Employment rates of people with disability in Australia have not seen improvement in 30 years, an expert told the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People With Disability this week.
The Royal Commission has been investigating the challenges faced by people with disability in finding and retaining employment in the latest round of public hearings.
Over this week, from Monday 22 November to today, 26 November, Commissioners have been questioning witnesses from large organisations, ranging from Telstra to the Australian Public Service, on the rates of employment of people with disability in their workforce and the structures put in place to support those figures.
Former Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes AM, says while some organisations have good policies, these are often not implemented, and he criticises the lack of action which Australian organisations have taken to improve the employment rates of people with disability.
“We’ve been employed at a rate approximately 30 percent less than the general population during the last 30 years… and I’ve described employers employing people with disabilities as abysmal, and I don’t resile from that,” he says.
“There has been a lot of talk. I don’t think there’s been significant change. There have been patches where employers at different periods of time have ramped up their efforts to employ people with disabilities, and some have been successful, some continue to be successful, but overall, as a general comment, no, there has not been meaningful change.”
Mr Innes also shared his own personal experiences of job seeking and employment with the Royal Commission.
“I started to apply for positions in 1979 and indicated in my application that I was totally blind. I thought it was the right thing to do, to indicate that to employers, and I set out in my application what I would do to address the impact of that disability in terms of my work as a lawyer, and I didn’t get any interviews,” says Mr Innes.
“So I decided to take that section out of my application and, as soon as I did, I immediately began to get interviews. So the first time that employers would know that I couldn’t see was when I walked into the interview room with my white cane.
“I did about 30 interviews during that year, and I probably wasn’t the best qualified applicant for all of those jobs, but I’m sure I was for many of them, and I didn’t get any of those jobs.
“At every interview, employers didn’t ask me about my disability and the impact of my disability. So I took the time at the end of the interview to inform them what I had achieved through university and College of Law, the impacts that my disability may have, and the strategies I’d use to address those impacts.
“Even though I did that, I didn’t get any of those jobs.”
For the situation to change, Mr Innes says the responsibility lies with employers to make sure people with disability feel comfortable disclosing their disability and asking for workplace adjustments.
“People with disabilities mask the impact of their disabilities and often don’t tell employers about their disabilities and the reason we don’t do that, if we can avoid telling people about the impact of our disabilities, is that we have learned from years of experience that we are likely to be treated negatively or discriminated against,” explains Mr Innes.
“And that’s why, as I say, the responsibility to garner that information sits squarely with employers because employers need to show us that that situation is changing, and that we will be welcomed in the workplace, not discriminated against.”
While he was initially against organisations setting targets or quotas as “they caused token appointments”, Mr Innes says he now advocates for targets as the only way to get people with disability into employment.
“If we don’t develop [targets] and then develop strategies to deliver on those targets, the situation over the last 30 years will continue where there will be a lot of talk but not much real action.”
Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Disability Leadership Institute, Christina Ryan, says targets work and that entrenched attitudes in the work environment need to change.
“Many disabled people find themselves continuously advocating around not just their own workplace adjustments and requirements but around other disabled people in their workplace. It must go back on to the employer to be responsible for this,” she says.
There are also issues around the promotion of people with disability, Ms Ryan says, and this is not just on the part of organisations failing to offer people with disability promotions but also due to the perceptions of employees with disability.
“One of the things many people say to us… is I can’t be more senior than ‘x’ because my disability is not [going to be] managed,” she says.
Ms Ryan believes the reasons for this attitude from employees could include that they think working in a senior role will require too many hours for their health to be safely managed, or there will be work environment restraints such as rooms where other colleagues won’t “care whether they have access to captions or not”.
Rates of people with disability employed in Australia’s largest organisations too low
Australian Government representatives told the Royal Commission of the importance of public sector employees reflecting the diversity of the general community to ensure policies, strategies and actions of the Government are what the public needs.
The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) reported one of the highest rates of employment of people with disability out of all the organisations represented in the hearings – at 19.1 percent.
Hamish Aikman, Chief People Officer at the NDIA, says, “We have a very clear policy on ensuring that workplace supports are provided to all people who work within the agency and for those people who specifically request it.
“We have a very strong focus on ensuring that conversations around adjustments occur at the local level wherever possible.
“And we also have ensured that wherever possible we talk about universal design in the way we set up the agency, which again enables these things, not necessarily to be asked but are provided in the way in which we set up the agency specifically.”
Yet in the overall Australian Public Service, the number of people with disability makes up only 4 percent of the workforce.
The average figure of employees with a disability across all large Australian organisations, involving both the public and private sectors is only 1.15 percent of each workforce.
All of the private organisations which appeared at the hearing agreed their rates of employment of people with disability were too low and that they would like to lift them for a range of economic, social, business and human rights reasons.
However, several of the organisations represented did not collect data on the number of people in their workforce with a disability, or had only recently started collecting data, including McDonald’s Australia and Woolworths.
Many organisations appearing before the Commission also did not record the number of workplace adjustments sought and granted – including the Australian Government’s own Department of Social Services.
While policies often mentioned the importance of lifting the rates of people with a disability employed by these organisations, the Royal Commission heard strategies around the retention of employees with disability and the promotion of these employees were often missing.
Small positive changes were shown by some organisations, such as Kmart Australia changing the online application process for jobs to cater for applicants with disability and using dyslexia-friendly fonts on the website.
These changes led to 3.8 percent of new employees since July 2021 identifying as having a disability, where the overall rate of Kmart employees with disability is only 1.6 percent.
Telstra and Medibank representatives also outlined groups that are part of their organisational structure which support people with disability, some of which were voluntary or peer run and others which involved managers whose responsibility it was to implement employment strategies.
While Telstra has had a static rate of 1.2 percent of employees with a disability since 2012, Medibank currently has a higher rate of 4 percent.
Although the rates of people with disability employed at each organisation were considered during the hearing, the Commission also heard that these figures may not be accurate in many organisations.
Melissa Donnelly, National Secretary of the Community and Public Services Union, says often the attitudes of employers towards disability and reasonable workplace adjustments deter employees from disclosing disability.
“There are lots of people who are uncomfortable identifying their disability for their agency …they are concerned they will face discrimination of some kind if they make that disclosure,” she says.
The Royal Commission’s next hearing, on preventing and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in disability services, will centre on two case studies and run from 7-13 December. To keep up to date with the Royal Commission, subscribe to Talking Disability.