I’ve written about this before, but every now and then I have an epiphany, and I have to write about it again.
Look, there’s just no ‘diversity’ without people with a disability being included in the mix.
Every company, every organisation, and every corporate image has some sort of diversity and inclusion policy and practice these days, but people with a disability come under the ‘corporate social responsibility’ label.
Or, in other words, the ‘too hard’ basket.
Diversity and inclusion officers and representatives themselves fail to include people with a disability in their employment initiatives. I once went to a meeting where a person with a disability was espousing the virtues of a particular inclusion program as a ‘diversity and inclusion’ representative, and she opened with the remark…”There’s no disability, just a bad attitude’ – a quote from Scott Hamilton.
So what’s wrong with that statement?
What it does is tell people with a disability who are out of work that it’s their own fault they’re unemployed, and that their attitude towards work is the reason they are unemployed.
It’s my experience as the CEO of a recruitment company for people with a disability representing thousands of candidates, that it is not the attitude of people with a disability that is responsible for the appalling unemployment rates of that cohort – it is the attitude of prospective employers, and people without a disability who are responsible for providing employment opportunities for them.
Partly to blame is our definition of diversity. We include women, people who identify as LGBTI, Indigenous Australian or culturally diverse people for equal opportunity in our employment policies and statistics. But there is very rarely a mention of people with a disability in diversity policies or practice.
Stop demonising people with a disability
Let’s go back to the example of the person with a disability who used the definition ‘There is no disability except a bad attitude’ for a minute.
If people with a disability themselves are espousing this philosophy, then it gives permission to the rest of the working world to blame us as well for being unemployed. It demonises people who are unable to access work due to their disability.
And I’m done with demonising people with a disability, who are being blamed as well for an annual $800 million Disability Employment Services bill to the Australian Government. Let’s be clear, people with a disability aren’t pocketing large amounts of cash to sit around and refuse to work with a bad attitude – the money goes to Disability Employment Service providers under the government’s Disability Employment Framework.
But, sadly, a lack of corporate governance means that in some providers, there is an emphasis on spending as little as possible assisting a person with a disability into work, and maximising the profit taking from the government funding. In the Department of Social Services recent discussion paper on the Disability Employment Framework, openly acknowledged that people with a disability were being ‘parked’ – signed on to an employment services provider – and no action at all being taken to assist them back to work in order to maximise profits.
And that’s not the worst of it. For an $800 million bill, the Australian Government, spending taxpayer dollars, has absolutely no record of where the money has gone, and openly acknowledges in the Discussion Paper that there is no accountability for the considerable sum of money, and that the performance overall of the DES system is declining – meaning even less people with a disability are assisted into work.
In any other industry, this would warrant at least a Senate Inquiry, if not a Royal Commission.
But people with a disability – who cannot at this point, even change their DES provider - are being told it’s their own fault they can’t find a job and that they’re the ones who are expensive!
Clearly, if these practices continue, the unemployment rate will continue to rise, and there will be even less assistance to people genuinely in need, or employer education about disability.
It’s a matter of choice
Enabled Employment has made a submission to the Department of Social Services as part of the current discussions around Disability Employment. We are advocating for freedom of choice in providers for people who need to use them. What the public doesn’t know is that once signed on, even if you receive no service at all from your provider, you cannot change your provider.
The current discussions also canvass how to ensure each person with a disability receives the correct funding support. However, the government is considering a system which perpetuates the provider’s control over funding, as some people involved in the discussions consider that people with a disability are unable to make their own choices due to some lack of either insight or intellectual ability.
There are some people with a disability that do need assistance to make decisions about their support choices; however the vast majority do not. If we were not able to make our own choices, then surely the entire NDIS system would fail, because it is based on the knowledge that people with a disability in fact are able to make their own choices about the support they receive.
And if you are unable to make your own choices about how and where your monetary support from the Australian Government is spent in supporting you to find work, how then would you cope with actually working, and why are you being forced to look for work?
It’s time we had choice and control over where funding is spent. We don’t need parenting by people with a pecuniary interest in perpetuating the current dysfunctional system.
We don’t accept government funds
I looked carefully at the DES system when forming the company, and decided to take an ethical stance not to accept government funding for employing people with a disability.
Employing a person with a disability should be as routine for employers as anyone else. Making reasonable adjustments in the workplace happens every day for workers who are injured on the job as part of a rehabilitation and return to work program, and accessibility isn’t the nightmare employers might think it is.
Generally in Australia, it costs an average of $600 to make reasonable adjustments - for which there are Australian Government grants available to employers.
So I decided to go ahead and demonstrate a business model which provides choice and control to people with a disability, without the demonisation which goes with taxpayer funded support. Since we launched Enabled Employment, we’ve found that the demand for self determination and choice in employment options for people with a disability is outstripping the jobs available.
Perhaps part of the problem is that employers receive a subsidy for employing a person with a disability from the Australian Government, a kind of ‘compensation’ for having a ‘broken’ employee. As long as our government keeps paying people to ‘take on’ a person with a disability, the expectation of underperformance will continue.
Frankly, it’s time to stop taking the money away from people with a disability and giving it to people who just bank it, and start encouraging employers to make the reasonable adjustments which allow people to thrive in their jobs.
There’s no real diversity, no hope of reflecting the structure of our society, without the inclusion – the real and genuine inclusion – of people with a disability in the workforce.
You can read our submission at https://engage.dss.gov.au/des_reform_nov16-submissions/1482128213/
If 4.2 million Australians have a disability, as recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2015, why is our image and definition of a person with a disability still centred around what they can’t do, rather than what we can do? Why do we think of disability in a narrow, deficit focussed way?
Australians think of disability as the ‘medical model’, as a ‘deficit’, a person can’t walk, or can’t hear, or see, can’t think the ‘normal’ way.
“Neurology’s favourite word is ‘deficit’, denoting an impairment or incapacity of neurological function: loss of speech, loss of language, loss of memory, loss of vision, loss of dexterity, loss of identity and myriad other lacks and losses of specific functions (or faculties).”
― Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales
Oliver Sacks made a good point. We do think about what a person can’t do, rather than can.
Under the medical model, a disability of any kind is likely to be interpreted as unable to function at all, rather than being an extraordinary human being who has adapted to an illness, genetic disorder, or acquired injury.
But people with a disability and their closest advocates, often their family members, may have a different view. The social model of disability sees the environment in which people live, and its rigid demand for ‘normal’, as responsible for the inequalities people with a disability face, and changing that physical, attitudinal, communication and social environments as the answer.
For example, making a reasonable adjustment in a workplace for a person with a disability enables both social and economic participation. Access doesn’t just mean a wheelchair ramp, in fact, in the majority of cases this won’t be necessary, but can mean a range of things; adaptive technology, quiet working environments, a desk situated close to the lift, screen readers, hearing loops, but most importantly, the attitude of the people around that person.
We currently define disability in the workplace via a medical model, for the most part. This suggests that the person with a disability make the adaptation to the workplace, rather than the workplace making adaptations for the person with the disability. The medical model suggests that a disability is in need of a ‘cure’, or ‘treatment’, and where successful, it is then the person with the disability who must ‘normalise’, where the social model suggests modifications to attitudes and provision of equipment, or access, as the answer, so that people with a disability can participate in work.
The responsibility of adapting lies with the workplace, and different ways of undertaking work are used to ensure a person with a disability is not further burdened by trying to adapt to a ‘normal’ way of working, when that may not be possible.
We can’t undertake the task of implementing reasonable adjustment without the attitude change that must go with it towards people with a disability in general, in our society.
Without attitude change, any physical modifications or adaptive technology will continue to make difficult the prospect of working and staying in a job.
How do we change attitudes? There are many attempting to change the narrative around disability, to change our thinking from medical to social model.
This wouldn’t be food for thought without contemplating the politics of disability. The late Stella Young pointed out why we object to being called an ‘inspiration’ in her TedTalk. Using the medical model of disability, the not-for-profit sector has been very successful in raising funding from using stories of ‘inspirational’ people with a disability, and studies on the marketing of not-for-profits show that some advertisements raise a lot more money than others. That’s why around Christmas time you’ll find a lot of advertising for charities featuring seriously ill children, children at risk in foreign countries, or children who have no presents or Christmas dinner. They are aimed at maximising an emotional response, persuading donors to act.
The longer we keep using media which shows ‘inspirational’ stories, such as that of a child who has a physical disability completing a 50 metre race at school and subsequently being an ‘inspiration’, the longer we perpetuate the medical model thinking of a child adapting to try to ‘adapt’ to a ‘normal’ activity.
What’s the answer then?
To battle the medical model used routinely to fundraise, we need to change the entire dialogue around disability, in everyday circumstances, at work, at play, at school, and in social settings. The narrative around disability can be overwhelmingly reinforcing as a medical model of deficit. Under the social model of disability, the narrative must change to discussion of what people with a disability can do, given the right adjustment of the environment. The environment can be social, attitudinal, physical, communications or economic.
Attitudinal change is achieved by developing a positive narrative about disability around how the rest of the world can adapt to having a person with a disability in their midst, no matter what that person’s disability is.
Developing a positive narrative isn’t enough, though. We must also show the way forward for the development of a much less rigid definition of disability under the social model. If disability is regarded as a matter of adapting an environment, many things which were disregarded under the medical model come into play. Rather than only providing physical equipment needed, we can foster the entire environment to be flexible enough to adapt to people with a disability. And it’s not just a matter of language, it is physical and attitudinal change. In a workplace, this is easily translated to reasonable adjustment. But who does the adjusting?
Definition of reasonable adjustment
The definition of reasonable adjustment in a workplace is also based on the medical model of disability. It comes from the ‘rehabilitation’ focus, how do we improve a person’s ‘functionality’ in the workplace to equal their non-disabled peers? It is focussed on adapting the person to the workplace, the nine to five job.
If we change the focus of reasonable adjustment to include not only the physical equipment a person needs to adapt to a workplace, but adapting the work methods, ways of working, and attitudes of co-workers around people with a disability, we maximise their effectiveness as employees.
Job sharing, flexible work hours, flexible working arrangements, results only work environments and awareness training for co-workers are all part of a reasonable adjustment definition that we think needs implementing in the majority of workplaces in Australia, not only for people with a disability, but parents, carers, and remotely located communities.
As the saying goes, if you get it right for a person with a disability, you get it right for everyone.
The real cost of employing a person with a disability is rarely more than an average of AU$6-700, for which a grant is available from the Australian Government.
Diversity must include people with a disability
There are some employers willing to embrace a social model definition of disability, who have made awareness of disability in the workplace, and reasonable adjustments a reality, and they are to be applauded. But there are many still operating under the medical model definition.
Not only do employers need to step back and take a look at the definition of reasonable adjustment, but also the definition of diversity.
If we take diversity to mean a true reflection of our population, with 4.2 million Australians with a disability we can assume that around one-fifth of our employees will have a disability. So far we have seen successful campaigns defining diversity as including
- people of multicultural and Indigenous Australian heritage,
- people who identify as LGBTI;
but often we do not include people with a disability as a specific group of people for inclusion in our workforces. Australia has one of the lowest inclusion rates of people with a disability as employees in the OECD.
Some organisations have implemented a ‘disclose and interview’ policy, where people with a disability can self-identify and be prioritised for interview when applying for a job. This alone will not improve the employment participation rate – it may improve the ‘disclosure’ rate - it must come with a readjustment of thinking, attitudes, and accessibility. The social model must be applied to access, reasonable adjustment and workplace attitudes to disability to have any success. The definition of diversity must change, and the social model of disability must be applied to the definition of reasonable adjustment. This is part of the answer to expanding inclusion and diversity to represent the real diversity available in our workforce.
Until that happens, there won’t be a rise in the employment rate of people with a disability discernibly beyond where it is now, costing some $800 million in payments to Disability Employment Service providers, whose effectiveness in finding work opportunities for people with a disability has been shown to be declining.
We are not a Disability Employment Services provider, but a private company which is changing the narrative around disability to reflect the social model, if necessary, one job at a time.
It’s simpler than you think. When you consider adapting your work environment to a person with a disability, think flexibility.
Enabled Employment can assist you with the implementation of practical and cost effective strategies to ensure your workforce is truly inclusive of the diversity of our population, using the social model of disability. We can give you the facts on the advantages, both social and economic, that attitude change, diversity, application of a broad definition of reasonable adjustment will bring to your business.
As a leader in the employment of people from diverse backgrounds, we can ensure that your company, business or organisation can set the standard and change the conversation about disability in the workforce.
 4430.0 - Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2015
 Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales
 Guilt Appeals: Persuasion Knowledge and Charitable Appeals Hibbert, Smith, Davies & Ireland, Nottingham & Leicester Universities, Psychology & Marketing, Vol. 24(8): 723–742 (August 2007)
There’s a good vibe on the factory floor of Bottles of Australia. People are busy. They chat to each other while they work, grinning from ear to ear occasionally.
Bottles of Australia Director Anton Pemmer has always had difficulty in finding staff for the factory floor, and recognises the roles aren’t a career inspiring move. In saying that though, even the General Manager started in the production area, he says, and it has always been a starting point for people to build confidence, earn a living, and grow within the workforce.
“We used to hire a lot by word of mouth,’ he says, ‘which often worked, but as people moved on and up, we needed a more reliable way to recruit.’
“Enabled Employment has listed our roles, and we have some terrific staff who have really come into their own during their time here, and they are a great part of our team,’ he said.
Aisha and Shirley both applied to work for Anton and Bottles of Australia through the Enabled Employment website.
“I want to be famous!” says Aisha, striking a Zoolander pose for the camera, cracking up Anton, Shirley and myself.
Anton obviously enjoys the humour, and leaves me with General Manager Matt, to chat about the staff who signed up for the job through Enabled Employment, and their time at Bottles of Australia.
“Like a lot of other employees,’ says Matt “when they started they were a bit shy. Then that’s just like any other employee, now they’re part of the team, they chat at lunchtime, and interact just like anyone else. They aren’t any different to any other team member, there just isn’t an issue with their disability in the workplace,” he says.
Matt takes time to respond to my questions about those particular myths about disability in the workplace which employers sometimes hold.
“No, they don’t take more sick leave, or make more workers’ compensation claims, and they are often one of the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave from there area,” he says.
Anton confirms Matt’s response. As a business owner, it is ultimately his responsibility to ensure the team on the factory floor is a strong one.
“We treat everybody the same,’ he said ‘you get treated as a human being. We’re running a business, and Shirley and Aisha are a great asset to the team.
‘I loved having them at our Christmas party, we all had a great time, and these ladies are a real part of our business, and our achievements this year,’ he said.
Shirley and Aisha are members of the Deaf Community. Shirley is studying a Bachelor of Commerce, uses English as a second language, and is a cheerful and happy member of the team, and Aisha loves her football and is wearing her team jersey under her hi-vis vest. And, she wants to be famous, and we are sure she will be one day soon.