Podcast - Episode 1: A call for inclusion

We are thrilled to present to you our new podcast, Embrace your Otherness! A space for casual and in-depth interviews and conversations about disability identity, culture, work and rights.

In our first episode, we'll be hearing from local employer, Fee Madigan from Art Mania Studios, and one of our branch managers, James Alexander, discussing the importance of inclusion and accessibility in our communities.

Listen to our new full episode here:

 You can also watch the whole episode here:


Full episode transcripts here:

Brad Webb: Castle services operate from the lands of the Darkinjung people to the South, the Awabakal people to the East, the Worimi people to the North, and the Wonnarua people to the West. I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands where we work and live and I pay my respects to the elders of these lands, past, present, and emerging.

Welcome to Castle's inaugural podcasts series, embrace your otherness. This is a space where we will have both casual and in-depth conversations and talk with community members, leaders, activists, about disability identity, culture work, and rights with an emphasis on challenging people, their perceptions, and raising their awareness about working with marginalised identities.

My name is Brad Webb, and I'm proud to be both the CEO of Castle and your host for this podcast series. Joining me today is the creative, visionary, experienced teacher and practising artist, Fee Madigan. Fee has a background in social and community work and has combined this with her passion in art, founding the local business Art Mania Studios in 2008.
Fee, you were described to me as a force in diversity, inclusion and community. And I really can't wait to learn more about that from you. Alongside Fee, I have my colleague, James Alexander, one of Castle's incredible disability employment service branch managers.
James has been part of Castle for seven years, bringing 20 years of management experience from the hospitality sector, and 13 years from the recruitment industry. His drive to create opportunities for people with disability has been inspiring, and we will hear more about that today.
Castle is a not-for-profit organisation formed by members of the community to support disadvantaged people in the community. Castle first opened its doors as Castle personnel services in King Street, Newcastle in 1991 with the goal, and it was a modest goal to place 30 people with mild intellectual, sensory and physical disabilities into open employment. Today, Castle has helped more people with disabilities, mental health conditions, chronic illnesses and injuries find work and live meaningful lives than any other organisation in the Newcastle, Hunter and Central Coast regions.
Our vision is for a world where every person is able to contribute to society. It is a vision that drives our purpose, which is to create opportunities for everyone to be truly seen, supported, and valued. Behind our work, we are driven by four central values. These values were created from the ground up, and with input from our participants, from our employers and from our employees. They reflect what we truly believe, and are at the front of our minds every day. They are to be genuine, to look on the bright side, to never give up, and to celebrate the wins.
Castle currently has two service areas. One is the delivery of personal community and capacity building supports through our NDIS and related programs. The other is the placement of participants in sustainable employment with local businesses and organisations. We are funded to do this as a disability employment service provider known as DES through the Commonwealth Department of Social Services. And today, we're gonna specifically explore Castle's disability employment services in more detail.
James, I'm gonna jump straight in and ask you to tell me more about DES, but particularly about what you and your team do to support both participants and businesses.
James Alexander: Thanks Brad. And hi Fee.
Fee Madigan: Hi.
James Alexander: Okay, so what we do at Castle and the team is essentially advocating for those people to help them into sustainable employment opportunities. And I think the way that we do that is by engaging with those participants, listening to what their goals and aspirations are, and then supporting them on a journey through our program of service. And sometimes it's just helping those participants understand, and I guess have the faith in themselves that they can do it. They can do more than they think they can do.
When I say we advocate, we will go out and talk to an employer on their behalf, because they may have anxiety or just that lack of belief in themselves and see if we can then have a look at creating an opportunity for sustainable employment for them. We can address all sorts of things, whether it be access to their workplace. We can look at workplace modifications if it's something that might need to be amended or adjusted to give them the best chance of being able to perform the tasks that are required. We also support the participant and the employer throughout their entire journey of employment. It's not just to get them the job, it's supporting them through that process of maintaining that employment.
Brad Webb: And James, when people think about disability or talk about disability, they often have a very clear frame in their own mind about what that means, disability might mean for them, somebody who is in a wheelchair, or disability might mean somebody who is blind. It's a fairly diverse group of people. What kind of people with disability do you see coming through your doors?
James Alexander: Yeah, you're right Brad. I think the majority of participants that we have, it's more mental health than anything that's physical. And I guess that makes it extremely difficult because the unseen disability doesn't seem to attract the same as a physical disability does. And I think it's harder for people to understand. 
I think there's that certain stigma that goes with that, which I think sometimes is why people don't like to disclose their disability or have that transparent open conversation, which I think then also makes it a little bit difficult for employers because without that transparency or that understanding, it's difficult for them to know how to support them. But with one in five Australians, basically identifying as having a disability, I think employers also need to understand that there are already people probably in their employees who would fit that definition, yeah.
Fee Madigan: Definitely.
Brad Webb: One last question before I jump to Fee, and that it, you kind of referenced it before about how daunting it is for somebody to take that first step, for a participant to believe in themselves to want to come to you. How do you and your team make that experience less daunting for people? What is the special thing that you have that helps people get over those barriers to engaging?
James Alexander: Yeah, look, I think it's for most people, not just with people with disability, but stepping into a new environment, something that's unfamiliar can be quite anxious for people. So, the team at Castle support those people with that in mind.
So, if we can be there with them during the interview process, if we can be there with them on that first day of employment, where they're getting to meet the rest of the team having a look at the workplace where they'll actually be working, and then supporting them, getting to learn those new tasks as well. I think that is really the key of setting it off on the right foot to enable that transition, that induction into that new workplace, that new work environment. I think that's the key.
Fee Madigan: Definitely.
James Alexander: And then it's incredible just to sit back and watch how those participants then blossom in that new work environment with their new friends that they now work with, and the camaraderie where I think it's understood in the workplace that everybody should be treated equally.
Brad Webb: Look, and we can't place anybody into employment without employers, our critical partner in the work that we do and for you first started partnering with Castle back in 2015. Since then, you've employed, I understand around 11 participants.
Fee Madigan: That's right, yeah.
Brad Webb: Can you tell me what drew you to Castle and to the DES program in the very first instance?
Fee Madigan: Well, as initially back then, as a sole trader, any person running a small business will really understand that it's tight, you're a sole trader, you're this sole person running that business and all of a sudden you've got some growth, and it's like, oh, I need help. I need another person. How am I actually going to do that?
So I have a lived experience and I'm very well versed as well as having a background in employment and training. So, I knew that there has to be some support out there. So, it was more about researching what I could find. I came across Castle, and made a phone call. So, and that's where it first started. So, then I actually had a young lass who had also lived experience and a disability. And she come on deck, and ended up being a trainee. And yeah, she stayed with me for a number of years.
Brad Webb: So as simple as making a phone call, and you started that journey with us, what has Castle done for you as an employer, as a business in terms of making that process of employing with people with disability easier and more beneficial for your business?
Fee Madigan: Yeah. So I think in relation to Castle, and my dealings with the number of different people that have supported me through the process of employing someone who identifies of having a disability is, one, they're very open to my needs in terms of as an employer, what the position is, and matching someone that they feel may fit that role. So, I've probably taken on board nearly all of the matches that have come across, but maybe one or two, I haven't.
Excuse me, having a husky voice. The next stage of that was okay, well, they might attend with the participant to actually the interview. They might then have a discussion with me and the participant about, okay, well, what does a participant need? What does the employer need to make this a win-win situation? And through that process, yes okay, there's the financial support as well for a small business. That's great.
But my theory is, if you are giving someone an opportunity that hasn't had that same opportunity, and has been roadblocked all the way along purely by being classified as having a disability, then they're so grateful and they will go that extra mile. They will be one of the most loyal employees you have, providing the support there, and their role is clear and identified. And when there's a hiccup in the road, then it's okay. Let's call Castle and see how we can actually turn this around to make it a win-win situation again. So, yeah, I think it's really about that open communication being an employer that you can actually walk up to and talk to and say, hey, I'm not travelling very good at the moment. Okay, well, let's talk about that. And what does that mean for you? So, yeah, I think it's really about being open and having the support of Castle certainly made my life heaps easier, yeah.
Brad Webb: You referenced a couple of points in there that I think are worth drawing out. One is you are working with a team of people at Castle. There's a range of experiences and backgrounds, life experiences. We have staff who themselves have had a lived experience with disability, and they bring all of that knowledge and experience to the table. And many of them have worked in businesses or had businesses of their own.
In fact, James, your own background, you're very familiar with managing large businesses, the needs of employers. And that must bring about a special relationship between you and your employer partners.
James Alexander: Yeah, absolutely. I think when you've been in that situation where you've had any new employee coming on board, the same principles apply, but you just need to be, I think, as you say Fee more open, and have that communication about anything extra or additional that may be required.
Fee Madigan: Definitely, yeah.
James Alexander: But yeah, I think if you have that background, it does help with understanding what it's like to induct or onboard a new employee. Yeah.
Brad Webb: Because I don't think, it's not an easy task. There is effort required from the employer, from the participant, from Castle to make that match work. It's not always smooth sailing, and employers need to have a particular willingness and desire to help. And I think Art Mania Studio's mission if I'm right, is to provide a supportive and inclusive environment for everyone that wants to explore their creativity. So, Fee, how do you do that as both an individual and as an employer to create that space that makes it possible for people with disability to engage.
Fee Madigan: I'd like to say it's luck, but it isn't, it's a lot of hard work by not only myself but my team. I'm very fortunate with the staff that I have, and their philosophy is, I guess it's mine that they've taken on. So, it's really important that Art Mania Studios has a welcoming environment for everyone. We know some people don't find it easy to get out of their own home, just through simple social anxiety or other issues that they may have.
So, making that first step through the front door can be an issue for anyone. So it's really about from the moment that you actually walk in, you can feel something different, and it's that community that we've managed to create and maintain that gives us that, oh, this is a really comfortable feeling. Yeah, I'm okay. Oh, wow. Look at the artwork. So, then once they step through their door, and they go, yeah, I'm okay, and they see the artwork, it kind of just dissolves from there. So, that's not to say people still don't have anxiety, but it's more of a magnet to try and keep that person walking forward through the doors. So with employing staff, it's the same principle.
So say, for example, Castle might refer someone to us for a potential job vacancy. We'll have a small discussion, excuse me, we'll have a small discussion before they come in, just gimme a rough idea of the individual. Obviously, resume, we'll read through it. And I've had people come into those interviews, and they have been scared out of their wits. They may come with their support person from Castle personnel. But one of the things is that sitting in front of three strangers being interviewed can be daunting for anyone. So, through that process, it's like, okay, we're gonna make this as informal as we can. Would you like a glass of water? coffee? Just to be really mindful that take a deep breath. It's okay. We don't have to rush it. And just to be mindful about taking that care initially, so that you're actually going to get the person to deliver the best of themselves in that sticky environment. That can be really daunting. So, yeah.
James Alexander: And I think that creates Fee, having sat in on some of those interviews, you open the door to make that person feel comfortable, and then start to talk about some of the areas that they may need additional support with.
Fee Madigan: Supporting. Yeah, that's right, James. Yeah. And I think it comes back to having a really good working relationship with Castle as well has made the difference, because for one you know my environment now with the, and you know what my expectations are to some degree, and you can just look at a person, you go oh, they might be a really good fit for Art Mania. It's like, okay, well, give us a sing out and let's have a look.
So, I think one of the hardest things that I've come across in terms of my own self-reflection as a person and as an employer is that the culture is slowly changing, but we need to change it faster. I mean, you've got people who wanna just belong and be a part of something that is meaningful to them. And a lot of employers see potentially the disability as the main person, not the actual individual themselves. So then it's like, well, hang on a minute, that person has a lot to offer in terms of transferable skills. How do you actually incorporate that and get rid of that old culture of seeing the disability first, rather than the person for their transferable skills and what they can actually offer to the team?
Brad Webb: Fee, we had a lovely conversation beforehand about the role that art plays in actually taking the focal point away from disability and into the artwork. And that meant that people with disability and people without disability could be engaged before they realised there was a difference between them in terms of disability because the artwork was the focal point. And that's a really important part of the process for us to get that conversation with employers changing and shifting.
James, a lot of work goes, can go into the process of getting a participant from the first inquiry at Castle into the front door of an employer. Some are gung-ho ready to roll, ready for the interview, but others take a longer period of time to get ready. Can you talk us through some of the things that you and your team do that help prepare people for that first interaction with an employer?
James Alexander: Yeah, certainly. So a lot of background goes in from our case management phase where they work with the individual participant to have a look at their barriers and ensure that they're being addressed as best they can. And then from that point, we make sure that their resume is up to date. We would run through some interview questions with them, some mock interviews to build their confidence and to know what to expect.
We would then walk them through if it was a particular employer that had made an inquiry through that employer's business. And basically talk about what the business is about, what their mission is, what's their core values that they're offering, and then the role and the tasks that would be required, so that we can start to flag if there are going to be any areas that we would need to talk to the employer about beforehand, and just say, look, we may need to have a look at putting some strategies in place until this particular participant becomes comfortable with the work environment or comfortable with the task, so that they can actually perform at the expectation of the employer.
And yes, you're right Brad, sometimes that might be helping that participant actually get to the interview, because they may not have transport themselves. So the team will look to transport them, walk them in through the front door and if the participant gives their consent, and the employer's happy, we can sit in as a support person during that interview process. If they are a bit anxious or need a little bit of prompting along the way, having that relationship with the participant, we can help tease out a few things that would be helpful to the employer to be able to then, make a well-informed decision if this participant is the right person for the job that they've got available.
Brad Webb: That fear is very real from the employer's perspective as well, particularly for a first-time employer or an employer that's had a negative experience with working with people with disability before, because they weren't supported or not. Fee, when you first came into working with Castle, had you employed people with disability in your work?
Fee Madigan: No, I hadn't. So, the very first person was only myself, and then I was employing someone to help. So, no, I guess my approach to employing someone with a disability is probably a little bit different to the norm, because of my background in disability education and so forth. So, I was quite willing to accept, knowing full well that potentially I may have to change things a little bit to accommodate any certain physical limitations, et cetera, for an individual. So, I was right from the get-go fine with it, I didn't have any issues around that at all. And I find that as time progresses, it's more about, well, when we have a vacancy, we send it straight over to Castle first before we actually advertise simply because it's like, well, you guys have always provided a topnotch service. And the other thing about that is that they're not just with us for six to 12 months.
We've got some that have been with us for four, five years now. So, when you look at that loyalty and that growth of experience, not to mention they may have started off just on a general average position and wage salary to now we've got a couple that are in management positions. So when you think about that, it is quite, it's like, yeah, look at that person shine.
James Alexander: Yeah, absolutely. And it's been incredible to see the growth of your business over those years.
Fee Madigan: Yeah, yeah. And I actually like the fact that, because we've dealt with Castle, so they've come on deck right from when I first started employing people to now, and they can still see, oh, wow, she's still with you. That's fantastic. Oh yeah, but she's a manager now. Oh, wow, yeah. So yeah.
James Alexander: Yeah, that's extraordinary. And I think that.
Fee Madigan: I'm very proud of it.
Brad Webb: They're the stories we need to hear because they're around 4.5 million people in Australia who experienced a disability. And as you said, James, that's about one in five Australians, only 54% of those people are in employment. And in fact, the unemployment rate for people with disability is twice that of people without disability.
I think we were all pretty thrilled when Dylan Alcott was announced as 2022 Australian of the year and in his acceptance speech, he really, he issued a few challenges to society and to government, but one of those related to employment. And on the issue of employment he said, this is a quote: guess what? We're not just ready to work, we're ready to take your jobs all right. We are coming, we are coming, but we've got to get those opportunities. James, having a job is a powerful opportunity. Can you share with us some of the changes you've seen in participants when they get a job?
James Alexander: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's the part of the journey, as you say, one of our values is celebrating the wins, but to see the transformation after somebody has gained employment, and the changes that it makes to them as an individual and to them, their family is really, I guess, the why we do what we do, but I've seen participants say things like, for the first time, I'll be able to buy Christmas presents for my kids.
I've seen people that have been living rough now able to have safer accommodation available to them, participants, that didn't have a car and lived a bit out of town, and transport was a major issue for them to be able to save to buy a vehicle, so that they're able to transport themselves to and from work, open up more opportunities for them.
And I can remember, probably the first participant that I placed when I first started working with Castle, the thing that stuck with me was she came into the office, she was so excited, because she bought herself her first handbag ever. So, it can be small or it can be massive, but absolutely, the benefits of having employment, I think is right that everybody should have to have that social and economic participation is something that everybody should have as a right.
Brad Webb: Something we can easily take for granted.
James Alexander: Absolutely.
Brad Webb: And from an employer's perspective Fee, what changes do you see in the people that walk through your door? And then to have spent times, and you've hinted a couple of those, and people rising through the business and in management positions, but what do you see as the greatest changes?
Fee Madigan: To be belonging to something that is meaningful to them, to be seen as a valued person, to be seen as part of a team, to be respected by their peers in the workplace, and to have a voice. I mean, unfortunately, so many don't have the option to have a voice purely because of the culture behind the disability sector, and they are seen to be different, and it's wrong.
So when you start to, like, I look back at, and one of my staff members, she never had a job ever. And she was early 20s, and suffered from quite a severe mental health issue along with anxiety and depression and all the rest of it. She came in as a volunteer. She asked if she could come in as a volunteer, and I sorted it all out with Castle. She came and did a couple of days volunteering and the work that she volunteered and completed during the time she was there, I said, we're gonna pay this one. So then, we went back through Castle and we said, we wanna offer her a job. So it wasn't her actually looking for a job in the beginning. She just wanted to be a part of something. And she was very creative as well. So, that's why it was obvious an attraction for her in the beginning.
So yeah, she started, and she started on 15 hours a week. And I think she's up to about 25 hours a week now. And she's one of the most loyal, considerate members of the team that we have, and very well respected by everyone. And you would never think that this person, how she portrays herself now as confident, and she's hi everyone. She says a lot in the morning, she'll go outta her way to help other people, to where she first came in is totally different. The confidence, yeah, she shines. So it's like, and there are many stories like that in the studio, and from staff as well as participants. And it's just incredible. It's yeah. I mean, that's the kicker for us. It's like to see someone grow like that, and to know their worthiness and believe in themselves. Yeah, that's the best thing.
Brad Webb: And an important part of that is not coming in there with a prejudgment, it's there on anybody's the level of somebody's abilities, because sometimes the very act of having a job unlocks that potential in a way that other things could never do. And I think it's easy for people to on the outside be looking in and going well, people should just get off their butt and get a job, or that shouldn't be a barrier. It can't be that hard. There's a job for anyone who wants it, but we've seen time and time again, that with some gentle support and that idea of giving people a hand up, not a handout really works, and nothing is more fulfilling for Castle than to see somebody grab hold of a job and fly. And we never see them again, because they've gone into the world.
Fee Madigan: Yeah, exactly. And I just think like, I just think it's like, the culture has to continue changing, and we need to do it faster. It's like, yeah.
Brad Webb: In terms of parting words Fee, if you are out there listening to this as an employer thinking, gosh, maybe I would like to do this. Maybe I would like to try this disability employment service thing and give it a go, what words have been encouragement or advice would you give potential employers.
Fee Madigan: Do it now. Don't hold back. Make the phone call. Chat to Castle about how you can actually incorporate someone of worth and equality into your business, and gain the loyalty that you may not otherwise gain. So, yeah. Get on the phone.
Brad Webb: James, what would you say to an employer who's thinking about coming along and engaging in disability employment services?
James Alexander: Yeah, look, I would say that it makes good sense. It's an untapped talent pool that's out there. You're not alone. There's support to help you along the way. Don't be afraid. Create an opportunity and give someone a go. And I think you'll be pleasantly surprised of the outcome and the reward that you get from it.
Fee Madigan:  Yeah. And I also think just tapping in on what you said that James is like, have a conversation about your serious concerns about well, I'm really afraid about doing this, because what if this, what if that. Well, it's just. Yeah, contact Castle and get them to actually, and talk through those processes, because it is a real concern for some employers to think that, oh, it's gonna cost me more money to actually have someone on with a disability, et cetera. And what about, what if something goes wrong? And, but there's all, there's risk management strategies in everything. And it's like, yeah, I agree with you. Give someone a go.
James Alexander: And I think sometimes too, Brad, it's been said from some employers that they fear that it might be an increase of workers' compensation. Whereas statistically it's proven, people with disability are safer at work than people that don't have a disability. And I think a lot of that has got to do with the fact is that in a lot of instances, they have that lived experience of being able to manage, and able to do that in any environment. So, yeah, so.
Brad Webb: So whatever you're both saying is, it's okay to be nervous. It's okay to be a bit worried about this.
Fee Madigan: Totally.
Brad Webb: It's not okay to let that stand in the way of picking up that phone and having a talk to Castle about what we might be able to do for you.
Fee Madigan: Absolutely.
James Alexander: Absolutely, yeah.
Brad Webb: And given that we are here for people with disability, and it's all about our participants, what are your words of advice, James, for our participants who are thinking, maybe I could do this, this sounds all right.
James Alexander: Yep. Look, I think there's, and as Fee alluded to, there is still that stigma out there, but I think the only way that we can break that is by being transparent, having those conversations and not to, again, they're not alone either. There are providers, and certainly, Castle are out there to help support them in their journey. And we can help guide them along the way. So, give it your best shot. And again, you'd be surprised I think at what you can actually achieve by giving it a go.
Fee Madigan: And don't ever let anyone tell you you can't. You have a voice, and you're entitled to use it just like everyone else. So step up and use it.
Brad Webb: I don't need to ask then what your advice for participants is?
Fee Madigan: No, I just think, take a chance, do it, yeah.
Brad Webb: To both of you, thank you so much for being on our inaugural podcast. It has been an absolute delight to talk to both of you. Fee, thank you for being you.
Fee Madigan: Thanks.
Brad Webb: And for Art Mania Studios, being the organisation that it is, and leading by example and getting out there, and being such a passionate advocate for people with disability, and for the role of employment for people with disability. And thanks for joining us today.
Fee Madigan: Thanks Brad.
Brad Webb: And James, for the work that you do, for the work that your team does, for the work that all your colleagues do, thank you. It transforms lives. It's incredibly satisfying to be part art of an organisation that is giving people those opportunities. And thank you for stepping up today to the mic.
James Alexander: Thanks Brad.
Brad Webb: And I really, to our listeners also say, thank you for bearing with us through this. We were all a bit nervous about our first time in front of the microphones.
James Alexander: 100%.
Brad Webb: But I think that they'll agree with me that it was a really interesting conversation, and possibly just eroded some of those barriers people might have in their own mind, or some of those stigmas that they're carrying with them as to the role and the value of people with disability, and the sheer value and importance of employment to all of us. So thank you.
Fee Madigan: Thank you.
James Alexander: Cheers, thank you. Thanks Fee.
Fee Madigan: Thank you.