Why are employers in Australia so reluctant to take on people with disabilities?

This is the question that 20 guests discussed at a Diversity Lunch held by Bravo Consulting at the RACV in Melbourne on March 26.  Australia has a woeful track record in this area.  We are the opposite of world class, coming 21st out of 29 amongst OECD countries.  In Australia only 54% of people with disability (PWD) are employed compared to 83% of people without disability.

Around the table were representatives from organisations who provide employment services for PWD, disability support services, disability advocacy, employer representative organisations, as well as some employers, academics working in this area, career advisors and entrepreneurs.

On one hand the employer representative organisation provided an optimistic note saying that the decision to employ people is a business decision, and so there needed to be a clear business case for doing so.  The good news is that there appears to be one.  As the skills shortages bite employers are recognising they will have to become more inclusive to obtain the labour they need.  As well business is starting to realise that diversity brings a better ability to deal with changing external environments.  However some in the group felt that most employers did not value diversity, and the bad news is that Australia’s current public policy could hardly be described as inclusive.

The group considered that this issue should be managed as an employment issue, not a welfare issue, and should be part of a broader approach to social inclusion.

The guests then considered that what swayed employer attitudes was a positive experience of employing somebody with a disability and made the following suggestions for building capacity on inclusion in workplaces:

  • Help employers to realise that they are already doing this.  A proportion of their employees will be PWD, who have chosen not to disclose this.  Asking those people to identify themselves and become involved in improving working conditions for PWD and inclusive recruitment strategies has worked for some organisations.  As well, by law, workplaces already have in place arrangements for “reasonable adjustment” of work for workers injured at work.  They do already have capacity that could be built upon.
  • Identify and work with early responders.  One of the attendees had had experience with a large retail employer.  He felt the organisation was well intended, had some initiatives, but this could be developed further.  Once that had happened the organisation could be deemed a “model employer” and asked to spread the word to others.
  • Social enterprises – there are examples of successful social enterprises, which run profitable businesses that employ PWD across the globe.  Experience around the table is that doing this is difficult.  However it was agreed this is something worth persisting with.  Perhaps identifying successful models from elsewhere would assist us in Australia?

Some participants, and remember those attending were people who advocate strongly for disability rights, thought that PWD should accept more responsibility for finding work.  One, a PWD, is involved in a business incubator, where PWD will be supported to create new technologies and services.  Other suggestions were to help PWD to develop networks and relationships that could be used to find work, and to offer services to enhance resilience.

The Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, is on record as saying reluctantly he thinks the time has come for affirmative actionEmployment of PWD in the Australian Public Service is actually declining.  The lunch group agreed with him that the public sector should be a model employer in this regard.

Bravo Consulting would like to continue this discussion:

  • Have you had experience in employing PWD you would like to share?
  • Do you agree or disagree with our guests?
  • Do you have some other ideas on what we need to do to improve Australia’s performance?

Posted by Mark Glascodine and with thanks to Professor Niki Ellis

BonnieSue Nevin

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