What do you do when the future you want for your child doesn’t exist?
If you’re anything like Jonathan Wenig, you find a way to create it yourself.
Jonathan is the founder of All Things Equal, a social enterprise based in Melbourne that provides paid employment to people with disability through hospitality.
His daughter, Tali, is autistic and as she approached the end of her school years, her parents turned their thoughts to what her future might look like. Unsure of the employment pathways available to her, they decided to curate an environment that would work for Tali and others like her.
Jonathan rallied together a group of passionate volunteers who in 2020 formed the board of what would become All Things Equal.
The employment opportunities aren’t tokenistic; they’re mainstream, they’re paid at award wages, they’re as varied as in any other hospitality setting, and they provide transferrable skills.
He was later joined by Bianca Stern, now General Manager at All Things Equal who had previously worked on a disability employment pilot. After facing challenges getting people into work, she realised that many employers lacked education and understanding around the mutual benefits of employing people with disability, and of what success could look like for both parties.
She joined All Things Equal, determined to make a positive change.
Emptying the too-hard basket
Bianca said she wants employers to realise that recruiting people with disability is not “too hard”.
“I don’t think it’s difficult to be inclusive in a workplace in general… but I can understand why an employer might be nervous or might think that it’s just in the too-hard basket,” she said.
She believes education is key to overcoming these beliefs.
“If you see [diverse employment] in action and you see that it works, in my opinion you’re more likely to actually be open to it yourself.”
All Things Equal runs a variety of streams aimed at giving employees different workplace experiences and provide different services to customers. It hosts a cafe, a cooking school, a footy club canteen and a catering business. The work has inspired others to look into inclusive hiring, Bianca explained; customers have come back to All Things Equal for advice on hiring people with disability after learning of what they do.
“For us, it’s the training and support and opening of doors for… people with disability who want their first foot in the door of employment in our setting, but it’s also this piece around community connection, advocacy and how we can lead by example,” she said.
Since its founding, All Things Equal has employed 28 people with disability across its different employment streams. Staff work both front and back of house, doing the typical jobs seen in a hospitality setting. Others work in the footy canteen during the football season. Many of those employees have qualifications and certifications, but were unable to find a job before All Things Equal.
“Just because someone has a qualification next to their name, and… might be incredibly capable, still doesn’t mean that an employer is going to open the door for that person,” Bianca said.
“We don’t employ someone based on their experience; we employ someone based on their attitude to wanting to learn and wanting to have a job, and [wanting] a job in hospitality specifically.”
For this reason, All Things Equal focuses on real-world training and is moving towards a curriculum model of modules that cover things like core working skills as well as technical skills related to the hospitality business.
There is currently a waitlist of around 60 people seeking employment with All Things Equal, Bianca said.
“We’ve got people who are willing to travel two hours to be a part of what we do for one to two shifts a week because there’s just not enough employment opportunities out there for them.”
She believes more employers could offer purposeful, meaningful employment to people with disability by “reframing” their mindset after seeing the success of places like All Things Equal.
She said it’s important for employers to maintain an open mind when considering the sorts of accommodations their employee might need, and to be aware of the assistance they’re able to access. For example, employers could take advantage of government support for inclusive hiring if they aren’t sure where or how to start.
“But more often than not, the accommodation is actually an attitude change. It might be things like training up your other staff members on inclusion, or… something as simple as having an additional chair, or that someone might need an extra break during their shift but are willing to work 30 minutes later to compensate for that,” she explained.
And there are “a million benefits to employing someone with a disability”, she added, from less sick days to a willingness to learn more skills.
Of course, it’s not just about the employer; Bianca said being given a chance at employment changes the employee’s life too.
“One of my favourite parts of my job is telling someone they have been offered a job, and usually it’s their first ever paid job. I get the absolute privilege of being part of that conversation. We’ve had people crying with happiness. We’ve had parents absolutely over the moon who can’t believe that their child’s ability is finally seen as an asset,” she said.
“If we stopped today, there are so many people that would be missing out on their first ever opportunity. We don’t have that option. We’re incredibly energised, we’re incredibly committed, and we’re really excited about the amount of people that we can open up this brand new world to.
“People with disability are incredibly capable, contributing members of the workforce. And if we change our mindsets, we’re going to be able to have some really awesome changes in this world where every single person will benefit.”
To learn more about All Things Equal visit All Things Equal — Cafe on Carlisle St, Balaclava