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)
I was at a meeting recently, where the topic of employment for people with a disability was being discussed. The meeting had representatives from all areas of business, government and the not-for-profit sector.
I was mightily surprised, in fact, that the business leaders at that meeting saw the answer to the astonishingly shameful employment rate of people with a disability as philanthrophy.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a right time and a right place for philanthropy in our society. It achieves great things, and enables organisations to fund necessary and vital relief for people in our society.
But it doesn’t actually employ a person in your business. It doesn’t help anyone enter your specific workforce with a disability.
The problem is, we’re expecting the person with the disability to adapt to our ‘normal’ workplaces. And it’s easier to throw money at the problem rather than look at our own businesses and start to include people with a disability in our workplace.
The expectation is that the person will be needy, expensive, unreliable and constantly needing supervisory time. Given this stereotypical impression, it seems easier for corporate social responsibility programs to grant large sums of money to other organisations to ‘deal with’ the problem of unemployment for people with a disability.
If it costs, on average, $600 per person with a disability to make reasonable adjustments in any workplace – for which a government grant is available – then why donate hundred of thousands of dollars to a system that doesn’t work, namely, the charities the deliver Disability Employment Services? Why not bite the bullet now and look for the skills, abilities and aptitudes that make people with a disability the exact opposite of the stereotype you think we are?
Establishing an internship program for people with a disability, for example, is a much more practical and cheaper way forward in addressing unemployment levels for people with a disability. We train graduates – many people with a disability hold academic qualifications – and we have indigenous internships, how about disability internships? Paid ones? That’s what would change a life, and change attitudes and stereotypes in the workforce. Here’s what you need to know:
- People with a disability take less sick leave
- People with a disability make fewer workers’ compensation claims
- People with a disability are more loyal to a company over time
- People with a disability only need reasonable adjustment and flexible work in order to make the same, if not better, contribution to your business as any other worker
- People with a disability are lateral thinkers – they’ve had to be in order to manage their lives with a disability.
Enabled Employment have been nominated for, and won awards, locally, nationally and globally, so that we can raise the issue of employment for marginalised groups on big stages.
Our Media and Liaison Manager, Chief Information Officer and me, are all people with a disability. If we three can run our business as a globally award winning and recognised one only 2 years after launching, just imagine what a person with a disability can do for your business – if you give them the chance.
It's no use throwing money at someone else to take care of the problem.
What we need is attitude change. That only happens where employers take charge, establish innovative programs such as internships, and change attitudes in the workplace by employing those with different abilities.
It's your responsibility to affect change in the workforce, not somebody else's.
So what can you do to change the hopes and lives of a person with a disability? We’ve run internship programs before, and we know how to do it. We have thousands of candidates with academic and other qualifications on our website waiting for a job offer with an employer who is willing to take responsibility for changing the world with us.
Touch base with us now.
Most businesses ultimately are concerned with one thing: profitability, and whether they made more this year than last year and how to improve next year. Whether in a period of growth or recession, most business discourse concerns the net worth and profitability of a business; most will rarely make business decisions that may ultimately cost the business too much money for too low a potential for reward.
Employment of people with disabilities has been seen in the past – not as investment in human resources – but as a net cost; an American report in 2009 found that this was an attitude not just at the very top, but at all levels in a business’ hierarchy. Aside from being discriminatory, it is also false. Many costing myths exist regarding employment of people with disabilities.
This is the most common assumption, that there are greater safety issues when employing people with disabilities and therefore they represent a greater cost to insure. Firstly, there is the assumption here that insurance premium cost is based purely and entirely on the risk assessment portion of the insurance premium; certainly, risk of injury is one factor but it is not the only factor – the majority of a premium is calculated on likelihood of accidents based on the work the business carries out.
Even if insurance premiums were calculated purely on the risk of accident in the work place, statistics show that people with disabilities are marginally less likely to be the victim of an accident at work. The difference is slight but the common myth that they represent a greater insurance risk is unfounded either way. People with disability therefore represent a lower insurance risk and lower insurance costs.
One of the arguments regarding the cost of employing people with disabilities is that it is either prohibitively expensive or an unnecessary expense for the employment of just a handful of people. The first is certainly not true as there are a number of regional and national schemes and funds available to either completely cover the cost of modification of the workplace or a substantial fund that they can apply to for a bursary through the Employment Assistance Fund and often represents a one off change for the future.
In the unlikely event that a business would be refused financial assistance for workplace modification, it has been calculated that the cost per person averages out at under $500. A UK based disability employment organisation quotes £184 and US statistics quote a similar figure. The investment is highly unlikely to see the business operating at a loss when we consider that people with disability have a lower attrition rate (are more likely to stay in a job) and are more productive.
Human Resource Costs
Workplace modification includes adjustments to doors, installation of ramps, lowering steps and other physical modifications. Human Resource costs come with certain extra considerations for people with disability – new computer hardware (such as a special keyboard or a mouse) software (for people with poor eyesight for example), or specialist office equipment (desk, chair etc). All of this equipment in Australia is covered under the Employment Assistance Fund.
An in depth academic study of common myths proving a barrier to more businesses employing people with disability is here (login required): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hrm.20211/abstract
This one examines the relative costs and benefits of employing people with disability: http://dro.deakin.edu.au/view/DU:30001618?print_friendly=true
I was asked a question the other day that made me think. I get told constantly that I have a different way of thinking, and it is so different that it’s enlightening. But why is that? I always thought I followed the common principles of common sense, but after mulling it over and chatting with my staff, who are also like minded, I thought I should write something about it.
The question I was asked was ’do you have a breakdown in your database on the severities and types of disabilities your candidates have?’ My immediate response was a bit of a laugh and ’no, of course not!’, but in my head I was thinking ‘Why are they asking me this?’
After a moment I realised I was going to have to elaborate on why, because it was assumed it would be a standard information category we would record.
My response was, and is, I don’t care what a person’s disability is, I care about who is the best candidate for the job. I explained that I could give a breakdown on the skills people have, because when we want to fill a role we need this information, and I also need to understand our skills base for when I’m talking with an employer about what we can offer them as a recruitment agency. But why does it matter what the person’s disability is?
Yes, should the candidate get the role or have special requirements for the interview this might be relevant information, but again, we don’t need to know what someone’s disability is, we just need to know what flexibility or reasonable adjustment they may need to perform the best they possibly can in the role.
Which brings me to another thing we are constantly asked, ‘what is the candidate’s disability?’ We respond with ‘it doesn’t matter’ and we are met with ‘but I need to know to make sure I do everything right for the candidate’.
We explain that this doesn’t matter for two reasons: firstly, because when you disclose someone’s diagnostic label (always with the permission of the individual concerned) the unconscious or conscious bias beast will raise it head. And secondly, everyone is an individual and all an employer needs to know is what that person needs to do the job at the best of their ability. I’ll get to the first one later, but let’s think about the second one.
One thing we do for businesses and candidates before anyone starts in a role (or attends an interview if it’s needed), is broker accessibility requirements. We include information and an open platform to discuss what is needed for the candidate to perform at their best, this can include written information, separate conversations between a candidate and a business, right down to an open conversation if this is what the candidate wants. Ninety five per cent of these requests are for flexibility: for example, I need to start and finish earlier as twilight can affect my vision, or, I need to start late because I have anxiety in the morning, or even, I can work four days in the office but need to work one day from home as I am too exhausted from travel each day.
Yes, occasionally we do have physical access requirements that needs attention, but these are the minority, but that seems to be the thing that businesses worry about the most. They worry about the cost, the inconvenience, whether it will be enough? Again this is not such a big deal. My Media Liaison and Communications Manager worked in a government office which refused to contemplate a request for a change to the heavy manual open fire doors between the office and the kitchen. Sharon uses a walking stick and had no trouble opening the door at most times, but when carrying a coffee it was impossible to open the door holding a walking stick in one hand and a coffee in the other. She had to ask someone for assistance to open the door. You would think was no big deal but when it happens a couple of times a day the person nearest to the door was the only person available to help, and eventually made a complaint about having to open the door. What’s that? Yes, the person with no disability was the one that made the complaint! So from here, matters went into a tailspin, how were they going to afford the change to automatic sliding doors? What about the inconvenience to staff? Would these sliding doors meet the fire safety requirements?
You know what was funny about this? No one asked Sharon what she wanted. When it got down to it, she would have suggested that a shelf be put in near the door where she could place her coffee, open the door, walk out and then grab her coffee, letting the door shut. The solution was a $10 shelf, not thousands of dollars worth of renovations to the kitchen door.
This shines a massive light on why we always tell our businesses to just ask the person with a disability what they need. Not what they need for their disability, what they personally, as a human being, need.
There is a Government fund set up for this exact reason, so even changing to sliding doors would be no cost to the business – but that’s another story for another day.
So let’s get back to thinking about people with disabilities as a person, a human, a human with hopes and dreams, a human that can tell you what they need rather than you making assumptions for them. My first point earlier about assumptions and conscious and unconscious biases.
One thing I really struggle with is the demand for people to know ‘diagnostic labels’. What does it matter if Joe Bloggs has Multiple Sclerosis or Jane Doe has a mental illness? My thoughts are that once you know what a person’s diagnostic label is you start making assumptions about what that means. I’ll use my own example. I have severe anxiety, always have, and have examples of it included in my first memories. It has never affected my ability to be a fantastic employee, in fact it made me a better employee because I would throw myself at a project with everything I had. I would rather be working than anxious. For this reason I moved up the ranks quickly and found myself as an Executive Level 2 in the Government at the age of 31 which is when I had my first child.
And at that point, I was diagnosed with post partum thyroiditis, which meant my medication wasn’t working and I was living a 24 hour nightmare of panic disorder. The way my anxiety presents itself is as de-realisation, a state where you feel like you are waking up from a dream and nothing is real – and it’s terrifying! So of course, I wanted to get back to work ASAP and I did. The problem was I couldn’t work full time and had to disclose my disability.
And then the assumptions started, no one wanted to get me stressed, no one wanted to overburden me, no one wanted to ‘set me off’. So you know what happened? I was given nothing to do, given no staff and then avoided at all costs and cut out of the loop on the business of the branch. This was the worst possible thing for me, and my mental health spiralled out of control until I approached suicide. Fortunately for me, Enabled Employment sprung up in my head and was my saving grace. But, you know what my answer would have been if I had been asked? Give me more work, give me more staff, give me things that are challenging and stress me out! Because, if I’m worrying about those things I have no time to be anxious and I will get better!
Every single disability affects a person in a different way, we are all individuals and disability doesn’t discriminate. In fact it is the only minority group you can join at any stage in your life!
So why are people barraging businesses with information about everything that can go wrong when a person with a disability starts working with them? People with a disability are statistically less likely to have something go wrong than their peers so why do we set them up for low expectations or failure? Why can’t we just ask what they need? Treat them like the human being that they are, and cut out the fear and assumptions.
What we all need to do is just apply the principles of common sense. Flexibility in a role should be a given unless there are operational requirements that make it impossible. Not only is this good for people with disabilities it’s good for everyone. Have you asked your employee’s what they need to perform the best that they can in their role?