Last week, I was privileged to attend a panel discussion on disability employment hosted by the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis as part of the Parliamentary Triangle Seminar Series.
The discussion centred on the ‘tiers’ of the NDIS, and the need for a ‘jobs plan’ from the Federal Government.
But, a huge percentage of Australians living with a disability are not eligible for support under the NDIS. The majority of them are living in poverty, and in the demoralising and depressing reality of attempting to find work as a person with disability. Or they are being supported financially by their family, suffering from episodic illness or ‘invisible’ disability. Some have given up on the chance of ever having a career or using their qualifications – a hopeless and helpless situation which increases the likelihood of mental health issues such as depression.
The suggestions raised by the panel discussion on how to move forward on disability employment were closely focussed on ‘supported employment’.
Supported employment is a necessary and valuable strategy used by the not-for-profit sector to find employment for people with disability. At the end of the day, the government will pay a not-for-profit a considerable sum to place a person with disability in ‘supported employment’, which means the employer is paid to take the person on as an employee, and the not-for-profit organisation provides training to the employer and their staff on disability in the workplace, and mentoring for the person employed. I am not criticising the supported employment model, it is a valuable and necessary process for those people with disability who need the support.
But what about people who cannot, and do not, access supported employment?
Generally, they are highly skilled, having gained their academic qualifications, and then seeking work, finding no opening available. Often they return to studying, and become highly qualified, perpetual students with bright minds and a great eagerness to enter the workforce. And yet, the unemployment rate for people with disability in Australia is running at a fairly constant 45.7 per cent. Studies have shown university graduates with disability take longer to gain full-time work than other graduates.
The panel discussion raised the pertinent point that employers hold an ‘expectation of underperformance’ when it comes to employees with disability. Flexible working options for people with disability are also frowned on as too easily ‘rorted’. In the current employment climate, any person with disability given employment will need to put in 150 per cent effort and work twice as hard as non-disabled employees to gain credibility and prove they are not underperforming because of their disability. Busting the stereotype demands an enormous amount of dedication and twice the effort.
I was somewhat disappointed that the discussions at the seminar did not include people with disability taking their financial futures into their own hands, running their own companies, or using home-based work as a genuine career option.
People with disability, I would argue, have the same right as any other Australian to expect that they can have a career, and use their qualifications, and earn a living. But that’s not our reality. As Stella Young said at the launch of Enabled Employment in September 2014, “nobody with two degrees wants to work in a ‘sheltered workshop’ doing photocopying.” Australia ranks 21 out of 27 in the OECD for disability employment participation, prompting the development and implementation of the NDIS.
In ‘The New Leviathan: A National Disability Insurance Scheme’ by Andrew Baker, he notes ‘that a substantial number of people of working age with disability will miss out on funded supports because their disability is likely to be assessed as not severe enough to warrant NDIS-funded support. This group will likely believe they should receive funded supports, but in reality will not.’
Unfortunately, the NDIS is not the cure-all for people with disability that the general public thinks it is, and in terms of disability employment – it relies heavily on supported employment from not-for-profit organisations, with no mention of private or public sector involvement or dedication to the employment of people with disability who do not qualify for NDIS support.
For the majority of people with disability in Australia, there is no option but to rely on the government for an income, and to live below the poverty line. The barriers to employment for people with disability include access, reluctance by employers to embrace flexible working arrangements, and the stereotypical expectation that an employee with disability will automatically underperform.
Flexibility for people with disability in employment is the key to raising the disability employment participation rate. Private sector employers with open minds are embracing the idea of telework for people with disability, while both state and federal governments lag behind with ever decreasing disability employment statistics in the public service.
And, it is time for people with disability to demand the right to work, and to use their qualifications and skills in their chosen field of study. While we remain silent and continue to rely on pensions and social security payments, we are disempowered and lost in the dark reality of stereotypes and myths about employing people with disability.
So how do we solve the problem?
We need to reassess how we employ people with disability. Employing a skilled worker who happens to have a disability does not necessarily mean spending a great deal of money adapting a workplace and training staff and management in how to ‘cope’ with a person who has a disability. Neither does it mean an increase in insurance premiums or excessive sick leave. Studies have proven that people with disability take less time off, make less workers compensation claims, and are just as productive in comparison to non-disabled people.
Flexible working arrangements, such as teleworking, provide a viable and effective means to ensure people with skills and qualifications can participate in the workforce. I urge all employers – public, private and community sectors - to re-think their disability employment strategies – and their flexible working options – to ensure that people with disability who do not access supported employment can expect the same career opportunities as everyone else.
I welcome your feedback, please leave me a comment below.
My blog post on 10 Facts about Disability Employment you won't Believe has been getting a lot of traffic, so I thought I would go into a bit more detail on these and other facts and what Australia is doing to try and change these shocking statistics.
In 2008, the United Nations launched the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Designed to ensure that people with disabilities were considered equal in the eyes of the law in each participating nation, it covers a multitude of things, including rights regarding employment. Many countries still have low participation rates in the employment sector and in some ways Australia is falling behind many of its developed world counterparts. The country is taking steps to address this imbalance but first we need to look at the current state of affairs.
In recent years, two separate studies have demonstrated low workforce participation for people with a disability. The first recorded 54.3% participation and around 84% for people without a disability. A separate study demonstrated an even greater disparity with the figures at 39.8% and 79.4%.
In 2009, following the worst period of the economic crisis, the national average unemployment rate rose to 5.1%. However, amongst people with disabilities that figure was 7.9%. The situation for people with mental illness is even worse: participation rate in 2003 was just 28.2% and the unemployment rate in the same year was 19.5%, nearly four times that of the general population.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an organisation dedicated to promoting democracy and the market economy, listed 29 countries for employment rates of people with disability. Australia was ranked 21st, this was the lowest of all developed nations. In 2011, Pricewaterhouse Coopers listed quality of life for people with disability in 27 countries. Unfortunately, Australia came 27th in that list too.
When it comes to poverty, the global average of people with disability living at or below the poverty line is 22%. Australia’s is over double that at 45%. It’s hardly surprising when around two thirds of people living with a disability is earning a weekly wage under $320 when the equivalent amongst the general population is one third. Unfortunately, in Australia, people with disabilities are more likely than any other group to be living day to day in poverty.
So What is Australia Doing about This?
Shocked by some of the findings above, the national government took steps to improve the situation and adhere to disability employment laws as well as international conventions on human rights. The National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 aims to significantly improve a number of factors related to disability employment including awareness, to allow the individual control over their working lives and to actively encourage businesses to more actively consider people with disabilities’ applications.
Part of this strategy included the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a plan to permit people with disability and mental illness to control their own employability and employment. It replaces a number of grants and schemes for individuals for greater workplace participation. It includes (but is not limited to) training and care provisions for those who are ineligible for Job Services Australia and Disability Employment Services, assistive technology and a number of other services.
By 2020, Australia expects to be amongst the highest rated nations for workforce participation of people with disabilities and mental illness. We will be watching and waiting to see when the NDIS turns its thoughts to employment which is the logical and very talked about next step. We, like I'm sure you do, have a lot of suggestions on how this may work in the future.
A lot of people with disabilities have identifiable physical signs and the potential employer may already be aware of their disability. People with mental health issues on the other hand often find themselves in a grey area and feeling anxious about what they can be open about, when and if they should tell someone, and to whom.
Mental Health and Work
The Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia (MIFA) reported in 2010 that 60% of respondents felt that employment and support for seeking employment was a key concern, second only to housing. Many stated that employment was not only feasible but also key to their recovery. A 2003 analysis showed that workforce participation rate for people with mental illness was 28.2% with the unemployment rate at 19.5%; this compares to people with physical disabilities at 48% participation and 7.7% unemployment. Furthermore, MIFA also reports that people with mental illnesses are the largest group to access disability employment services and have the lowest rate of positive outcomes for securing and remaining in employment – the report cited employer reluctance, based on misunderstanding, to recruit people with mental illness.
Though there are no legal obligations to do so, there are pros and cons to informing or not informing an employer.
Reasons to inform your employer:
- Permits your employer to investigate any potential adjustments to your working pattern – an example might be necessary time off for therapy or counselling or company support programmes
- As with any other employee with a disability, employers are legally obliged to take reasonable steps to accommodate you
- Protects your rights as a person with a disability and where necessary, your right to bring a Disability Discrimination Complaint should disciplinary action ever require such an action
Reasons not to inform your employer:
- When the mental health condition does not and will not impact the job and cannot see that you will ever require reasonable adjustment
- Your right to privacy and trusting your own judgement about your condition
- Concern that being open about your condition may lead to discrimination, harassment or might affect promotion prospects
What an Employer Can Do
Employers are legally obliged to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Workplace adjustments for people with mental illness might reasonably include some of the following:
- Flexible working conditions
- The option of the employee with a mental illness to work with a mentor
- Modifying the job role to reduce stress and anxiety if the job role proves stressful
- Mental health awareness training for staff and management
- Any required physical modifications
- The offer of counselling or any other help that might assist the employee to be fully productive in the work place
Support Services and Assistance
The National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy (NMHDES) released in September 2009 aims to assist people with mental illness and disabilities obtain and retain employment. There is an annual fund of $1.2b that started in financial year 2009-10.
The Disability Employment Service is applicable to people with mental illness. It provides flexible assistance for those seeking work and for those who require help as part of employment they are already engaged in.
The Employee Assistance Fund (EAF) provides assistance and access to necessary resources for employees and employers including advice on relevant workplace modifications. The EAF is the major source of funding for workplace assistance for people with mental illness and helps with education for employers regarding mental health issues; for employees it offers special support and training packages.
JobAccess provides advice and workplace solutions for people with mental illness and their employers. The service is free and has professional psychologists as part of its team. The professional services include information on the full range of government funded services, practical working solutions and how to create and maintain a productive and healthy working environment for people with disabilities or mental illness. It can also advise on the full range of legal obligations and offers information on financial assistance.
The Workplace Adjustment Tool is an online database that gives advice on potential workplace adjustments that you might make for an employee with a mental illness – and key indicators that the staff member might be experiencing an issue. A wide range of issues are covered: depression and anxiety, eating disorders, dementia and personality disorders.
Mindfulemployer.org offers a wide range of advice for employers, especially in the realms of education and awareness. They provide regular workshops with employers in mind.
Similarly, Beyondblue.org.au covers the spectrum of mental health awareness and offers advice on making a workplace a healthy place to be for people with mental illness.
Most of the developed world is now entering economic recovery. But Australia is not doing quite as well as some other countries, and there is a looming issue with something all too common during economic growth: a skills shortage. Skills shortages also occur during economic decline but it can be more pronounced during periods of growth.
Each one of Australia’s states and territories is presently reporting skills shortages in multiple areas and the problem can come in many forms:
- Not enough qualified people to fill vacant roles
- Lack of experience of qualified people applying for those roles
- Disparity between employment package and employee expectations
- Jobs that regularly attract no applicants
- Unwillingness to relocate.
Tackling the Problem
One way to address the skills shortage is for businesses to offer better conditions and higher wages, but this is not always going to have the desired effect, especially if you are looking for people with niche skills who may not be looking for work. The newly-qualified aren't always going to have the experience you desire. There is another answer and it means changing your business practice and outlook to focus in on expanding the talent pool.
Considering the disability employment participation rate in Australia and the high unemployment rate (which means they are willing and able to work), it is apparent that there is large untapped resource available to address some of the problems that Australian businesses face.
The Advantages of Employing People With Disabilities
I have discussed on this blog numerous times the impressive statistics regarding employees with disabilities:
- They take less sick time and are just as productive as any other worker
- They stay in jobs longer (are less likely to move on which is critical in jobs that require a lot of training)
- Are willing and motivated, largely because of the low participation rate of their demographic.
A company called Gitanjali Gems of India came up against a skills shortage in the latter part of the last decade. They faced two problems:
- Jewellery manufacturing is a niche skill requiring a lot of training; and
- the industry has a high dropout rate.
Their directors decided to actively pursue potential new employees from a new demographic – a group with just 8% workforce participation and a devastating 0.1% full time employment rate. Thanks to this programme, 10% of Gitanjali Gems’ employees are now people with disabilities. There has been a noticeable effect on the company, including greater productivity and lower turnover.
Actively encouraging people with disabilities into your business has clear and measurable benefits whether you have a skills shortage or not. When you expand your talent pool as far as possible, you will see only benefits.
We have 150 highly qualified and skilled employees ready to start working for your business now, so if you're finding it difficult to recruit because of a skills shortage, think outside the square.
How many people with disabilities does your business employ?
We want to hear your examples of people with disabilities improving your business outcomes. Leave a comment below and keep the conversation going. And if you want to increase your productivity, address the skills shortage and have a more reliable and stable workforce, call us at Enabled Employment. We can help.
I have spent a bit of time telling you all about the benefits of telework, but now I'm going to get more in to the benefits of employing people with a disability. There are a lot of myths out there about people with a disability and I think Graeme Innes, the former Disability Discrimination Commissioner, gets it right when he says "the soft bigotry of low expectations limits what we achieve". Unfortunately, low expectations is something that people with a disability face all the time. But why is this? Most of us are very highly educated and want to work so why do employers think we can't?
I think this is very much about changing attitudes to people with a disability and some fantastic work is being done by the Attitude Foundation (http://www.attitude.org.au/) and the Able Movement (www.facebook.com/theablemovement) in this space, but I wanted to contribute to busting some of the myths about employing people with a disability. So here it is, hope it's enlightening for you and inspires you to increase the diversity of your workforce.
1. Talent Pool
One of the biggest ongoing complaints from business in the western world is often a lack of a suitable talent pool from which to choose potential new employees. There may be a number of reasons for this, but businesses can maximise their talent pool by consciously attracting people with disability and making their premises attractive and accessible. People with disabilities are just as educated, just as ambitious, often just as experienced and motivated as the rest of the population. We also make up 15% of Australians of working age (15-64 years) so if you're excluding people with a disability this is a big amount of potential talent you are missing out on.
Moreover, you may bring additional skills into the premises (sign language being one such example). Having one person with that skill will make it easier for others to integrate. “People with disability are a resource of abilities, of willpower - they are real economical and social actors” according to President of the ACCOR hotel group.
2. Image and Staff Morale
It will be good for your company image to promote a diverse workplace, accessibility and not keeping your talent pool to narrow criteria (which is against the law in most countries anyway). Companies who actively promote diversity usually gain recognition in trade or national press and have potential to win awards; recent studies have shown that people look favourably on businesses with inclusive employment policies.
There are extra benefits to your existing staff. It can enrich the working lives of your other employees by exposing them to people with disabilities that they may not encounter in other aspects of their life. Breaking down prejudice in the workplace can be immensely helpful to removing the barriers that prevent people with disability from participating in the workplace on an equal footing.
People with disabilities want to work and prove themselves as individuals just like anybody else. Statistics and studies have persistently shown several eye-opening facts:
- They are just as productive and motivated as able bodied people
- There is a greater level of retention with employees with disabilities – in short, they are less likely to move on and more likely to be amongst your longest-serving employees
- A report in Salon in 2013 reported high levels of reported efficiency amongst business leaders when discussing the performance of their employees with disabilities
- Most importantly, there are reported much lower levels of sickness and other unscheduled leave
Further, the Salon article states “Studies of Walgreens’s experience at a few distribution centers show disabled workers are more efficient and loyal than nondisabled workers. Absenteeism has gone down, turnover is less, and safety statistics are up. And the cost of accommodating such workers with new technologies and education is minimal.”
If you are retaining staff for longer, experiencing less unscheduled leave, increasing productivity, improving staff morale and your image what do you think will happen? Your business will grow, you will attract more business, you will attract better employees and you will increase your profits. Now, that's not a bad thing is it?
It is largely the cost of accommodating employees with disabilities, and not prejudice, which sometimes may put off businesses from actively engaging the wider workforce pool. This may be particularly true of small to medium enterprises that have less capital and lower turnover. Fortunately, in the 21st century most countries in the developed world have specific bursaries and funds available to help businesses meet the costs of workplace modification and most modifications are inexpensive anyway. Charities and commissions are on hand to offer advice and services like Enabled Employment remove all of these barriers anyway.
So why aren't you employing more people with a disability? It's very easy and as above you can see the benefits it will make for your business. As always, I love to keep the conversation going so ask me some questions or leave some comments below.