Laundry worker Michael Wheatley loves his job and wants other people with a disability to share the joy of being employed.
"We work together and team work, we make it dream work," he said.
Mr Wheatley, 35, is living with Down syndrome and has been employed by Aruma Commercial Laundry in suburban Newcastle, where he has worked for the past 15 years.
"I love it here, I love working here two days a week, Mondays and Tuesday, I got a pay rise and it is good, it's fun, there's a lot of fun up here."
Aruma is one of Australia's largest not-for-profit disability service providers and supports 5,500 adults and children with a disability.
Its laundry at Warabrook employs 56 people with a disability and all the major hotels in Newcastle get their linen washed, dried and folded there.
More incentives needed
Leaders in the disability employment sector are urging governments to boost Australia's disability job participation rate, which is about half the rate of the wider population.
Aruma's CEO Martin Laverty spent nine years on the board of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which was first rolled out as a trial in Newcastle a decade ago.
Mr Laverty said despite the good intentions of successive governments, there had been no radical improvement in employment programs since the arrival of the NDIS.
"At the moment the employment participation rate for people with a disability is roughly half that of the mainstream population," he said.
"In the wider population we have participation rate of about 80 per cent and that falls to 48 per cent for people with a disability."
Mr Laverty said state governments needed to do more to help boost that.
"When the NDIS was established the state governments deserted the field, they pulled out of disability," he said.
He said more incentives were also needed to encourage private sector businesses to employ people with disabilities.
"We need to invite the private sector to the table so we can provide real, meaningful and different job opportunities to people with disability in the future."
More work to be done
National Disability Services chief executive Laurie Leigh has called for the introduction of procurement targets to create better employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
"I certainly think there is plenty that all tiers of government — state, federal and local government — as well as the private sector could be doing to improve the number of people with disability in a job," she said.
"So some of those things might be things like social procurement policies both at a federal and a state and territory level, which government can specify, for example, that they're going to buy products from services that employ more people with disability.
In 2021 the NSW Office of Local Government urged local councils to procure goods and services from disability employment organisations.
The NSW government said it had adopted the policy that encouraged public sector agencies to procure goods and services from disability employment organisations in order to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
At a federal level, there are plans to increase the proportion of people with disability working in the Australian Public Service to 7 per cent by 2025 — up from 3.7 per cent in 2019.
A sense of belonging
Mr Wheatley said he was grateful for the camaraderie and extra income working at Aruma has brought him.
"Some people have got disabilities and employment means more money and working together," he said.
They're sentiments shared by Mr Wheatley's colleague Ann-Maree Clarke, 44, who has been working at the laundry for 20 years.
"I'm loving it with Aruma and [working] with all my friends," Ms Clarke said.
"It's very good work, and [I like] getting my own money; it's very good money."