Over the past few months I’ve been active in the disability employment area, thanks to the publication of our August research paper, Recruiting People with a Disability: An Employer Perspective.
While I applaud the work being done by the Government in its attempts to boost the employment of people with disabilities in Australia, I’ve also been somewhat outspoken in saying we aren’t doing anywhere near enough, especially in the area of informing and engaging employers.
Fortunately, I’m not the only one saying that. A PwC partner, Chris Bennett, makes the same point in an excellent study published last month, Disability Expectations: Investing in a Better Life, a Stronger Australia. As a co-author of that report, Chris has no compunction in asserting that Australia is “at the bottom of the heap” in providing quality of life for people with a disability, ranked as we are 27th out of 27 OECD countries on that score. And he’s also keen to remind us that “Australia ranks 21 out of 29 OECD countries in the provision of employment opportunities for those with a disability”.
So whatever we’re doing in this country, there’s good reason to believe it’s not working. We began taking an interest in disability employment around the time of the Costello Welfare-to-Work budget in 2004 when the numbers of Australians on disability support pensions were around 750,000. Despite the expressed enthusiasm of a great many of that cohort of Australians to join the workforce, and large amounts of money being spent to match the political rhetoric, the numbers now stand at around 800,000.
I met with Chris Bennett before Christmas and offered to assist in his initiatives at PwC to influence the mindsets of business leaders. As Chris put it, there’s plenty of talk and the proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme will be a great breakthrough, but there’s little real action where it matters.
In September I gave a presentation to the Employment Participation Minister’s Reference Group on Disability Employment Services. As a member of that reference group, I’m one of only two employer representatives, and often find myself reminding the group that there’s little point in a first-rate supply line of job-ready job seekers if the demand-side, employers, is not disposed to employ them. And our research indicates clearly that, by and large, employers are not so disposed and therefore being qualified and job-ready is not good enough for a person with a disability to actually cut through prejudice to get a job.
In commenting on our study, Laura Tingle from the Australian Financial Review noted the finding that 85% of our research respondents whose organisations have not employed a person with a disability believe that “disabled employees were likely to be high risk and expensive”. Like most sweeping prejudices, that view is at best a half-truth but it’s persistent.
Our study also came to the notice of the Victorian Parliamentary Committee on Workforce Participation of People with Mental Illness, who invited us to make a submission and to speak to the Committee. I used part of our data in the general disability employment study to make a formal presentation on mental illness to six members of that two-party Committee during November.
Like me, the members of the Committee are perplexed at the persistence of negative workplace attitudes to people with a disability and were interested to hear what our research says about the continual failure to engage employers. In short, our data reveals that employers repeatedly say they’re ill-informed on the issue and those that attempt to take some action are often exasperated and disappointed when they try to make use of the placement services available only to find their desire to appropriately match a job-seeker to a job vacancy is not taken seriously. The wrong person in the wrong job at the wrong place is as negative an outcome for an employer as it is for the person employed, whether the person has a disability or not. As one of our research respondents said, people with a disability are not looking for special favours; they just want to be treated with equity and fairness.
I would be very interested to hear about the experiences of others in this troubled area to see what can be done about making a real impact.
Serge Sardo, CEO, Australian Human Resources Institute