There’s a lot of chatter on various different social media platforms today about ‘equality’. Generally, equality is defined as equal opportunity for women, LGBTI, cultural or religious groups. Strong advocacy and decades of organising have given these groups a voice, and raised awareness of the issues. People still rage against inequality, rightfully so, and talk of the glass ceiling, and lobby for better work opportunities.
But do a google search on the term ‘disability employment policy private sector Australia’, and for the first ten pages of results you’ll find two things; government diversity policies – necessitated by Australia’s signature on the United Nations Covenant on Human Rights, and supported employment providers in Australia.
Ironically, those with the strongest policies on disability employment – the public sector – seem to be losing the ability to employ people with disability, with Australian Government employment statistics showing a dismal participation rate, which has dropped alarmingly in the last decade.
But, back to the search engine - it’s not until the tenth Google results page or later that you’ll find some of our more progressive Australian private sector employers with specific inclusion strategies for people with disability.
While diversity policies exist in the private sector, the definition of ‘diversity’ is often vague, and acknowledges the minority groups with strong lobbying activists, LGBTI, multicultural and religious groups.
Disability is sometimes missing entirely.
Why is that?
The public sector and political approach to disability employment relies heavily on the not-for-profit ‘supported’ employment model. This model uses subsidies from the Australian Government to fill roles and ensure adaptive technology, workplace modifications and training are undertaken prior to placing a person with a disability in employment. This is a valuable, and necessary part, of disability employment in Australia’s public, private and community sectors.
But it’s only partly the answer. And it’s expensive, and relies on an employer being ready to ‘adapt’ to a person with disability working for them. With a lack of awareness in diversity policies, or no diversity policies at all, disability employment participation rates have little to no chance of improving from the current unemployment rate for people with disability. Seventy five per cent of people with disability in Australia don’t need supported employment, aren’t covered by the NDIS, and have skills ranging from post-graduate degrees through to Certificate IV’s, and many – who acquire disability in their lives, have a great deal of work experience prior to incurring disability.
What should we change?
There’s really only one thing that needs to change. We all do it. We all check our work emails from home, or finish off that proposal or tender from home, or work on our graphic design or publication from home to stay on track. We might keep it a secret, but we all do it. Most of us can log in from home, and we can’t help ourselves.
It’s called telework, and it’s the easiest adaptation anyone needs to make to improve disability employment participation rates.
Teleworking removes lots of barriers for people with disability.
Transport can be a major hassle if you don’t drive, and rely on public transport. It’s also exhausting for some people with disability, eating into their energy reserves and reducing their possible working hours.
Then there’s entering an office. You might have a fully disability access compliant office, but I guarantee there’ll be something that presents a barrier – mostly fire doors – which are heavy and not able to be modified to assist access for a person with disability.
Your systems may not be compatible with vision assistive technology. While access for service dogs is legislated, people still complain about animals in the workplace – including guide dogs for the vision impaired.
Then there’s the stereotypes people with disability need to contend with and challenge. Each disability presents it’s own difficulties, whether it’s social anxiety, physical disability, vision impairment, or a mental health issue. But the biggest difficulty by far is dealing with people’s reactions to it, when it’s disclosed. Some of us have no choice but to disclose – it’s obvious, but some people have ‘invisible’ disability, and have a choice about whether to disclose or not.
What’s the answer?
Let’s just admit it, our definition of diversity doesn’t automatically include disability when we write our policies, unless we’re in government or the community sector. And when it does, the focus is on adapting the person to the workplace, not the other way around. We need to review our definitions in light of the growing number of people with disability – which is set to grow with our ageing population.
Teleworking is an ideal way to provide employment opportunities to people with disability. People who also have years of work experience, qualifications and a great desperation and willingness to work. Telework opportunities mean people with disability have true flexibility in their working conditions. Working from home in an environment which is socially and physically comfortable ensures we are able to work at our own pace, at our own time, and with safety and comfort.
Think about people with disability next time you log on to work from home.
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.