Young business owners challenge perspectives on disability, create meaningful work life for themselves

As a boy, Devin O’Sullivan took pleasure in ripping things up, so it was unsurprising that starting a paper-shredding business became his first career step.

For Megan Russell, on her daily walks, she loves counting letterboxes and being in her community. Could she like delivering mail for work or perhaps a role that matches her passion for hot chocolate?

Similar thoughts cross the minds of most school leavers as they try to find a job that meets their talents and passions, but for young people with disability, accessing meaningful employment can be a greater battle.

That’s why Megan, who is autistic, and Devin, who is also a young person with autism, have each turned to entrepreneurship as a solution.

Devin is uniquely verbal and started his Handy Office Help business in Esperance seven years ago.

It has allowed him to do tasks based on his skills and preferences, including paper shredding and coffee deliveries.

The business is so successful that Devin can now employ another young man with disability to help him with shredding.

This allows Devin to spend more time meeting people in his community and delivering coffees, which is what he enjoys most.

A business that gives meaning
Megan’s mother Jo Russell, a disability advocate, is determined to help her daughter build a career that gives her purpose like Devin.

“I want Megan to live an extraordinary life, not an ordinary one,” Ms Russell said of Megan, who has a variable expressive vocabulary.

Megan plans to launch her microbusiness early next year.

As well as providing an income, Megan would like MegStar Enterprises to have an emphasis on giving back to the Goldfields community.

She is now in training mode, exploring what she enjoys doing with the assistance of her team of disability support workers, a mentor, and a business facilitator.

It can be a lengthy process, but Ms Russell says it will be worth the time invested.

Megan’s business facilitator, Corinne Robertson, said people with disability were often shunted to the sidelines in workplaces or given less-than-meaningful tasks.

“Having a job they like is what gets most people out of bed in the morning. Everyone should have that,” Ms Robertson said.

Changes in government funding for employing people with disability also reflect a growing emphasis on person-centred employment.

This is after previously favouring large-scale industrial employment with at-times repetitive tasks.

Activ Foundation has been providing jobs for people in WA who live with disability with roles including industrial sewing, labelling and packaging, manufacturing timber pallets, and garden care.

The organisation’s government funding has been extended for another 18 months to transition to growing smaller, supported jobs that are community-based.

“Activ is shifting focus from its large-scale supported employment services because the funding doesn’t support high-ratio supported employment,” said Activ chief executive Michael Heat.

Benefits of connecting with community
Megan has not yet finalised what services her business will provide but she knows she wants to interact with people on a daily basis as she enjoys interacting with people and loves community engagement.

“Sometimes we are out and people I have never seen before say, ‘Hi Megan!'” Ms Russell said.

“She knows way more people than me.”

Having a job assists autistic people to maintain engagement in the community, says Autism Association of WA’s employment director Sally Flinders.

“School provides social support and routine that often disappears when they graduate, leaving a gap in a person’s life,” Ms Flinders said.

Ms Russell wants to make sure Megan remains an active member of the Goldfields community, which has always supported her, and for Megan to be able to give back.

“All aspects of Megan’s business will be kept as local as we can manage,” Ms Russell said.

“We are looking at ways in which Megan can support older people and encourage others to do the same.”

Kalgoorlie-Boulder Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Simone De Been says that the Goldfields is experiencing a huge labour shortage and businesses are definitely willing to look at all applications and mould positions around applicants’ strengths.

Michelle O’Sullivan is Devin’s mum and says people of all abilities have a place in the workforce.

“People with disabilities who want to work more should be given the chance to help with staff shortages in hospitality,” she said.

“They add value to the workplace”.

The ‘fight’ for funding and support
Although Devin and Megan demonstrate that people with disability can be business owners, the journey has some barriers.

They are both supported in their businesses by disability support workers and funds to cover their wages and stay profitable can be hard.

Tasha Alach is the director of therapy and clinical services at Autism Association WA and says while the current funding system is “positive”, change is needed.

“It has been in place for a long time and is currently being reviewed,” she said.

Ms Flinders says employment support for autistic people could be funded better, particularly considering the impact a job can have on people with autism, their family, and the broader community.

Sarsha Lander is Goldfields’ EPIC disability services manager and agrees that funding for support can be difficult to access.

“Many people with disabilities have to fight for funding based on individual goals,” she said.

For Megan, when it comes to fighting, her mother is an invincible advocate for her.

“Megan will be a trailblazer in the Goldfields like Devin is in Esperance, shifting disability paradigms,” Ms Russell said.

“I am a fighter. A ‘no’ to me is just a challenge. I’ll turn it into a ‘yes’.”