Supported Employment, Social Enterprises & ADEs

After 35 years working in manufacturing and business; 25 years were spent establishing social enterprises to offer valued employment for people with disability.  One thing has always stood out for me during my working life and continues to the present day.

Meaningful work is important in everyone’s life. Regardless of ability (or disability) or talent, meaningful work is an innate human need and is an essential part of our quality of life.

Sadly this is something not truly appreciated in the community, by governments and business, nor by the organisations who are meant to support people with disability into employment.

Most people, including many people with disability, agree that mainstream employment (open employment) within the broader community offer the best outcomes for people with disability. But rarely do we talk about what is meaningful or valued work means for those whom the service is being offered.

The sad reality is there are usually not the jobs, accepting employers, or political will, to make it happen for everyone; particularly for our most vulnerable people with high support needs who may require ongoing levels of support, training, workplace modification or have other episodic support needs which restrict ongoing participation in open employment.

Supported Employment

This is where Supported Employment has an important role to play in our society. If we as a community want to ensure all people with disability have that right to choose employment/work regardless of how challenging these support needs may be. We need to continue to fund Supported Employment services so that this choice is available.

Unfortunately, many traditional forms of Supported Employment today, called Australian Disability Enterprises (ADE)s, offer little in the way of meaningful work. In some cases, they are no more than a place where people go when they have no other choice.

Apart from a few exceptions, most ADEs are little more than a sheltered workshop ran by well-meaning charities, who in an attempt to keep large groups of people busy sit people down around a table to pack things in bags. Many run cheap contract services like lawn mowing, cleaning or laundry and due to their low viability can only afford to pay a token wage.

The net result is rather than people being seen as valued employees and working in a real business, they are promoted in fundraising campaigns to meet an ever decreasing viability cap. This creates a wrong impression: that people with disability are helpless victims deserving only our pity and charity.

Most ADEs for a variety of reasons discourage inclusive workplace in the community rarely employing other people on full award wages (i.e., skilled production staff). The staff they do hire are more like minders, than fellow workers. Rather than working with, and alongside people or providing meaningful training, they are more a medical model prescribing support focusing on risk management and the collection of data to fulfil compliance criterion.

Consequently, they have little capacity to develop their businesses or industry expertise, let alone the capacity to assess business performance, the cost products or services and the productivity of their workforce in order to pay fair wages.


Clearly, the NDIS will change this old arrangement radically, as adults with disability leave to explore more interesting choices. As a raft of new services grows, many traditional ADEs will close their doors, and in many cases, this will be a good thing.

However, there will still continue to be those people who wish to work but cannot access or maintain employment in mainstream business and this is where Social Enterprises can fill this need.

Social Enterprises

A Social Enterprises is a profit-making venture set-up to tackle a social need. But unlike a commercial business, all profits are retained and reinvested in the venture to ensure its sustainability and growth. Consequently not focused on charity fundraising activities, but more about improving the business.

Successful attributes for a Social Enterprise whose social purpose is supported employment are:

  • Operating in a sustainable business area
  • Person-centred approaches and choice
  • They apply Social Role Valorisation principles
  • They encourage an integrated workplace. If the business cannot sustain the employment of people on full award wages, it will never pay fair wages for people with disability.
  • Governance and management are purpose driven – disability advocacy, mission, and vision.
  • Good business practice and financial management.
  • Employment and training is person-centred and focuses on training for independence and workplace modification.
  • Dignity of risk.  Allows individuals to take risks and learn new job roles. Stepping into the unknown is part and parcel of treating people with disability as dignified adults.
  • An entrepreneurial board. Still essential to have good financial skills on the board, but equally important is an understanding of the organisation’s purpose and core businesses, willing to grow, improve and change if needed.
  • The ability to know when to let go of an unprofitable business and start a new business when opportunities present.

All sounds simple, right? No!, it’s hard work and is why purpose, mission, and vision are so important as it requires extra effort from boards, management, and staff

A big challenge is finding a good business, bigger still is getting that business up and running. 8 out of 10 new businesses fail within their first 18 months.  It is another level again to find a business that will also offer opportunities for groups of people.

It’s then another dimension altogether, to do all those things while providing support, training, workplace modifications and work practice modification for people with disability to participate meaningfully.

Originating from a guest lecture given at Flinders University in August 2017 – Disability and Community Inclusion, School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. Developmental Education Students.

Social Enterprises I have been connected with over the past 30 years include:

CEO of SA Group Enterprises Inc. – 1995-2014
Aspitech – Electronics recycling and computer refurbishing – 2007-2014
Inprint Design – Graphic design, print brokering and website development – 1995-2014
Link Disability Magazine – Full-colour national print magazine publication – 2005-2014
Optcom – Website, Database development and multimedia – 2000-2005
Precision Cartridges – Toner cartridge remanufacture – 1995-1998
Qualitec – Electronics design and manufacturing – 1986-1995
Wire Ware – Point of Sale Display Stand Manufacturer – 1995-2014
Worklink Enclave – Contract Laboratory Staff – 2007-2014
Your Employment Success – Specialist DES Employment Services for the Deaf – 2003-2014