Shane O’Reilly’s family was so frustrated with disability support options in Australia for him that they moved to the UK. When they returned in 2009, the sector was still a bit of a mess. “We had no control over who was coming to support Shane each day, because they were being sent by a local agency. It sometimes felt like a lottery,” says Jordan O’Reilly of his brother’s care regime.
O’Reilly was determined to improve the lives of Shane (who lived with cerebral palsy) and other people with disability. So he enrolled at Sydney University to study occupational therapy, and worked as a carer for a local agency. In 2010, when he heard about the Productivity Commission investigating a national disability care and support scheme, he was part of the movement of people who told the government the existing system wasn’t working.
“I was that stranger the agency sent to people’s homes, and it felt crazy on all sides — for carers and the people and families they help — because there was no consistency,” he says, remembering the ludicrousness of manual processes such as faxing his time sheets to the agency.
“I thought. surely we can use some of these amazing emerging technologies to connect people like my brother with some of the best and brightest support workers in Australia? And what if we could empower people with disabilities to choose who supports them?”
O’Reilly and his siblings began creating blueprints for new ways to “move the dial” for people with disability. Firstly, in 2011, they launched Fighting Chance Australia — a not- for-profit organisation that designs, builds and scales social enterprise businesses. Then they began to build Hireup, an online platform that helps people with disability connect to and manage support workers who match their needs and interests.
Shane died in 2011, but the ideas discussed among the siblings are at the heart of Hireup and its platform, which was eventually launched in January 2015.
“There’s always that sadness because I’d have loved him to be part of it,” says O’Reilly. “Shane taught me so much about what we should be fighting for. If he were here, he’d be the king of the castle. He loved what technology can do — and he’d be proud Hireup is now national, because it gives more people opportunities to enjoy a richer life. Our aim is to completely redesign disability support.”
Hireup now serves more than 10,000 people with disability annually and employs a similar number of support workers. In July 2019, the organisation hired its first chief operating officer, Sonia Flynn, who had previously worked as managing director of Facebook Ireland, and as an executive at Swedish audio platform SoundCloud and Google.
An idea worth backing
The NDIS was still being trialled in 2013–14 when O’Reilly gained a $100,000 fellowship with the Myer Foundation. This allowed him to work full- time and to hire software engineers.
“After being told ‘no’ by organisations that were much more corporate, I’ll never forget the feeling of meeting with the Myer Foundation people — and how the whole judging panel was beaming at me,” says O’Reilly. “They said, ‘We love this idea and you have unique insight into the challenges — we want to back you’.”
The foundation’s support helped validate and promote the Hireup model in the market as a fairer way to scale disability support services compared to some of the “gig economy” options.
While the priority is to give people with disability and support workers more control to develop stronger relationships, the platform also aims to reduce costs of support. By cutting out intermediaries, O’Reilly says Hireup has saved its users $70m in their funding packages.
“One of the attractions of Hireup is it recognises the value of the employees and shows real commitment to quality and safety at work,” says Jaci Armstrong AAICD, who joined the Hireup board in February 2020.
Armstrong is vision-impaired, and previously worked as a national policy adviser at Guide Dogs Australia, and as an electoral officer manager. She has also served as chair for Riding for the Disabled in NSW, a director of People with Disability Australia, and recently joined the board of Accessible Arts NSW.
Despite the online model, Hireup engages its support workers as employees and provides training and career development. The organisation takes care of tax, insurance and super — and pays above-award wages.
“Most support workers want to focus on providing great support to people in the community,” says O’Reilly. “They’re the deeply empathetic people on the frontline and we need to look after them. So we’re using technology and an employment model with all the rights, protections and entitlements for employees.”
Making organisations more inclusive
Armstrong is glad she’s not the only board member to say, “Hang on, we need to talk through the presentation, not just show images” — often one of the other Hireup directors will raise the point first. More boards need to have conversations around inclusion and accessibility of processes and information early, she suggests, and find what works for a person with disability so they can actively participate and contribute.
“I’m fortunate I’ve been at this career for a while now, and have this lived experience of disability,” she says. “New technologies are making it easier to access and use information, and there’s a groundswell about increasing the career opportunities for people with disability. What’s been incredible about joining the Hireup board is the inherent knowledge and respect Jordan and the leadership team already have for inclusion.”
O’Reilly says he’s constantly learning new ways to improve workspace accessibility, although he admits Hireup is only scratching the surface with the structural changes at its latest head office. “You might have a big button to open the sliding doors, and that’s useful for a lot of people, but what about someone in a wheelchair who doesn’t have the use of their hands? Or someone with low vision who might not even see the button is there? You need other sensor technology to support them.”
Technology can answer some accessibility questions, although it’s as important that organisations have the will to support inclusivity, suggests Armstrong. “It’s not a criticism, it’s not about people feeling awkward. Just recognise there are a lot of potential customers and employees out there with disability and if you want to be representative, then you need more diversity in who you’re employing and how you’re designing your products and services.
Hireup’s board is focused on forecasting sustainable growth while ensuring the organisation continues to empower its clients and workers alike, explains Armstrong.
“A big strength is having board members with diverse backgrounds and industry experience,” she says. “When you’re more representative of your market you have broader perspectives to help you reach better decisions. It gives us the confidence and agility to respond to changes and opportunities in the sector.”
Although some organisations in the sector felt threatened by the Royal Commission into people with disability, Hireup responded by investing heavily in community consultation and amplifying its commitment to a trusted employment model. The board agreed to a raft of initiatives to improve conditions for Hireup workers, including launching a permanent employment pilot for those seeking a longer- term relationship with the company.
“I was delighted that the board responded so positively to the Royal Commission,” says O’Reilly. “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really listen to people with disability, their families and support workers, and to improve conditions for everyone as a result.”
The board also agreed to set up a new board observer program for people with disability. The aim is to solve an old catch 22 of most people’s early careers — you can’t get a job until you’ve had experience, but you can’t get experience until you get a job.
Hireup is paying for people to do AICD training and will give them paid board observer positions for six months. Armstrong and O’Reilly hope other boards will be interested in creating these opportunities.
“You’re not just bringing someone on board because they have a disability. There are extraordinarily capable and qualified people out there who are leaders, who happen to also have a disability and are often overlooked,” says Armstrong.
“We want to find people with lived experience of disability, who will be great governance leaders in the future,” says O’Reilly. “If you have a well-functioning board, there’s no reason you can’t start an observer program. It’s a great way to increase the diversity of experience on boards — and for us, it happens to be a real focus on disability. It takes a bit of commitment and money and resources. But what is money good for if not for doing good?”