Employers have much to gain by overcoming the attitudes and fears that constitute the main job-finding barriers for people with disability.
When Graeme Innes roared out of Sydney University as a “shiny new lawyer”, it didn’t take long for him to hit a brick wall.
“I spun my wheels for 12 months while I went to 30 job interviews. I didn’t get any of those jobs, mostly because employers couldn’t comprehend how a blind person could work as a lawyer,” says former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Innes, who was born blind.
He was eventually hired as a clerical assistant at the NSW Department of Consumer Affairs – he joked he was the only lawyer in charge of answering phones – and he befriended a senior legal officer.
“I kept talking to him about how I wanted to be a lawyer and how I would do the job,” he says. “He wasn’t absolutely convinced, but agreed to give me a try. His change of attitude changed my life.”
People with disability comprise 15 per cent of the working age population in Australia, but their employment rates are abysmally low. This contributes to the fact that 45 per cent of Australians with disability live below the official poverty line – more than in any other OECD country.
Some high-profile people with disability have achieved career success, such as former Macquarie Group head of property, Bill Moss, who has a form of muscular dystrophy. However, only 53 per cent of people with disability participate in the workforce compared with 83 per cent of people without disability.
And the situation’s getting worse, says Suzanne Colbert, chief executive of the Australian Network on Disability (AND).
“It would be good if we were going forward, but we’re not,” says Colbert. “We’ve failed employers by not providing them with sufficient support and information on how straightforward and beneficial disability strategies can be.”
Employers don’t feel confident about hiring people with disability, says Lucy Macali, general manager of the government-funded National Disability Recruitment Coordinator service. They fear they will have to do everything differently, but they don’t, she says.
Colbert says the biggest roadblock to a person with disability securing employment is not the policies that a company has in place, but the recruitment process and hiring manager.
“If the hiring manager doesn’t understand how a person who is blind can read an Excel spreadsheet, then they’re not likely to offer them a job,” she says. “It’s a matter of building managers’ skills and capabilities in understanding how people with disability can be successful in workplaces.
Many people with disability don’t make it through the initial recruitment process, and that’s often due to inadvertent roadblocks, says Colbert. It could be as simple as the colour of text used in a job advertisement, a requirement that an application form is to be filled out using a computer mouse, or a lack of an Auslan sign language interpreter being made available for an interview.
Help is available for employers. If workplace adjustments are needed, many can be funded through the federal government’s JobAccess program, which also has an advice line and online database to assist in making suitable adjustments.
Case study: Calamity Monitoring
AHRI’s 2013 Disability Employment Inclusion and Diversity Award winner, Calamity Monitoring, saw a clear business case for hiring people with disability.
As a new business, Calamity Monitoring specifically wanted to hire from outside the security industry so candidates didn’t bring bad habits from other companies. It needed monitoring operators who were familiar with computers, had an outstanding phone manner, could commit to a 24/7 365-day environment, and could remain calm under pressure while being empathetic to scared, frail or aged-care customers.
Seeking candidates new to the security industry meant having to apply for government security licences for each successful jobseeker, which could take up to three months.
Chief executive Daniel Lewkovitz found that some candidates with disability had been looking for a job for up to five years, so the extra time needed to receive a security licence was relatively insignificant.
“People don’t generally associate security work with disability. We gained access to a talent pool that is almost completely untapped. Yet our staff are some of the smartest and most capable people in the security sector. They’re also some of the happiest.”
Disability is one of the themes that will be explored at the 2014 AHRI Inclusion and Diversity Conference held 30 October in Melbourne. Registrations close 24 October.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the October 14 issue HRMonthly magazine in as ‘Ready and able’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.