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It's time for workplaces to step up and be more inclusive of those with a disability

By Ana Isabel Alonsagay

For all its economic success, the Australian workforce can do far better in its representation of employees with a disability. 

Statistics show that over 4.4 million Australians (one in five people) have some form of disability. Yet, their rates of participation in the labour force, as well as their current employment – offer disappointing evidence in our need for further inclusion. 

Nearly one in five people with a disability (aged 15-24 years) have experienced discrimination, with half of such instances from employer behaviour. To build ourselves a stronger workforce of diverse talent, experiences, and skill – it’s time to inspire change, and bring forth the opportunities all job-seekers deserve.

SkillsTalk dive into ways of creating more inclusive workplaces for those with a disability; along with available resources to support such progress.  

The current state of the workplace for Australians with a disability

woman with down syndrome working from home

As it stands, there is currently a higher unemployment rate for Australians with a disability (10.3%) than those without a disability (4.6%). As mentioned, those with a disability are also highly underrepresented, with a 53.4% labour force participation, compared to the 84.1% participation rate among Australians with no disability. 

This places the country at one of the lowest participation rankings for workers with a disability, compared to other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Though dated, Australia ranked an “appalling” (as described by the Diversity Council) 21st place out of 29 OECD member countries in 2010. 

Additionally, youth with a disability have shown a higher likelihood of unemployment (20%) than those aged 25-64. There is also a slight gender split: working males with a disability are 11% more likely than their female counterparts (8.3%) to be unemployed.

Not all statistics hold negative weight, however; current research shows that a higher proportion of people with a (profound or severe) disability are now working full-time compared to years past  - with a jump from 7.9% in 2015 to 11.4% in 2018. This is partly driven by an increase of Australian women with a disability working full-time.

Still, there is great potential for further strides towards inclusivity. Employees with a disability continue to face discrimination issues (with conciliation reports logged in annually), with approximately 48% of employers not hiring those with a disability, and 22% unsure of the practice (according to the Australian Network on Disability). 
Busting myths around employing those with a disability.

In his insightful interview with GQ magazine, Australian basketballer Dylan Alcott dives into his personal experiences of prejudice and “unconscious bias” as someone with a disability.

The “unconscious bias” is what Alcott describes as an “invisible barrier” between employers and job-seekers with a disability. 

“You can’t see [it], but you can feel it when you walk into a room – 100 per cent,” he explains. “…There is an assumption that able-bodied people can do it better than you automatically – no matter what you do.” 

This bias stems from a few persistent myths surrounding employment of those with a disability. Among these is the common misconception of being lower-skilled, requiring greater sick leave, or not wanting to work altogether. Research proves the exact opposite; over a million Australians with a disability are currently employed (with hundreds of thousands more looking for work), with 90% of employees with a disability recording equal or greater productivity rates than their peers, and 86% having average or greater attendance records. 

Additionally, the Australian Network on Disability (AND) reveals that 66% of employers who hire those with a disability experience clear business benefits, including a boost in workplace morale, greater customer satisfaction, and improved skillsets. 

Another barrier among businesses is the perceived high costs surrounding workplace adjustments. There are simple, inexpensive ways of assisting those with a disability, however; such as having desks with adjustable height, providing flexibility in their work schedule, or keeping a pen and paper at reception desks for the Deaf. 

Recruiting workers with a disability also comes with fewer compensation incidents – as they often have less workplace accidents than other workers – and lower rates of absenteeism

Finally, employers often fear misconduct or saying the wrong thing around employees with a disability. This can be easily remedied, however, by investing in training and building your awareness on the subject. Online materials, such as the AND’s “Manager’s Guide to creating a disability inclusive workplace”, offers the essentials in providing a supportive, friendly, and inclusive environment for workers of all disability types. 

The working rights of Australians with a disability

Before diving into the recommended methods of improving inclusivity in the workplace, it’s crucial to know the rights of Australian employees with a disability. 

Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act ensures that those with a disability are given the same employment opportunities as those without. Should the person with a disability be capable of performing the main tasks or “inherent requirements” of a job role, the Act emphasizes their right to equal opportunity

Employers may, in some cases, be required to make workplace adjustments in order to accommodate those with a disability. These can include installing ramps or provision of larger computer screens. If making such changes will lead to “major difficulties” or extravagant costs (also defined as “unjustifiable hardships”), they are no longer required to – though must offer evidence as to how these changes can cause such hardships.
The Act also protects those with a disability against discrimination from access to education, housing accommodation, and public services (e.g. banking, insurance, transport, and professional services). 

How to embrace inclusivity in the workplace

inclusivity concept at work

Striving towards a more “disability confident” workplace will firstly require open conversation on the topic. 

It’s imperative to have managers trained in broaching the subject – building their confidence in welcoming, supporting, and collaborating alongside those with a disability. Statistics from the U.S. show that 60% of employees are more likely to open up to managers, rather than human resource representatives, on their disability; furthering their importance in creating an inclusive, diverse workplace

Ensuring your business is capable of making necessary adjustments makes it easier to discuss with workers on their disability status and needs. Communicating your reasons for asking is also vital, as workers must be assured that your purpose is to encourage open conversation on the topic; to create an environment that welcomes and supports their adjustment needs. 

It can also help to partner with a Disability Employment Service (DES), as such organisations offer information, direction, and the necessary resources to employ and create a positive, supportive workplace for people with a disability. 

While a key feature of a DES is help job-seekers with a disability gain access to tailored employment and skills development services; they also provide employers with recruitment advice, job design, on-the-job support, awareness activities for those with a disability. Additionally, they offer generous financial support to help them in providing required adjustments – such as workplace modifications, assistive technology, and awareness training. 

Last, but certainly not least – a “disability confident”workplace is fostered through a positive change in mindset. The Australian government, along with various councils and organisations in support of those with a disability, have made extensive progress creating equal opportunity (and accommodating services) surrounding employment. The effects of such efforts, however, come down to employer attitude and their willingness to give job-seekers with a disability a fair go. 

It’s vital for all employees and managers to educate themselves on the productivity and business benefits these strides can bring. Organisations can find strength in diversity; building rich workplaces of valuable talent, experiences, and happier, inclusive working cultures. 

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