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Episode 1: Inclusive Employment

Meet people with disability from across the state in Choice and Control, a podcast from Carers Queensland.

George Arkinstall runs Gardening A Difference, a Brisbane-based business providing ongoing employment opportunities for people with autism or mental health challenges.

George started his business in 2016 as a way of providing a job for his brother Harry, who has autism. Since then, George has hired 15 employees, 12 of whom are on the autism spectrum or living with a mental health issue.

We chat to George about his business, the benefits of inclusive employment and his passion for building strong communities.

Download the transcript

00:06 Douglas Connor:  Hello and Welcome to Choice and Control, a podcast celebrating the contribution that people with disabilities make to our communities.

In this series we are talking all things disability, social inclusion and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Throughout this series you will also be hearing some great practical advice for making the most of your NDIS Plan from local people accessing the Scheme.

This podcast series is brought to you by the team at Carers Queensland, NDIS Local Area Coordination Partner in the Community.

I’m your host, Douglas Connor, thank you for tuning in.

Joining us today is George Arkinstall, the owner of Gardening A Difference, a Brisbane-based gardening company who provide ongoing employment opportunities for young people on the autism spectrum as well as people with a range of mental health issues. George started his business in 2016 as a way of providing a job for his older brother Harry, who has autism. Since then, George has hired a total of 15 employees, 12 of whom are on the autism spectrum or living with a mental health issue. Today I chat to George about his business, the benefits of inclusive employment and his passion for building stronger communities. Well, firstly, George, thank you so much for taking the time to be here today.

1:34 George Arkinstall: Yeah, thank you very much for having me.

1:36 Douglas: George, you were a personal trainer before starting Gardening A Difference in 2016. Can you tell us what led to that change in career direction?

1:43 George: I actually thought that I would continue being a personal trainer and that was sort of the career choice I’d made. I really enjoyed it, and it was also a pretty good precursor to doing what I’m doing now because I learn a lot of leadership skills and that sort of stuff doing that sort of career path. But at the time my brother Harry had sort of been in and out of work. He’d had two jobs and neither one of them really lasted very long unfortunately.

We’d always done gardening for Dad around the house, and so we thought that, you know, I’d offer it to a client and they said ‘Oh yeah, look, we’d love to’.  And then we did a couple more, and more.  Then after six months it was one week of gardening, one week of PT, and it kept growing and growing.

Then we had another individual, who heard about what we were doing and what I was doing with Harry, who wanted to have a go.  The idea of what I wanted to do with the business and where I wanted to take it was growing. And, yeah, so we kept moving on from there.

2:50 Douglas: Very good. So since starting the business, aside from your brother Harry, you’ve employed a number of people on the autism spectrum as well as young people living with a range of mental health issues. Can you tell us how you’ve worked towards creating a workplace inclusive of people with disability?

3:08 George: Look, it starts a lot from the fact that I want to, and I think when you’re willing and you have that drive it becomes a lot easier. Because of that sort of reason, I spent a lot of time educating myself about the Autism Spectrum Disorder range, and mostly depression but a variety of other mental illnesses as well. And from that understanding, if that was the very base level, when you have an individual come and work for you, straight away you are 110% more equipped to work with that individual because you have that insight and understanding .

On n top of that from there for the people on the autism spectrum, it was about implementing little strategies for more complex situations. And so for example people on the autism spectrum process information in a different way than your typical individuals do.  Because of this, it results in, can be  audio frequencies that are rapidly changing can be distressing, overly bright lights and fluorescent lights can be things as well, generally overstimulation of the senses.

And so one thing we did was buy all electric equipment and that halved the decibel.  Obviously you think about gardening and obviously it’s a really noisy  sort of job, and so a lot of people wouldn’t think for an Autistic individual to work as a gardener. But there are solutions that we can put into place, so the electric equipment was one of those.  We use noise cancelling headphones if I need them as well. It’s back to that understanding. If I know an individual has difficulty somewhere I can change the work, I can put them outside of the brightest times of the day, it’s from that understanding that you can create the solutions.

I think it comes from the understanding, and the understanding comes from the, the will to want to have a go at solving a problem. And the problem I wanted to solve was, individuals with disabilities working within workplaces.

5:20 Douglas: So aside from the ongoing employment opportunities that you provide to young people with disability, you also offer training and personal development opportunities to your staff. Can you tell us a little bit about what is on offer?

5:32 George: Yeah, absolutely. With the program we offer, it’s outside of work as well as a little bit inside of work, but the idea is that we want to help create, build these individuals into better individuals to help them to grow.  When they finished working with us, we offer a six to 12 months employment, and sometimes longer if need it, to help them to be more employable when they go out to their next opportunity.

I guess in a way it has nothing to do with the fact that the individuals that are on the autism spectrum, it has to do with what we’re doing helps people to grow.  I know a little bit about psychology, but I went and consulted a psychologist and we built a program that was based on three core stages, and these are step stages.

So you start with one and if you get that really good, then the next one becomes easier and better and then challenge the next. And so the first stage is physiology. And so your physiology is like data strains within your body, and if you can get them running really well through things like meditation and exercise and nutrition, then your psychology works really well, or it works better, which is the second stage.

And so we work through things like linking up with a psychologist, the guys can call when they need to. We work on personal development in the way that, the more you understand about something and the more your confidence builds, the better your psychology becomes and the better your psychology, moving onto the next step, is community.

And I think this is the most fundamental part of our programs is linking these guys up with theories where they’re able to meet individuals in similar circumstances to themselves, as well as in their community where they’re able to give back to society because I think that’s a really fulfilling thing as well. And so we work through these programs and I link up with third parties where we need to.

You were talking about how I was a personal trainer before, so I can do some training, we can do meditation before work, but where we need to, we link up with third parties where I’m out-skilled and not able to contribute in these areas.

7:49 Douglas: That’s awesome. Community and building communities is obviously a massive focus for Gardening A Difference as an organisation. How important a factor is that connection to community for some of the young people you work with?

8:01 George: I think it may be the most important thing.  I think not just for them, but society as a whole and particularly Western society as a whole, isolation for individuals on the autism spectrum is really high. Isolation for people with mental illness is one of the first stages in the downward cycle that is mental health. And when it starts to decline, when you regress away from your communities and you regress away from your friendship group and therefore regress away from your support networks.  I read a really interesting book,  it was couple of years ago now, it was called The Geography of Thought and it talks about the differences between the Eastern and Western cultures.  The primary difference that they looked upon was that the West tended, from Greek society onwards tended to look inwards.  Then we developed the individualistic society that we have, which has worked really well for business especially in the early days of Western society, but now we’re seeing there are more problems created.  Whereas as the West, sorry the East, tended to look out and they actually, because of this discovered that the moon effected the tides and that’s why the tides were coming in and out hundreds of years before the West ever did. And they also developed more complex societal structures and community groups. And I think if you go to an Eastern country now, you notice these really strong family communities and large communities and, you know, that there’s such strength in that.

I think the West’s decline in community involvement is a huge issue.  I think it has a lot to do with why we’re seeing rising numbers of mental health issues and rising numbers of suicide, because we don’t have these tight-knit communities anymore, and people don’t have those support networks.  Human beings  group animals, we’re meant to be with other people, that’s where you thrive, and I think we need to really go back to that or proceed with caution.

10:15 Douglas: George, after a couple of years running the business, you’ve now got a great deal of experience in working with and employing people on the autism spectrum as well as with a range of other disabilities. What advice would you give to other employers considering hiring someone with a disability?

10:32 George: Give it a go. Like, it’s easy.  I’d say first, even if you’re not considering it, get educated.  Start understanding about these things. Because when the opportunity arises, if you have that education, you’re going to be willing to take the opportunity and you’re going to be able to unlock the potential of these individuals. Whereas if you’re not understanding what’s going on when you’re face to face with an individual, it can be quite daunting. Definitely, anything we don’t understand can be quite daunting and can be unsettling.  You don’t know what to do and therefore, your feel like it’s going to be lots of hurdles to go forward. But if you understand what’s going on, then you’re going to be willing to take that opportunity.

When you do that, you realise that these individuals, they’re not Autistic individuals, they’re Harry and Lauchie and Sam.  They’re people with this thing, they’re not this thing with a person.   You get to meet those people and they’re such fantastic people. And when you’re able to utilise the strengths and hone in on the strengths of these individuals, it’s really unbelievable what you can achieve.

I think that Gardening A Difference is probably the most attention-detailed gardening service in Brisbane, Queensland and maybe Australia. That’s because I’ve been able to figure out, not even figure out, just be able to look and say, “Hey, these guys are really good at that, I’m going to focus on that.  I’m going to make that our thing.”  When you’re able to overcome, not even overcome, look past the face value and have that understanding, then you really open up your opportunity to utilise these individuals within your workplace, but you’re also give these guys a chance that they’ve been looking for and they deserve.

12:25 Douglas: That’s a great perspective, George. All too often we hear about the potential barriers or challenges when it comes to employing people with disability, but it’s not often enough that we hear about the potential value add, the benefits for the business, both from a cultural and an economic standpoint.

12:41 George: Yeah, and if you look at our guys, I think there was an article a few months ago about IBM head-hunting individuals on the autism spectrum because of the logical thinking.  I went to a conference in Singapore earlier this year and there was a speaker who talked about how the detailed, focused mind of an Autistic individual is the type of mind that you want doing up bolts or something on an aeroplane. You want someone that’s going to get it to the millimetre right, you don’t want someone that’s going to go off and be like ‘yeah, that’s about right’. You want that detail.

That can be really great in certain career paths and a lot of career paths. Certainly there are challenges, you know, there are hurdles and there are places that it’s going to be more difficult.  For each individual, where that is going to be, is going to vary.  But anyone, neurotypical or neurodiverse, needs to focus on their skill. It doesn’t matter who you are. And, and so I think it’s just about these individuals doing the same thing and us helping them to do so.

13:44 Douglas: Yeah, that’s great advice, George. So obviously it’s been a huge journey for you personally and a big journey as well for your business. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

13:55 George:  Yeah, it’s quite interesting.  When I started Gardening A Difference, I guess first I wanted to help Harry and then I wanted to help more individuals in his situation, and then I realised pretty quickly that it’s difficult to help through a business unless I’m running a really good business first.

I had to sort of take a step back and organise my business, and create the operational systems, and create the structures. And then I realised that it’s really hard to run a really good business unless you yourself are running at 110%.  So I had to take a step back again and look at my own life, and work on my functionality, and those three steps back are the same three steps that I work on with the guys. It was community back to psychology and then back to physiology, getting all those things right.

It was quite lucky actually that I started Gardening A Difference because it led to me learning a lot more about myself and certainly developing myself more than I could have ever imagined that I would  by the stage of my life.

15:04 Douglas: And George, you’ve based a lot of your work with Gardening A Difference around four pillars, which you say are action, awareness, charity and inspiration. Can you tell us about how these pillars influence the everyday work of Gardening A Difference?

15:19 George: So the idea of the pillars is that any organisation can use these pillars in combination with something that they believe they’d like to change within society. So the thing that  we wanted to change was the employment opportunity for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and individuals facing challenges with mental health. And we did that.  And we take that and then we use the three pillars.

So the first pillar, action.  The action we took is we started employing these individuals. The action someone else might take might be completely different in a complete different paradigm. But the action we wanted to take was on the ground. Let’s start employing these individuals.

So the next one was originally awareness, but then I changed it to education because I think education is much more powerful, and we spoke a little bit more about that earlier. And so I share a lot of educational things on our social networks.  I’m doing my best, I listen to a lot of audiobooks, I think the more I’m educated in these fields, the more I’m able to help. And I think if I’m able to share some of that education it makes, it breaks down those barriers. When the person who I’m talking to is then placed in the situation where they’re  face to face with an autistic individual, they now have the understanding to give them the opportunity that they might be able to give.

The next one is charity.  We do a lot of charitable stuff. I think charity should be at the heart of any business and at the heart of any individual and household actually. I believe in, you know, karma and giving back and all of that. And I think I’ve been so fortunate, in running my business and I think that’s because I’ve gone out and tried to do a good thing, and so things really go my way and I get lucky breaks.  It’s made running a business a lot easier that I’ve decided to do the right thing and do the good thing because it comes back. It does come back.

The way we’ve decided to be charitable, it’s just here and there. And so say right now with COVID-19, any of our clients that have been put out of work  or businesses that have had to shut down, we’re doing their yards for free and we’re going to keep doing their yards for free until they’re back on their feet. They’ve supported us by being our clients already, we’ll support them through this difficult time.

Prior to that me and one of my employees ran the Bridge to Brisbane run raising money for Beyond Blue. When we first started for our first year, we donated 20% of every dollar we made to Autism Queensland and then Beyond Blue and we’ve done another number of other charity things.

The last one I think is, probably the most fundamental and the most important. It’s inspiration, and that’s why I jumped on the opportunity to do the podcast. Because I want to spread the idea that, you know… I didn’t even get an OP because I got asked to leave school in grade 11, and then I went to a new school and I didn’t really try.  If you knew me then, I was the least likely to do anything like this. Really, I was the very least likely and probably it wasn’t even possible, but somehow I pulled it off. The reasons I pull it off is because I wanted to, and I just kept trying and going and going and going. And now here I am, so many years later and certainly I’m not at the end of my journey yet. I’ve got a long way to go and I’ve got a lot of energy left.

Say if I work six days a week, 12 hours a day for the next 50 years.  Then in that time I might create, call it 100 points of difference, whatever that means. But if I can speak to individuals, and fire up something in them, and they go ‘hey, well if he could do it and he dropped out of high school, then maybe I can have a go at doing something, I’m really passionate about changing this thing’. And if they go out and do that and they change a hundred points, and then another, even if I just inspire two people and they go out and create a hundred points of difference each, then forget the hundred points I did. The most important thing I did in my whole life is inspire those two people because that created more difference than what I did, working 12 hours a day, six days a week for 50 years.  And so, you know, inspiration and being able to try to light something inside of people is the point of all of this, I think.

20:10 Douglas: Well that’s the beginning of a real social change, isn’t it?

2:14 George:  Yeah, exactly right, exactly. And I think actually society as a whole, we’re moving in a good direction towards businesses being involved and people wanting to be involved in social change, in not leaving anyone behind, not letting people drop through the cracks, and not letting  I guess travesties of justice, to use maybe an overstated word,  go forward in society.

20:43 Douglas: Well, George really has been always refreshing to hear your perspective on these things. It’s really awesome to see some of the work that you’ve been able to do locally here in Brisbane and further afield.  That’s all I have to ask you today, but thank you once again for taking the time to chat with us this afternoon.

20:59 George:  It’s been a pleasure.

21:03 Douglas That was George Arkinstall, a local Brisbane business owner, leading the charge for inclusive employment. For more information about George’s inclusive gardening business, please visit Gardening A Difference.

Thank you once again for tuning into Choice and Control, a Carers Queensland podcast.

For more information about Carers Queensland, the National Disability Insurance Scheme or the Local Area Coordination program, please connect with us online or you can catch up with us on Facebook.

We hope this podcast can become a place for people with disability to share their experiences and their stories. So, if you have a story you think we should know about, please contact us via the Carers Queensland Enquiries Line at 1300 999 636, or via email at cq.enquiries@ndis.gov.au

Until next time, thanks for listening.

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