The way forward: employment outcomes from the Disability Royal Commission

The Disability Royal Commission took almost 5 years and received over 2000 submissions. It was one of the most substantial investigations into the treatment of disabled people Australia has ever seen.  

The findings – a hefty 5,000 pages over 12 volumes – made for sobering reading.  

Last week DCA invited me to speak about the employment related recommendations put forward by the Royal Commission. Here are a few of my key takeaways, which I’ve framed around the key principles on how employers can provide fairer and more inclusive workplaces for people with disability.  

The principles are to end segregation and ensure equal pay, introducing a positive duty, moving away from merit-based recruitment, building a diverse workforce and making culture change through disability leadership, and establishing data collection practices. 

Ending segregation and attaining equal pay

A major outcome, and key principle, of the Royal Commission is to end all forms of segregation of disabled people, including in employment. After the end of segregation, a further key principle of the Royal Commission was equal pay for equal work, as applies across the rest of the economy. 

To quote the Royal Commission’s final report:  

“There is general agreement that people with disability have the right to equality and that an inclusive society empowers people with disability to live, learn, work, play, create and engage alongside people without disability … segregation – is unacceptable and must cease.”  

This means moving away from sheltered workshops and the “special” pay rates that go with them. Many large corporations and government entities have a preferred procurement policy for sheltered workshops and, in doing so, they are not only perpetuating segregated employment and unacceptable pay rates, they are also supporting a recognised form of modern slavery.  

The suggested way forward is to have a preferred procurement policy that emphasises disability employment standards, including pay equity and non-segregated workplaces. I would also suggest a preferred procurement approach from businesses owned and run by disabled people. There are a growing number of social enterprises and other businesses in this category. The Disability Leadership Institute has a Disability Business Directory on our website, alongside our National Register of Disability Leaders.  

A further related key issue is to pay disabled people for our work and not expect us to work for free or for reduced rates.  

A positive duty

The Royal Commission has also recommended the introduction of a positive duty for employers to ensure disabled people can work in safe environments, similar to the newly established positive duty in the Sex Discrimination Act. This duty encompasses addressing workplace bullying, harassment, and providing necessary adjustments. 

Research tells us disabled people are disproportionately affected by workplace bullying and harassment and often face unfair scrutiny or denial of workplace adjustments. These adjustments are not “reasonable,” they are what is needed and should simply be provided when requested. Not having the right adjustments is the reason many disabled people leave their jobs.  

Culture change is a shared responsibility and it’s no secret that it starts at the top. Leadership diversity is perhaps the most impactful driver of cultural transformation within any organisation.  

Disability leadership sparks cultural change

A considerable amount of Royal Commission energy went into how workplaces operate, and the kinds of work that disabled people do. There is still a significant focus on entry-level disability employment, rather than ensuring that disability diversity is present throughout organisations at all levels. The Royal Commission specifically raised the importance of disability leadership in organisations and questioned the lack of disabled people on boards and in management.  

It is well known diverse leadership teams are crucial to fostering diverse workforces. Somehow, this principle has not been applied to disabled people who are rarely seen in leadership and decision-making positions.  

To quote the Royal Commission final report again:  

“Disabled people have simply not been considered as leaders. We seem to have been left by the wayside when it comes to being considered as people who are able to do leadership. There are very few openly disabled people in positions of leadership, decision-making [and] positions of authority.”  

Moving away from merit-based recruitment

Alongside this is the continuing use of “merit” based recruitment processes, despite merit being completely discredited by most diversity specialists and research from the Champions of Change and Chief Executive Women advocating for its immediate removal. 

Merit protects and perpetuates the status quo, so if we want diversity, moving away from merit-based recruitment and advancement is vital. The Royal Commission recommends having a specific requirement to make diverse appointments, particularly at leadership and senior levels.  

Using data to understand what's happening

The final principle from the Royal Commission is data collection. It is very difficult to enact meaningful change if we don’t have the right information. Disability-related data collection is inconsistent at best.  

Organisations must go beyond simply counting the number of disabled people in their workforce and collect meaningful data that is disaggregated by intersectional factors. We need to know where disabled people are in organisations, their pay rates, what their career pathways look like, what recruitment processes worked and what didn’t, which industries are at the forefront, and which lag behind.  

The recommendations of the Disability Royal Commission provide a starting point for building inclusion and equity in the workforce, however, a spotlight on disability leadership is particularly vital, to create and sustain more diverse and equitable workplaces where disabled people can be safe and thrive. 

Christina Ryan is the CEO and Founder of the Disability Leadership Institute. Christina is well known in the disability community and has 25 years of frontline disability advocacy work focused on disability and violence through an intersectional lens. Through her work with the Disability Leadership Institute, she provides professional and leadership coaching with a view to achieve disability equality. Christina has represented her community in Australia and at the United Nations sharing expertise on employment and education for disabled women and was part of the long campaign to establish the Disability Royal Commission.  

To learn more about the Royal Commission’s findings, and gain insight into what employers can do to create fairer workplaces for people with disability, watch a recording of DCA’s Increasing Pathways and Opportunities for People with Disability in the Workforce event.