Driving Disability Employment | Myths, Fears, Facts and Benefits

I want to bring you into the conversation I had the privilege of being part of yesterday about driving disability employment because we need to talk about it. We need to have genuine conversations. Difficult, uncomfortable conversations. We need to challenge preconceptions and change our language because as a society we can, and should, do better to include everyone who is willing and able in the workforce ecosystem.

While disability is always an important topic of conversation, it’s particularly poignant that the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games 2018 is currently making history by hosting the largest integrated Para-Sport program in Commonwealth Games history.  Unlike other events like the Paralympics where para-athletes compete in a completely separate event, at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games para-athletes are competing in the same competition as their able bodied counterparts. If we’re able to do this in sport, we should be able to do the same in all areas of society but, most importantly, in the workforce. 

However, on the flip side, the Commonwealth Games are being heavily criticised because, while they’re certainly leading the inclusion wave in some ways, the event is also putting the spotlight on real, and disappointing, examples of the institutionalised discrimination in the everyday lives of people with disability in Australia and around the world. For instance, Queensland Rail’s newly acquired A$4.4 billion trains have inaccessible bathrooms and walkways. Not to mention a lack of staff support when people with access needs are boarding. And, it’s important to note, that this doesn’t just effect people with a disability but also parents with prams, travellers with luggage, professionals with cumbersome work gear and others. So, lifting the bar for people with disability, lifts the bar for everyone.

This juxtaposition happening in the Gold Coast highlights that, in order to achieve true equality, it requires all players in the workforce ecosystem – from all levels of government and throughout the private sector, from urban planning to transport, from big business to small – to play a part. So, it’s paramount we continue the conversation and get people from all sectors involved.

It was clear at yesterday’s Driving Disability Employment seminar, and I think it’s safe to assume, that everyone either knows someone with a disability or has one themselves — whether visible or not. 

When many people hear “disability,” their first thought is of someone in a wheelchair but only 4.4% of people with a disability in Australia use a wheelchair. As well, 3 million Australians live with depression or anxiety. Another 1 in 6 Australians are affected by hearing loss and Vision Australia estimates there are currently 357,000 people in Australia who are blind or have low vision.

From an employer’s perspective, what you may not realize is that you’re likely already employing people with a disability.  As many as 1 in 5 Australians experience mental health issues in any year.  Forty-five per cent will experience mental health issues in their lifetime and research shows job or financial loss can increase a person’s risk of health problems, such as depression and anxiety.

Nearly 10% of the Australian workforce has a disability with 32% of those in professional or management roles — many of whom are invisible. Even that figure is likely underreported as many people with a disability don’t identify themselves as having one or are uncomfortable disclosing it even in anonymous surveys. Bronwyn Scott, Disability Employment Leader for HealthShare NSW pointed to an example in her presentation yesterday that their initial efforts to quantify the number of employees within the HealthShare workforce that had a disability were dramatically underreporting the figure.  It was only when they reframed the questions to remove the “disability” label and added more clarity and context to the question were they able to get a more accurate count (approximately 8%).

Bronwyn, and others throughout yesterday’s Driving Disability Employment seminar made the strong point that even the word “disability” has a certain sting to it and needs to be re-thought. The definition of “disability” is any condition that restricts a person’s mental, sensory or mobility functions; or, a disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed or recognized by the law. It may be caused by accident, trauma, genetics or disease. A disability may be temporary or permanent, total or partial, lifelong or acquired, visible or invisible.

The prefix “dis” in itself means “not”, “apart”, “lack of”, “the absence of” — an overall negative connotation. So, why “disability” and not “people with ability?” Why, does having a disability mean you are first seen as your disability and second as a person? Everyone has something “dis” about them. Something they’re not able to do or do well. I’m not particularly great at physics or chemistry but I’m not given a negative label to announce that to the world before I’m considered for my strengths and talents, so why are we zeroing in on what a person with a disability can’t do rather than what they can?

2.1 million Australians of working age (15 – 64 years) have a disability, but only 53% of them are employed. The unemployment rate for people with a disability is 9.4%, nearly double that of people without a disability (4.9%). And, it’s significantly worse for younger people with a disability. For instance, graduates with disability take 56.2% longer to gain full-time employment than other graduates (and the employment rate of graduates is already behind where it should be). Sadly, people with disability aged 15-24 years are 10 times more likely to experience discrimination than those aged 65 years and over.

Ben Ackland, Assistant Manager of Strategy and Commissioning at HealthShare NSW participated in the Driving Disability Employment panel (pictured below) about experiences on inclusive workplace practices yesterday. He shared his story of a back flip gone wrong at the age of 21 which resulted in permanent injury and bound him to a wheelchair. As a young person with a disability looking for work, Ben said he “applied for lots of jobs and could not get a job anywhere.” When he finally did, the set up of the office was a nightmare because it required two lifts and at least 15 minutes just to go to the bathroom.

The reality is, if we don’t fix the problem of getting more young people with disability into the workforce, like anyone, the longer they’re out of the workforce, the harder it is to get in, which simply exacerbates the problem. 

From the other end of the spectrum, the rate of disability increases with age, which means for employers some of your most skilled and experienced employees may be impacted by disability at some stage. So it makes sense that employers ensure their workplaces are inclusive and accessible by people of all abilities not only to ensure the support of the existing employees, customers and service providers, but also that they’re able to access a wider talent pool and hire the best person for the job — young or old, with a disability or without. 

The primary reason employers don’t include disability considerations in their recruitment strategy comes down to fear: the cost of improving accessibility, OHS concerns, low (unfounded) expectations, low (misguided) confidence (eg. people with disabilities are only suitable for low, entry-level jobs), disregard of the benefits flexibility offers, and a lack of awareness of support services available to them such as Job Access being the most common. 

Addressing the fear of cost for a minute, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Job Accommodations Network annual report, “Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact” found that more than half of requested workplace accommodation cost absolutely nothing for the companies to implement. Some examples of these accommodations include scheduling flexibility, allowances in dress code rules or allowing somebody to sit (or stand) when other positioning is customary.  In Australia, Job Access offers a free workplace assessment to  businesses in order to help them become more inclusive and, in some instances, can assist in funding any modifications needed.

According to a study by Antenna Strategic Insights, 41% of the 533 Australian SMEs employing between 5 and 250 employees who participated see the inclusion of job applicants with disability as important to their business. This is 16% less than when it comes to their customers. Sadly, many businesses see job applicants with disability as “not appropriate for our work” which highlights the widespread ignorance that needs to be addressed by sharing facts like those above. 

To nail the message home, here’s a shortlist of the key reasons why you as an Employer should make considering those with a disability part of your recruitment strategy: 

It’s More Affordable — Targeting people with disability in recruitment costs less and provides access to a range of subsidies and incentives that your organisation – big and small – can take advantage of. 

Access a Wider Talent Pool — Not only by including a segment of the working population that others discount or don’t target, but an inclusive culture also appeals to the able-bodied talent pool organizations want to attract.

Increased Productivity, Retention and Safety — 90% of employees with disability are as productive or more productive than other workers, plus 86% of employees with disability have average or superior attendance than other workers. For those who have OHS concerns, you may be surprised to learn 98% of employees with disability have average or superior safety records than other works. Of the candidates with disability Job Access has helped place since it’s inception in 2006, 97% of employees remain with same employer, 94% of employees productivity increased and 99% of employers reported the assistance provided through Job Access achieved the desired outcomes. 

It’s a Competitive Advantage — Not only in terms of recruitment, but customers. People with disability are three times as likely to avoid an organisation and twice as likely to dissuade others because of an organisation’s negative diversity reputation. According to research undertaken by Antenna Strategic Insights mentioned above, 62% of SMEs have not done anything in the past 12 months to make it easier for customers with disability. For almost half of these, there is a perception of not being asked to, “We have received no specific requests.”  With 1 in 3 people with disability reporting that their customer needs are often unmet, it’s clearly a competitive advantage to be a business that scoops those customers up — and by doing so, you’ll also scoop up more talent. It’s a win, win.

It Boosts Workplace Morale — Remember, the improvements to accessibility and expansion of benefits like flexibility favor your able-bodied employees as much as your disabled. 

It’s Good for Business — Amongst the facts shared at yesterday’s seminar, businesses who employ people with disability are 10 x’s more likely to be high-performing, 9 x’s more likely to innovate, and 5 x’s more likely to have excellent customer service.

Many of the above facts fly in the face of the common misconceptions around employing people with a disability.

Globally, Australia ranks 21 out of 29 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in employment/participation of people with disability.

To put it simply — we can do better.

An interesting point raised yesterday that was new to me was that it hasn’t always been so exclusionary. Once upon a time, people with a disability were treated as normal but somewhere along the lines society has come to view them as an object of pity, a sector of our community that is not equal to the rest. We need to eliminate this thinking along with the barriers that set people apart. 

To wrap up, here’s a few of my favorite take-aways from the Driving Disability Employment seminar: 

  • “When you’re interviewing, focus on the person, what they can do, not the disability.” — Ben Ackland, Assistant Manager of Strategy and Commissioning at HealthShare NSW
  • “The principle of employing someone with a disability is exactly the same. It could not work with a person without a disability as much as someone with.” — Daniel Valiente-Riedl, General Manager JobAccess at Work Health Group
  • “Keep an open mind. Listen. Ask questions. It’s not the disability that gets in the way. It’s the attitudes and assumptions that get in the way.” — Donna Purcell, Senior Manager of Accessibility and Capability Advice at Commonwealth Bank of Australia
  • See people with a disability instead as people with ability. See them for their strengths, what makes them uniquely capable. For instance, people with depression are much more empathetic, realistic and resilient than others while people with autism have higher levels of concentration, focus and attention to detail. — Bronwyn Scott, Disability Employment Leader for HealthShare NSW
  • The employment rate is half of those with a disability. The challenge lies in the connection between employers and people with a disability. It’s easier than you think. —Thérèse Campbell, Group Manager Government & Stakeholder Relations at Work Health Group

I hope by sharing the Driving Disability Employment conversation I was fortunate to be part of yesterday and the research above, it inspires you to continue the conversation. We’ve recently introduced a new feature available through JobGetter’s recruitment platform that allows employers to badge job postings as disability-friendly, and also indicate the office facilities on offer to candidates such as wheelchair access or sight prompts. It’s one way we can bring the consideration of people with a disability into the mainstream. 

Your turn. 

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