The recent Disability Diversity and Inclusivity Index shows that 31 per cent of employers don’t think non-visible disabilities are ‘real disabilities’. How can HR fix this worrying stigma?
A new annual report released by global human services provider APM uncovers the deep-rooted biases and barriers that many people with disability face in the Australian workforce. The APM Disability Diversity and Inclusivity (DDI) Index 2023 is one of the largest holistic research projects conducted in Australia.
“Each year, to coincide with International Day for People with Disability [on 3 December], we publish our Disability Diversity and Inclusivity Index of Australian Workplaces, which aims to inform and increase disability diversity and inclusion,” says Fiona Kalaf, General Manager of Projects at APM.
While the index revealed that diversity and inclusion is increasingly becoming a priority for 82 per cent of businesses, and 82 per cent of employers say they treat people with disability the same as those without, the outlook is not entirely rosy.
Most disability (60 per cent) is non-visible, according to the DDI, with a quarter of people having both visible and non-visible disabilities.
“Non-visible disability can include mental health issues, neurological differences and/or serious illness,” says Kalaf.
According to the index, people with non-visible disabilities are more likely to:
- Struggle to find flexible work
- Find education systems to be inaccessible
- Be accused of exaggerating their disability
- Face the brunt of misconceptions that people with disability are unreliable to employ
- Feel hopeless or anxious about having a job
What’s most concerning is that 31 per cent of employers didn’t think non-visible disabilities are ‘real disabilities’, instead considering them to be “illnesses or health conditions”, and over half of employers (51 per cent) admitted to thinking some employees were pretending to have non-visible disabilities to receive extra benefits.
“It’s concerning to learn that just over half of employers admit to thinking that some of their employees are pretending to have non-visible disabilities,” says Kalaf. “There are a number of misconceptions that a disability has to be visible, whereas disability – as well as long-term or chronic illness or a significant injury – can take on many forms.
“HR professionals have a great opportunity to help managers and team leaders through information sharing, workplace training and clearly communicating policies and guides. People [often] want to do the right thing – they just need a starting point and to know how to use the most effective language to communicate well with all their employees.”
Not only did APM discover concerning perceptions about those with non-visible disabilities, it also uncovered worrying findings about employees with disability more broadly.
Nearly 60 per cent of employees with disability felt anxious about disclosing their disability. And for those who did disclose, 30 per cent reported facing negative consequences as a result.
For those who felt they needed to hide or mask their disability from their employer, nearly 40 per cent felt their performance suffered as a result.
“To build a culture of trust where employees feel safe and secure to disclose their disability, HR professionals and leaders across the organisation should start by listening to the experiences of their employees with disability, report back and then act to improve those experiences,” says Kalaf.
“Implementing projects that focus on improving experiences across the key stages of someone’s career such as recruitment and onboarding, professional development and career progression will reinforce the organisation’s commitment to improving outcomes for their people with disabilities.”
What’s holding employers back?
It seems organisations aren’t equipped to create hiring experiences that are supportive or inclusive for those living with disability.
Almost one in five (19 per cent) employers that don’t currently hire people with disability feel that employing people with disability is a burden to business, which is consistent with 2021 data. And only 22 per cent of employers are willing to hire an employee with a disability.
“Consistency of effort and communications is vitally important to building a culture that recognises and celebrates the positive impact people with disability bring to an organisation.” – Fiona Kalaf, General Manager of Projects at APM
So what’s holding organisations back in terms of proving more adequate support?
Nearly one in three employees felt the costs of disability training and support were too high and a quarter felt there was a lack of accessible information to support them to create more inclusive environments.
However, only 30 per cent of respondents said they were aware of wage subsidies available to them, suggesting there is still an education piece needed for some organisations.
“As part of APM’s International Day of People with Disability celebrations, we are also releasing a Disability Diversity & Inclusion Guide to help businesses and HR professionals make their workplaces more inclusive and accessible.”
While many of these workplace prejudices and negative mindsets are quite prolific, evidence in the index suggests that things are looking up in some areas.
Nearly two in three employers (66 per cent) agreed that having a person with disabilities improved their overall business experience.
The index cited three key benefits:
- Greater diversity of thinking (47 per cent, an impressive increase on 2021’s 34 per cent)
- Positive impact on workplace culture (43 per cent)
- Greater diversity of skills (36 per cent)
“HR professionals generally appreciate the immense contributions people with disabilities make to the workforce and [how they] contribute to a positive and engaging workplace culture,” says Kalaf.
A key part of this is engaging with the community, says Kalaf, so you can ensure you’re building policies and procedures with lived experience in mind.
In order to bridge the gap between managers and employees living with a disability, APM has launched the #DearFutureBoss campaign to give people with disability the opportunity to talk openly about their needs.
“Normalising disability in the workplace is something that we can all work towards. At the end of the day, it all comes down to education and awareness.” – Steve Ralph, participant in #DearFutureBoss campaign
The intention behind the campaign is to invite people with disability to write an open letter to their future employer describing their ideal work environment, and to share it on social media to start important discussions.
“[The campaign gives a voice] to people with a disability about the type of workplaces they would like to see in the future where they can fully achieve their potential without [experiencing] these outdated attitudes.”
Steve Ralph, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2018 and now uses a wheelchair, wrote a letter to share his expectations for employers to establish a culture of belonging.
“It was a pretty interesting experience,” says Ralph. “The process of writing and reflecting made me really think about the scope of this challenge.
“Living with a spinal-cord injury and striking the right opportunity with employment can be difficult. I’ve faced some physical challenges in terms of navigating work environments. However, [my employer and I have] always been able to come up with solutions to these challenges.”
He refers to his experience of returning to work after his injury and says his employer received a lot of support through the government’s Job Access scheme, which assists employers with funding and equipment for employees living with disability.
“An occupational therapist and a representative from Job Access worked hand-in-hand with myself and my employer to educate everybody and find solutions for common challenges in the workplace. I think education around disability it’s pretty important, especially for those working directly in your team.”
HR professionals and managers are driven with strong intentions and strive to be as inclusive as possible, but when ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, it can be difficult to improve your accessibility score, says Ralph.
“Normalising disability in the workplace is something we can all work towards. At the end of the day, it all comes down to education and awareness,” he says.
He suggests organisations undergo an “accessibility audit” to make sure their workspaces, process, software and communications aren’t excluding anyone in the team.
Kalaf suggests establishing a ‘Disability Inclusion Plan’ and engaging a broad range of team members to feed into this so you can set achievable targets and back them up with key initiatives.
“A little bit of initial success can go a long way to building internal trust and engagement,” says Kalaf.
“The important thing to remember is that disability inclusion is a journey for everyone and is something that always needs to be focused on. Listening and making changes is just the beginning. Consistency of effort and communications is vitally important to building a culture that recognises and celebrates the positive impact people with disability bring to an organisation.
“We hope this will start a broader conversation about the society we live in and the barriers that still need to be dismantled so people with disability can fulfil their potential and become active members of the community. Only then will Australia move towards being an inclusive and diverse society. We all have a role to play in this.”
To learn more about hiring and supporting people with disabilities in your workplace, access APM’s Disability Diversity and Inclusivity Index.