accommodations so that person is able to succeed. You’ve got to have an understanding about how much supervision is required and how much autonomy that person can have. Once they’re in that job, they’ll be there for the next 20 years but that initial period may be more demanding for everybody.
How can employers approach hiring someone with a disability?
There are various organisations around and their job is to place people in open, supportive employment. I think you need one of those organisations to help identify individuals and then match them to a job. You need some guidance and assistance to get the individual work ready, manage their expectations and see if they’ve got the ability to handle the job. And conversely, to work with the employer to see what would be needed in terms of supervision, training and initial integration so that there’s a good match.
Talking to people in the disability community and in those specialist organisations can help you understand if you’re ready to make the necessary adjustments to make it a welcoming place. If you can’t make a few adjustments then it probably isn’t going to work. I think with a bit of creativity and working with the disabled community, you’d be surprised how many workplaces could take on people with disabilities.
Those organisations would also help limit any unconscious bias during an interview, right?
Absolutely! Ask yourself what your expectation is when you’re interviewing somebody that’s got some cognitive impairment. In turn, the individual being interviewed will need some help and coaching as to how they respond. I’ve got a particular interest in autism and the eye-to-eye, face-to-face contact can be very daunting for people with autism. Many of them are cognitively very capable but it’s the communication and social interaction they struggle with. Something like a conventional interview, where you ask the hard questions and look them directly in the eye, is probably going to be a bit of a problem. But if you understand a bit about autism, you might find another way to assess that person’s ability for the role without a tough interview scenario.
So really, there’s no excuse for a company that says they want to be accessible but it’s too difficult.
Absolutely, there’s even government funding around supporting these people into employment. Everyone wants a job and somewhere to go to eat their lunch. Frankly, the taxpayer would also like them to have a job. They can get off benefits or reduce their dependence on government aide, and it keeps them away from the justice system or health system that tend to come about with unemployment.
What are the benefits of employing people with disabilities?
It’s the whole diversity thing - if more than 20 percent of the population have some form of disability and you don’t have that group in your workplace, you’re not truly representative. You haven’t got an insight into the issues, challenges and opportunities that come in dealing with that group. I think it’s just like having a broad gender and racial mix in your workplace. If you exclude a group, then you’re in danger of missing out on all of the benefits that those groups bring. The other thing I would say is, because it’s quite difficult to place these people in employment, you’ll find that once they’re in the right job they will be loyal to that organisation to a fault.
What about talking to current employees about the decision?
I think it’s a key piece. I think you’ll find in most reasonable workplaces, the employees are more than happy to see people with disabilities getting a shot at employment. But I think you do need to explain the nature of the disability, what would be helpful to ensure everybody gets on and why the employer is setting out to do this. Once that’s understood, most reasonable people go, “three cheers, what a great employer I’ve got for making that effort”!
On a personal note, what's your driving factor for being the CEO of Altus and creating an inclusive workplace?
I have a son who is very autistic. I have been involved on the board of Autism NZ for over 12 years. I came to realise that employment was a huge problem for disabled people who make up more than 20 percent of the population. People with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues have a particular problem in this regard. It is one thing to talk about their rights to employment but the real issue is how to find or create real jobs for this group.
The conversation has been edited for brevity.