New data gives insight into disability and the workplace

Rachael Brown, HRM Online


written on December 3, 2015

Many of us take for granted our abilities and capacity to perform in the workplace without barriers or limitations. However, for nearly four million Australians, finding and keeping employment isn’t easy.

Roughly 20 per cent of the population has a disability. Although there is more awareness about the skills and experiences people with disabilities contribute, this segment is under-represented and underutilised in businesses. With this in mind, International Day of People with Disability on 3 December operates under a theme of, “Inclusion matters: access and empowerment for people of all abilities.”

Organisers hope this day inspires businesses, governments and communities to consider how individuals with disabilities face barriers everyday. Physical barriers such as lack of access ramps are obvious ones, but some barriers are harder to spot. Often, raising awareness and changing minds from focusing on the disability to seeing the ability is a powerful sign of progress.

The UN-sponsored day has three sub-themes this year, which are: making cities inclusive and accessible for all; improving disability data and statistics; and including persons with invisible disabilities in society and in development. To coincide with international efforts and fit nicely with these secondary goals, the Australian Network on Disability (AND) recently released its inaugural Disability Confidence Survey Report to reveal disability awareness levels in small and medium-sized businesses.

A panel of industry experts and disability advocates gathered on 2 December to discuss the report’s findings and provide guidance on how Australian workplaces can become more aware and inclusive of employees and customers with disabilities. Panel members included: Carolyn Smith, Deputy CEO from the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA); Ainslie van Onselen, Director of Women’s Markets, Inclusion and Diversity at Westpac Group; Gail Johnson, Deputy Director of the Diversity Directorate with the Department of Defence; and Donna Purcell, Manager with the Australian Human Rights Commission. They were joined by Suzanne Colbert, CEO of AND, and Jim Longley, deputy secretary of Ageing, Disability and Home Care (ADHC).

The AND report is the first of its kind. In his keynote address, Longley drew from previous reports and acts on disability to highlight the fundamental changes taking place. Twenty years ago the focus was on preventing discrimination; now, inclusion is the main focus, he says. “The gap between attitudes about disability in the workplace and taking action to create change is having the right data,” he says.

Many of the report findings focused on having the right attitude as a first step. Nearly 90 per cent of organisations surveyed believe they have a good attitude toward employing suitably skilled people with disability, and 62 per cent of organisations plan to make changes in the coming year to accommodate employees with a disability.

However, the data also revealed that positive attitudes don’t always translate to positive action. More than 50 per cent of respondents said they had not received any feedback from individuals with disabilities that warranted change. Businesses are influential in creating systemic change, as both Johnson and van Onselen pointed out. Disability inclusion needs to become embedded within an organisation, says Johnson, who likened the Department of Defence to a cargo ship when it comes to implementing large-scale change initiatives – it takes time to turn it around. This sentiment can resonate for many organisations, so leadership has to think creatively about how to tailor its approach.

Van Onselen asks a key question of candidates, employees and customers to make sure workplaces are accessible and flexible: What do you need from us? She suggests thinking like a startup business, which means being flexible and having an open mind. Purcell suggests businesses put disability aside from the outset, and instead look at a candidate’s skill set.

Purcell, who is visually impaired and uses a guide dog, raised the issue that businesses also need to think of accommodating customers with disabilities. Making a service or experience available to everyone goes a long way towards promoting inclusion and diversity. One UK study found that 83 per cent of customers with a disability had walked away from inaccessible services. “If I go to a restaurant and they tell me to sit outside because of my guide dog, then I’m not going to go back,” Purcell says.

While many large organisations have the resources to make necessary adjustments for individuals with disabilities, some small to medium-sized businesses are at a loss on where to begin. Colbert and Smith point to the bevy of government and not-for-profit resources available to help workplaces become more inclusive and accessible. By taking advantage of the programs that are out there, as well as the collateral built up by big businesses, organisations can make the process cost neutral, says Colbert.

Studies show that more inclusive workplaces lead to more engaged employees, increased company loyalty and greater productivity. As an added bit of incentive, a Productivity Commission report found that if employment levels among people with disability reach parity with the rest of the population, Australia’s GDP will rise by 1 per cent.

As Smith stated, you can’t just appeal to the heart, you have to appeal to the mind as well. The data, and efforts such as International Day of People with Disability, shows the many sides of what businesses have to gain from creating and investing in disability inclusion.

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