The right to work, free from discrimination, is a fundamental human right. Yet for many people with a disability, it is a right denied. Is your business discrimination free?
Globally, one in ﬁve people are living with a disability, but despite changing attitudes that are making workplaces more accessible, many still struggle to ﬁnd work. It’s a challenging reality, with employment being equally important for the individual welfare of employees and Australia’s economic security.
For employers, people with disability represent a signiﬁcantly untapped human capital. According to the 2016 Australian Human Rights Commission’s Willing to Work Inquiry, Australia has more than 15.4 million Australians with a disability and of working age, yet only half are currently in stable employment, compared to four out of ﬁve other Australians.
Dr Elizabeth Hemphill has been unravelling the complexities of employment for people with disabilities. Through her Australian Research Linkage Grant with partner organisation Finding Workable Solutions Inc., she has tracked attitudes among employers, employees and the community towards people with disabilities.
Her research shows that old stereotypes are fading as awareness grows about the experiences of people living with disabilities, and that both employees and employers have become more accepting of people with disabilities in the workplace.
While this is welcome news, Dr Hemphill says the statistics on job participation mean this change in attitudes has not yet translated into higher rates of employment for people with disabilities, who represent an eager, untapped workforce.
“It really is a missed opportunity,” Dr Hemphill says. “Employers need to think seriously about the opportunities that people with disability bring to their workforce and to their customers. “It’s not just about creating equal opportunities—although this is incredibly important—it’s also about the beneﬁts that diversity can bring.
“Diversifying a workforce has long been recognised as beneﬁcial to business and, when we include people with disabilities, we gain fresh perspectives, new ideas, and skills into the work environment.”
Greater diversity also has the potential to deliver signiﬁcant economic beneﬁts. Modelling by Deloitte Access Economics found that increasing the number of people working with disability by 10 percent could boost Australia’s GDP by $40 billion over the next ten years. The same report also found that if the unemployment rate for people with disability fell one percent, from 7.8 percent in 2009, to 6. 9 percent, Australia’s GDP could increase by $43 billion over a decade.
Unfortunately, when it comes to helping people with disabilities get full-time employment, Australia has performed poorly compared to other OECD nations, with the country ranked 21st out of 29 OECD nations. A PwC report found that if that were to change, and Australia were to climb into the top eight OECD countries—though unlikely—it would boost Australia’s GDP by $50 billion.
“Every time a person with disability ﬁnds meaningful, full-time work, we all beneﬁt from their success,” Hemphill says.
For many people with disabilities, the fact that they struggle to ﬁnd work means that when they gain it, they value it highly, along with the greater quality of life it brings. In turn, this sentiment makes them very loyal employees and more attentive to processes on site.
According to The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, employers have reported a lower turnover of staff and lower ongoing costs when hiring people with disabilities. Overall, the number of work health and safety incidents for an employee with disability is six times lower than that of an average employee, and the number of workers compensation incidents is four times lower.
“Even absence days due to sickness were shown to be signiﬁcantly lower,” says Hemphill. “The accrued cost of sickness for employees with a disability was less than half the cost for that of an average employee, which is signiﬁcant.”
“Someone with a disability who wants to come to work and be there, is generally easier to work with than someone who doesn’t want to be there. And happier employees lead to greater productivity, reduced absenteeism, and greater morale.”
Competitively, businesses that are known to embrace diversity have positive brand images, with consumers recognising and responding positively towards these enterprises. According to the Attorney General’s Department’s 2011 Discussion Paper on Anti-Discrimination Laws, 87 percent of surveyed consumers said they’d prefer to give their business to companies that hired people with disability.
But despite the economic, competitive and individual beneﬁts of improving employment rates for people living with disabilities, and the apparent changes in attitudes to people with disabilities, employment rates have barely changed over the past 20 years. So what is happening on the work front?
“There is a whole group of people working in sheltered work environments who want full-time, mainstream work and everything else that brings,” says Hemphill.
Sheltered work environments are businesses speciﬁcally set up to provide skills training and experience to those people with more visible disabilities and help them transition into mainstream work. These offer ready talent-pools employers can draw on, though Hemphill says the deﬁnition of disability may be broader than employers realise.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, the deﬁnition of ‘disability’ includes someone who may have a mental illness, a serious disease, or a learning disability that means they learn in a different way.
“Not everyone with a disability is obviously disabled; these people only make up a small number of those living with disability,” Hemphill says. “Sometimes hiring a person with disability is as easy as looking past the cane they need to walk.”
“Often people with less visible disabilities are work-ready, meaning any changes to the business environment or work practices may be minimal; employers just need to look closely at their applicants, on a case-by-case basis.”
For businesses looking to employ a person with disability and who need to make changes to their work environment, there is government support available.
“Employers can apply through the Department of Social Services for programs that include ﬁnancial support to alter the work environment, wage subsidies and Auslan interpreters,” says Hemphill.
“Organisations like Finding Workable Solutions (FWS), who have partnered with us on this research, can also help”
Wojtek Swietek, CEO of FWS says that their organisation works with people with a range of disabilities. “Typically, suitable jobs for people with disabilities aren’t advertised, so much of what we do at FWS is talking to employers directly.”
“Access is usually the biggest barrier. Providing something as simple as an access ramp for people who are wheelchair-bound, can make all the difference,” he says. “The change to the environment doesn’t need to be signiﬁcant or disruptive.”
Some companies, Swietek says, even go as far as to actively recruit people with certain disabilities for their innate skills.
“If you look at Hewlett-Packard, you see a company employing a whole team of people on the autism spectrum because of their ability to conceptualise and work through problems,” he says. “Here, their disability, or perhaps ‘different ability’, is helping them excel, and the business has recognised this.”
This message is echoed by Hemphill. “Employers should go further to see the person behind the disability. Just give people a go. It’s not as hard as you think.”
WHAT EMPLOYERS SHOULD KNOW:
TRUST YOUR WORKFORCE:
Attitudes among employees are changing, making people more accepting of those with disabilities.
PEOPLE IN SHELTERED EMPLOYMENT WANT TO WORK:
48% of people with disabilities are in sheltered employment, but they are capable and want to do more.
SPECIALIST EMPLOYMENT AGENCIES ARE THERE TO HELP:
These agencies know how to get people with disabilities into jobs.
FINANCIAL SUPPORT MAY BE AVAILABLE:
Hiring a disabled person may mean the employer qualiﬁes for government support to help meet their needs.
NOT ALL DISABILITIES ARE VISIBLE:
Everyone deserves the same opportunity to work; we should be careful not to judge.
GOODWILL GOES A LONG WAY:
Customers like knowing that the businesses they buy from are doing something positive for the community.