Accessibility and inclusion for employees living with a disability
Assumptions, stereotypes and myths are shutting people with disabilities out of the workplace, an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry found last year.

These attitudes, it reported, lead to discrimination in decisions about recruitment, training, promotion and retirement – decisions not only bad for the individual but which also have consequences for the workplace and the national economy.

Of the one in five Australians – around four million people – who have a disability, more than half are of working age and, as our population ages, the rate of disability is increasing.

Yet if you have a disability you are 30 per cent less likely to have a job than someone who doesn’t, and twice as likely to be in the bottom 20 per cent of household incomes, according to a 2012 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Have The Conversation

Lisa Annese, CEO of the Diversity Council Australia, says the disability spectrum is very broad and not always visible.

Chronic health conditions such as arthritis, asthma and cancer are among the most common types of disability.

She says managers need to be taught the skills to ask staff what they need.

Often the changes implemented can benefit many, not just those with a disability.

There are very few issues, she says, that can’t be overcome when two reasonable people talk openly.

“Employers lose good people by not making adjustments,” says Annese.

“Some organisations are frightened and think they’re opening a can of worms, but often it’s just about making adjustments they may one day use themselves.”

Help Is Out There

Worries about cost and time can be one of the factors that lead businesses to let go, or not hire, someone with a disability.

But you may find something as simple as a change to lighting, modified or flexible working hours or a different chair is all that’s needed.

If more significant adaptions are required – perhaps to computer software or physical structures  - support is available.

JobAccess is a free government service that carries out workplace assessments for people with disabilities.

It also has an Employment Assistance Fund that gives grants to businesses to meet their employees’ needs. You might even be eligible for wage subsidies.

Other not-for-profit organisations, such as the Diversity Council Australia and Vision Australia, can provide information about embracing diversity in the workplace and guide you as you go about it.

Greg Brown is an employment engagement consultant at Vision Australia who welcomes the opportunity to assess a workplace for accessibility and answer any questions.

Vision Australia can support an employee to settle in to a new job and help the company find funding for modifications.

“We have engineers, lawyers, town planners, Masters in accounting, HR specialists and very highly educated people who want to work but it can be very difficult for them to get work,” says Brown.

“We know when we put people forward for a job that they are very close to the skill set required and that they can do the job as well as, if not better, than an able-bodied person.

“It frustrates us that there are such great skill sets sitting there but pushed aside because they have got a guide dog.”

Diversity Brings Benefits

Brown and Annese say there is plenty of statistical evidence that employing someone with a disability can boost a business’s profits.

Because of the difficulties they may have faced getting a job, when someone shows faith in their abilities, those employees often express their appreciation by being driven, passionate and loyal. They can also be innovative thinkers as a result of having to adapt to the everyday world.

Workers with disabilities have:

  • higher retention rates
  • lower absenteeism
  • high productivity
  • are no more likely to have a workplace injury than someone able-bodied.

Being seen as an inclusive and fair employer can also:

  • be good for your brand
  • make it easier to attract the best talent.

Change Your Mindset

All of us will at some point know someone with a disability or chronic illness. It could even be us.

Brown says no one is infallible and warns corporates are on a ‘dangerous path’ if they shut themselves off from being an inclusive, flexible workplace.

Annese says sometimes all it takes is an adjustment of thought.

“All of us have things we are good at and things we are not good at, and that includes people with disabilities and people without them,” she says.

“Most people, even high performers, have periods of lulls, but measures such as more flexible working arrangements can help them come out of that lull with more energy and motivation.

“If you give up on those individuals you lose their skills. Recruiting new employees is very expensive and comes with no guarantees.”

Our Own Experience At SEEK

There are 350,000 people in Australia defined as being blind or low-vision and that number is expected to grow to 550,000 within the next 15 years.

Of those who can work, 60 per cent are unable to find someone to employ them.

Toni Williams is the Diversity Manager at SEEK. She set up a pilot program with Vision Australia to welcome more people with a blindness or low vision into the company.

“SEEK is about employment and our purpose is providing people with a fulfilling and productive working life,” says Williams.

“We wanted to better represent the community we operate in.”

The pilot program has been so successful several participants are now on SEEK’s payroll and some have helped SEEK turn its experience into two educational videos, including the #openyoureyes campaign (above).

“With better technology and more support than ever before we, as a society, need to get more comfortable about including candidates from different talent pools and harnessing all their skills that at the moment are being wasted,” says Williams.