With a mind for ethics and a heart for equality, disability-advocate Gary Allen is highly regarded and influential in the employment and entrepreneurial sector. Fighting for the representation and inclusion of people living with a disability, we spoke to Gary about his professional journey, the emerging issues present in Australian society, and his pioneering program Enabled.vip.
ON DISCLOSING A DIAGNOSIS
Choosing to define himself by his career, not his MS diagnosis, Gary excelled in his profession and went from working in politics in 1996 to managing the ethics team at Griffith University in 2003. For over 20 years, Gary has now worked in research institutions, state and federal government departments and research ethics committees across Australia, Canada, Vietnam and the United Kingdom. “At the risk of sounding arrogant, there’s probably about three or four people in the country that do the same sort of work I do.” However, leading such a successful professional life whilst living with MS required a level of honesty and vulnerability from Gary in the beginning. “I wasn’t coy about my diagnosis. I know that there are people that have been unlucky with that experience, but I was lucky. Although, when I initially went in for the job interview, I consciously left my cane outside the room. I needn’t have worried though, the university was super cool and very supportive. And they have continued to be along the way.”
Taking insight from his own experiences, Gary is a big believer in being upfront and going through the process of educating your potential employer about your diagnosis. “One of the things I say to young people is ‘would you even want to work for somebody who is so ignorant that they don’t actually understand or care?’ If a person is relapsing-remitting, there are going to be exacerbations; there will be symptoms present. If you’ve already had that conversation with your employer, then it’s much easier to say ‘I’m having a bad day. I need to take some leave or make some changes for a while.’ If you haven’t had that conversation, then you haven’t laid that supportive groundwork,” says Gary.
ON EMERGING ISSUES
When it comes to emerging employment issues for people with a disability in Australia, Gary believes the biggest gap lies in inclusion and access. “The last time I saw the figures, there were 2.1 million Australians of working age living with a disability. Of these, just under half were employed (47.8%), compared with 80.3% of people without disability. We can’t afford for folks that have got useful skills and contributions to make to the economy to be excluded.” Through re-engaging the community and providing extra assistance and encouragement, Gary believes people with a disability can be empowered to contribute their expertise and re-balance the skew of opportunities available.
Passionate about entrepreneurialism, Gary found a gap in the market amongst Australians living with a disability. “What’s interesting for me from an entrepreneurial point of view, is that in places like North America, the UK and Europe, a lot more people that live with a disability are entrepreneurial. Although it’s higher in Australia, compared to able-bodied folk, the proportion is not as high as overseas. When you drill down on the numbers, that’s due to confidence, mentoring, peer support, resources. And that’s really what Enabled.vip is here to solve.”
ON ENABLED.VIP & ENTREPRENEURISHP
Enabled.vip is a virtual platform that provides access to business expertise, resources, events and an online community of practice for Australians living with a disability. The conception and inspiration for Enabled.vip came about when Gary and his colleague, Col Chandler, began attending various government disability employment events. “Col asked the question around the meaning of entrepreneurship and the idea that a person with a disability could work for themselves and set up something that is money generating. Well, we received blank stares from the bureaucrats and politicians in the room. So, afterwards, we chatted to each other. Both Col and I operated successful businesses despite our disabilities. We knew somebody needed to actually provide the support, so we thought maybe we should do it,” says Gary.
Using their learned and lived experience to pay it forward, the pilot test for Enabled.vip has been running for a couple of months. Working across three core silos, Enabled.vip’s intended clientele features people who want to monetise a hobby or craft and people who want to run a gig-based micro-business or people who wanted to set up a small business. “We’ve got 10 Australians that we are helping set up some sort of money generating endeavour and they all fall across that spectrum of different types of enterprises. A couple of them are quite frankly intimidating, in terms of how good their ideas are,” says Gary.
With the platform 80% built and planning to launch publicly next year, Enabled.vip is hoping to be used in conjunction with people’s NDIS plans. Bronze members will be free users who get access to the resource library and webinar events, whilst premium members will receive personal mentoring support and be matched with a person who lives with a disability that has business experience. “We’re here to say that entrepreneurship is an option for you. We can actually help you do this so you’re not on your own. I don’t know that it even occurs to some people that this is really something they can do,” Gary says. Helping people navigate topics from branding design to registering for an ABN, Enabled.vip has been created to share the expertise and experience from those who have already successfully gone through it, to those who are at the start of their journey.
“To date, the platform has enjoyed great support from Fiverr (who provided seed funding), Bendigo Bank and Moreton Bay Shire Council (that provided small grants), MinterEllison (that are providing pro bono legal advice), Mindhive, the Social Impact Hub, The Hopkins Centre, individual contributors, and of course, MS Queensland, who have been providing us with great support. Together. this great support is helping us move towards our public launch,” says Gary.
ON FAMILY & FREE TIME
“I work full time for Griffith University, I’m the Managing Director of AHRECS and the CEO of Enabled.vip, there isn’t a hell of a lot of time for much else,” Gary chuckles. Living in Brisbane with his wife, Renay and 17-year-old son, Connar, Gary is closely connected with his family and is driven by their support. “I watch my share of streaming shows and that’s how I unplug for a little while. But I am a self-confessed workaholic. When I told my wife about Enabled.vip, she laughed and said, ‘yeah, after all, you are wasting 8 hours a day sleeping.’ Enabled.vip is definitely a labour of love – I’m really thrilled to be setting that up.”
ON DISABILITY RIGHTS
Being a representative and vocalising his opinions is something Gary is actively partaking in every day of his career. When asked about impactful actions that people can take to combat the emerging issues in employment, Gary highlights the importance of reference groups. “I think a good practice for any employer, whether that’s government or a non-private sector, is to have a small reference group of folks who live with a disability. Ask them how the business/department is doing and how things could be improved. Having someone with a disability in the room makes a difference”.
Extending beyond the workforce, Gary makes it adamant just how much work can be done to help improve the accessibility and inclusion of people with a disability in society. “Getting around in a wheelchair as I do, I quite often find myself grumbling that nobody’s actually looked at this space and thought about how it’s going to be for somebody in a wheelchair. That’s just one example. The idea of getting people together to make small suggestions could make a real difference,” he assures.
Inspiring the next generation of advocates and entrepreneurs, Gary suggests tools such as GetUp and Disability Leadership Institute (DLI). “DLI is something worthwhile seriously looking into as well – they do online training and catch up to talk about issues,” Gary details.
With no intention of slowing down anytime soon, Gary is continually setting goals and pushing the boundaries into the future; not just for himself but for others too. “The fact that a person lives with a disability shouldn’t limit their potential. All that does is isolate and discriminate,” he says. “Life doesn’t end just because you’ve got that diagnosis. There are still things you can do – let us help you find what you need.”