As Australian farmers cried out for workers, Daniel Stewart was rejected time and time again.
- One in six Australians has a disability and they are twice as likely to be unemployed
- Some employers worry they will have to make expensive modifications to accommodate workers with a disability, but that is often not the case
- Representatives from across the employment and education sectors are meeting in Canberra this week to address workforce issues
The 31-year-old was losing hope of ever finding a job, despite graduating from Griffith University with a forensic science degree, but advocates said employers were missing out on a loyal, stable workforce by dismissing people like him.
"I'd applied for hundreds and thousands of jobs since I finished my forensic degree and I got lots of, 'It is with regret...' letters. I really put my heart and soul [into it] and I really tried my best," Mr Stewart said.
His job search was difficult because his Asperger's syndrome affected his ability to understand social rules.
"It was like chasing the end of the rainbow trying to figure out what they wanted. It's been a long, harsh and frustrating journey to come to any stable employment," he said.
As employers gather in Canberra for the national jobs and skills summit this week, they are being urged to reconsider jobseekers like Mr Stewart.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in July announced the event to address the worker shortage, falling real wages and skills development.
Leaders from businesses, unions, lobby groups, charities and education, and advocates like Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott, are all on the invitee list.
From paddock to plate, The Food Supply Chain Alliance estimates 172,000 workers are needed to fill positions in Australia, but working-age people with disabilities are still being overlooked.
With an unemployment rate of 10 per cent, compared to the national jobless rate of 3.4 per cent, they are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than those without a disability.
Breaking down barriers to employment is high on federal Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth's agenda for the summit tomorrow and Friday.
"I think that people with a disability deserve the same opportunities as those living without a disability," Ms Rishworth said.
"I've recently last week had a roundtable to flesh out some of these issues and it's really, really clear that there are some attitudinal barriers that we definitely need to break down."
Fear of the unknown
The minister told Radio National Breakfast that a common misconception was that expensive modifications would be needed in the workplace.
"One of the challenges is to get the information out there that, firstly, about 88 per cent of people living with a disability of working age don't need any modifications in the workplace whatsoever," she said.
Daniel Stewart's break came when a disability services job agency matched him to Top of the Range Flowers at Curramore, near Maleny in Queensland, in February last year.
Mr Stewart's self-esteem and skills have blossomed since he started work weeding, planting and harvesting flowers for organic farmers Lodi and Yucca Parmeijeer in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
He proudly showed off "Daniel's Row", packed with hundreds of bright red kangaroo paws that he planted.
"It's a very good environment for me, in fact a job where I'm free to be myself. I honestly thought that [opportunity] had vanished off the face of the earth," Mr Stewart said.
"With the politically correct environment of the day and with my Asperger's Syndrome, it's very difficult to be able to blend socially in terms of safe topics and unsafe topics."
Fellow farmhand Joel Green has helped guide his friend in the field and socially, after being introduced to the Parmeijeers by a disability employment agency almost two years ago.
"I suffer from depression and anxiety, the more common mental illnesses," Mr Green said.
"I used to work at a steel factory ... I had to stay up all night, so not getting sleep doesn't help.
"I was a controller there, so it was like being an air traffic controller, there was a lot of pressure.
"Here, it's sort of a nice, peaceful job, relaxed atmosphere, good people. It's a lot better for me."
Farm work requires stamina and is physically challenging.
The Parmeijeers make a point of not being judgemental and they give clear instructions about what they need from their workers to grow, harvest and process a superior product.
For them, finding and keeping loyal workers has been a big bonus, and going organic enabled them to provide work year-round.
"It's been great. It was a challenge until Joel and Daniel came here that's for sure," Mr Parmeijeer said.
"We always like to think that nice, friendly, happy workplace is what we would like and so that's what we try and make for our workers too," Ms Parmeijeer added.
Employment assistance available
Disability jobs agency Epic Assist has successfully placed workers on a poultry farm, herb and edible flower farm and in a berry packing shed.
The company's outer North Brisbane acting regional coordinator, Jill Nash, said educating employers was key to the process.
"Sometimes there is the lack of understanding of what that disability is, and until you can educate the employers and the managers and the staff they don't really understand why their employees are doing what they're doing, or saying what they're saying," Ms Nash said.
"A lot of our participants have excellent work ethic and morals and once the employer can see that, and they understand the communication that they need to have with these specific participants, then usually the matchmaking works."
Positive attitude required
Both Daniel Stewart and Josh Green said farm work was proving the right fit for them.
"Some people come here and they think, 'I'm a labourer on the bottom of the social ladder', and they don't enjoy it, they don't have a good time," Mr Green said.
"But if you have a positive attitude like, 'I'm here getting exercise, and it's good for my health', then you'll have a good time, you know?"