Half of all Australians with a disability are not employed. This business model could fix that

Friendly Grocer Blackbutt Newcastle disabled

Mitch Nixon is one of the clients who has taken part in a 12-month program at Friendly Grocer Blackbutt. Source: supplied.

When Paralympian Dylan Alcott won Australian of the Year in January, he took the opportunity to issue Australian business a challenge.

“Of the 4.5 million people [living with disability in Australia], only 54% of them are employed. That number hasn’t moved in 30 years … It’s you who need to start changing your unconscious biases and leave the negative stigmas in the past,” the tennis star said.

Newcastle man Patrick Bellamy, 32, couldn’t agree more. Bellamy, who works in the disability sector, kept hearing the same thing from his clients: that it was really difficult to gain employment, or even work experience, as an Australian living with a disability. So Bellamy got together with business partners Chris Gibson, 44, and Scott Redman, 38, and launched Clear Sky in May 2018 — a disability support service with a twist.

“We figured: if we can’t find anyone to take on our clients, let’s start our own businesses and offer these opportunities to them ourselves,” Bellamy tells SmartCompany.

“We’ve always had huge interest from our clients wanting to get into some sort of work in the retail space.”

The savvy trio also opened a dog parlour called Clear Paws, and designed a 12-week program for their clientele at Clear Sky to undertake at the groomers, under the close eye of support staff and dog grooming experts. The program is hands-on, Bellamy says, with participants getting the opportunity to work the counter, groom the dogs, and interact with customers, gaining invaluable employment experience along the way.

And it worked. Not only was the business inundated by customers attracted to the unique business model, the framework the trio developed for Clear Sky is so airtight that the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) recommends it to others in the sector.

The founders’ latest venture is Friendly Grocer Blackbutt, where clients from Clear Sky can try their hand at everything from “customer service to stocktake and even general shop upkeep,” says Bellamy. At the completion of their 12-week program, clients are given an assessment of their performance and an insert for their resume detailing the tasks they are now experienced to perform, along with an employment reference.

“It’s important to remember that not all of these opportunities are paid opportunities — our main focus is to be able to provide 12-week work experience programs to our clients to give them an opportunity to experience first hand the day-to-day task of employment in retail,” he qualifies.

But the trio hopes to offer many more paid employment opportunities in the future to clients who show commitment and interest — indeed Bellamy says they are in the process of hiring a “stand out” participant in the Clear Paws program.

Omicron has been a bit of a bump in the road, Bellamy admits, but “thankfully we have an amazing community in New Lambton who have been super supportive of our new project and have made us all feel very welcome”.

The grocery store has focussed on giving back to the local community too, partnering with a local football team to get more kids living with a disability into sport, and establishing a “locals only” section to champion hyper-local produce like honey, marinades, coffee and pickles. So far, so good, Bellamy says.

“We have noticed feedback from customers in the store feeling safer in a quiet grocer compared to the big supermarkets and, hey, at least we have toilet paper!” he laughs.

Reflecting on his two retail ventures, Bellamy says it’s moving to see his clients on the job, not just because of the growth and confidence they experience during the 12 weeks, but also in the enjoyment they get from being a valued member of the team.

“I think for all of us it’s just so meaningful to know we are providing such unique opportunities to our clients and providing them with a supportive environment where it’s hands on,” Bellamy says.

So what’s next for Bellamy, Gibson and Redman in their rapidly diversifying business model?

“I think we all need to take a well-deserved break first and park some of our crazy ideas as the three of us can come up with some really ambitious ideas when we catch up!” Bellamy says.

“We do want to stay small and focus on the projects we know will benefit our clients.”

But, he adds, “if the right opportunity comes knocking for another business that we know our clients have a passion to get into, who knows?”

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