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14 February 2023

Ability diversity – the last bastion of workplace discrimination

How diverse is your organisation in terms of ability? Here Jennifer Grove questions why progress for disability inclusion lags behind other areas and why more needs to be done to move this agenda forward.


At a glance:

  • While some areas of workplace diversity have improved, disability inclusion lacks progress.
  • Misconceptions, and a lack of awareness and understanding has disability inclusion behind other areas like gender and sexuality.
  • More needs to be done by larger organisations that have the resources to lead this change.

On a human level it’s important for employers to progress diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) so that all people – regardless of age, gender, ability, cultural background, sexuality and other points of difference – can enjoy employment free from bias and discrimination. DEI also matters in recruitment, as without targeting and attracting people with diverse perspective and experience, organisations limit their talent pool and forego the significant value that diversity can bring.

From a macroeconomic perspective, disability employment presents an even more significant opportunity. In its ‘Willing to Work’ report the Australian Human Rights Commission estimates that employing people with disability could add over $50 billion to the country’s GDP by 2050. But to achieve this Australia would need to perform as one of the top eight OECD countries for employment of people with disability – an ambitious target given Australia’s current performance in this area.

So, with all of the benefits and value that come from disability inclusion, why progress has been slow? And what support is available to help businesses move the dial on diversity inclusion? We invited Jennifer Grove, a Partner at Gerard Daniels, to draw on her experience in Executive Search and as a Board Member for Edge Employment Solutions, to explore this issue.

Room for improvement

To create new opportunities and build more inclusive workplaces for people with disability, first we must face (and begin to feel uncomfortable about) the facts.

  • More than 1 million working-age people with disability are currently employed or looking for work in Australia. This may seem significant, but this equates to just 53.4 per cent of people with disability being employed, compared with 84.1 per cent of people without disability. People with disability are also twice as likely to be unemployed.
  • If you’re wondering how our disability employment performance stacks up internationally, the facts are just as grim: Australia last ranked 21st out of 29 OECD countries.

“As a society we have to acknowledge that there is room for improvement,” says Jennifer. “We must also continue to look critically at how we build disability inclusive workplaces, and address the misconceptions and other barriers that people with disability face.”

Barriers to disability employment

People with disability continue to face many unique challenges in finding work, and staying employed.

Lack of understanding

A lack of understanding is one of the most significant challenges that people with disability face. “For many organisations, actively employing people with disability simply feels too hard,” says Jennifer. “These businesses don’t fully understand or seek to know what support is available, what change is required, or how to go about bringing people with disability into their workplace.”

“Disability is also broad, and because not all disabilities present visibly, it is not something that employers are always aware of or actively addressing,” Jennifer continues. “This general lack of understanding makes it challenging for people with disability to find employment, and it prevents employers from adequately supporting the people with disability within their workforce.”

Assumptions and misconceptions

Many misconceptions still exist around employing people with disability, which can restrict all stages of attracting, recruiting and onboarding new talent.

  • For example, many employers think of disability in terms of what they can see, with 90.9 per cent of employers’ dominant associations being with physical disability. Yet 90 per cent of the 4.4 million people with disabilities in Australia live with an invisible disability.
  • There is also a belief that employing people with disability is more costly. When in fact many employers already unknowingly employ people with undisclosed disability, that require no additional resources or support from the organisation.

Debunking these and other misconceptions is critical to moving disability inclusion forward.

Poor visibility

Compared to other types of diversity, disability inclusion has poor visibility, which puts the onus back on employers to seek out information and support. Having to take that first step can deter some organisations from actively targeting people with disability in their recruitment. Achieving better visibility must also be supported by the right organisational culture, and a broader organisational commitment to ESG.

“Disability inclusion has lacked spotlight, and therefore lacked focus, but I’m hopeful that with the fresh perspective that comes with the recent leadership changes at the NDIA, we might see some more visibility around how to make your workforce more disability inclusive,” says Jennifer. “If some of the well resourced larger employers can take the lead from the front it will demonstrate the value, improve visibility for disability inclusion, and drive significant and sustainable change.”

Meeting the needs of people with disability

The support that people with disability need in their workplace can be as broad and varied as the disabilities that people experience. “We already subconsciously make adjustments to cater for the needs of all employees, we just haven’t quite got comfortable or familiar enough with how to make adjustments for people with disability,” says Jennifer.

“Employers don’t always appreciate the small amount of change that may be required to take on a person with a disability either,” says Jennifer. “In some cases, no support, or only very small workplace accommodations can ensure the performance and wellbeing of a person with disability. This could be providing a low sensory stimulation environment, or implementing flexible and remote work practices.”

“Other people with disability may need a higher level of support, like access to Auslan interpreting services,” Jennifer continues. “Modifications may be needed to a person’s physical work environment, specialist equipment or technology may need to be sourced, or coaching and mentoring to help people with more significant disability to prepare for and transition into employment.”

What support services are available?

Australians have access to a wide range of funding and services that offer disability employment guidance and support. The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) is responsible for implementing the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), that provides financial assistance to people with disability. Over 224 Disability Employment Services (DES) providers then provide services that help people with disability to find, prepare for, transition into and maintain employment.

Normalisation: the key to change

There has been some normalisation around employment in relation to gender, racial and cultural diversity, but Jennifer affirms that we’re just not there yet when it comes to disability.

“I accept that it’s not easy, because disability is a very broad spectrum, but it’s really important that we do see change and that it starts wherever it can,” Jennifer reflects. “To normalise disability inclusion, people with disability must be employed at all levels.”

“It would be great to see State, Federal and Local Government, as well as larger organisations, understand that disability inclusion is just as important as any other area of being a good corporate citizen,” she continues. “Inclusion is also just as important in the context of economic growth and the realisation that the employment market is tight, as we have an underutilised pool of people ready, willing and able to work.”

To find out more about the support available to your organisation, check out the National JobAccess portal. To discuss growing the diversity of your Board and Executive Leadership team connect with Jennifer Grove, or reach out to your local Gerard Daniels team.

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