My cousin Zoé wore a long blue dress to my wedding. The result was slightly disconcerting. Chatting with a champagne glass in one hand and an oxygen tank in the other, she was the bluest person you’ve ever seen.
Zoé’s blueness, and what she didn’t have, were probably the things people first noticed about her. Her speech wasn’t perfect. She couldn’t read or write much. By the time she was 40 she was unable to walk more than a few metres.
But Zoé was the first to notice if someone was feeling down – and did something about it. She wove tapestries, helped people more disabled than herself, fell in love, grabbed life. It was fun just driving down a country road with her singing along to Dolly Parton or going out for coffee. She had friends everywhere. She was a joy spreader.
3 December was the United Nations’ International Day of People with a Disability, but I wonder if we would need these kinds of days if more people had a good friend, colleague or family member like Zoé.
Unfortunately, at the moment you aren’t that likely to meet many obviously disabled people at work; they don’t get hired.
There is no data on how many disabled people corporate Australia employs, but the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows labour participation rates are only 54 per cent for people with disabilities – nearly 30 per cent lower than the general population.
In the public service, the share of staff who identify as disabled has dropped from 6.6 per cent in 1986 to 3 per cent.
The problem is that while most of us would say and believe we want the best for the disabled, we don’t walk the walk. Employers want to know the person they hire will get the job done and not impose extra burdens on them, but they make some very wrong assumptions. Just ask our blind Federal Disability Discrimination commissioner, Graeme Innes, who was rejected for 30 law jobs before finding he had to start out as the only administrative assistant in the NSW public service with a law degree. I recently interviewed Andrew Bucknell, the lead web developer for ANZ.com, who has a neurological condition that means his speech slurs and it’s hard to walk. He has highly sought after skills including a PhD in software engineering, but he says he’s had plenty of experiences of recruiters in the past calling up after the first interview saying “the job hasn’t been taken but it won’t go to you”.
ANZ Bank is one of the better employers on disability, but it admits it still has a long way to go. National Australia Bank also takes a step in the right direction with the launch this week of a new action plan which includes the rollout of unconscious bias training for more managers.
Many others aren’t even interested. That is a problem, not just for people who want to work or for taxpayers forking out for welfare, but for employers. They are missing out on talent, and their workforce could better reflect their clients, which can help improve service. Many employers are also eligible for government incentives to employ people with disabilities covering 65 per cent to 80 per cent of employment costs for up to the first six months.
Because so many employers still haven’t joined the dots on employing people with disabilities, Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten is determined that large employers begin publicly reporting on how many disabled people they employ from next year.
I’m not sure this will have any positive effect, because the public service has had reporting obligations for years and things are going backwards, and, as many HR directors will tell you, there is also the issue that many disabled people don’t want to be identified that way. Hopefully, though, the new obligations will get more companies questioning their assumptions.
And hopefully successful workers with disabilities will keep speaking out, those such as Katherine Hough, who told staff she had bipolar disorder as soon as she was made an acting deputy secretary in the Tasmanian government earlier this year.
At the anniversary of Zoé’s death, my aunt, who did so much to ensure her daughter lived up to her potential, said that we were blessed to have Zoé in our family. Like a great painting or a piece of music, Zoé helped us to see life differently, she said. Zoé’s brothers had also planned to say a few words, but didn’t. My aunt had said it all.
Rachel Nickless is Workspace editor at the Australian Financial Review where this article was first published.