'We’ve seen no shift in employment of people with disability for 20 years' - Australian Network on Disability

DCA's Q&A Series In the First Person Suzanne Colbert CEO Australian Network on Disability

We invite Suzanne Colbert, CEO of Australian Network on Disability, onto our new Q + A panel, In the 1st Person. Here, she talks disability myths, unconscious bias and the state of inclusion in Australia.


Suzanne, welcome to In the 1st Person. What’s the current state of employment among people with disability in Australia?

We’ve seen no shift in employment of people with disability in Australia for 20 years. People aged 15 to 64 with disability have both lower participation (53%) and higher unemployment rates (9.4%) than people without disability (83% and 4.9% respectively).  There are 2.1 million Australians of working age with disability. Of the 1 million Australians with disability who are employed, 34% are managers and professionals.  Unfortunately, graduates with disability take 56.2 % longer to gain fulltime employment than other graduates.

Australia’s employment rate for people with disability (46.6% in 2015) is on par with other developed countries.

What is the biggest myth that exists around accessibility and disability in business?

Businesses without previous experience worry that there will be additional cost and risk associated with employing people with disability.  The evidence shows that there are no additional risks with employing people with disability, and the Australian Government funds JobAccess, which pays for workplace adjustments for eligible employees with disability. Workplace adjustments, required by a relatively small number of people with disability, help people with disability to perform on a level playing field and enhance productivity.

What unconscious biases should employers be aware of?

Mostly people make assumptions about what people with disability can and can’t do.  Often people can’t imagine how people with specific disabilities do things. When we ask the person with disability, we can understand.  Asking someone how they do something builds our understanding.  Without asking the individual many employers can’t imagine that a fork lift driver who is deaf will be safe; they can’t imagine how a person who is blind will read an excel spreadsheet; or how a wheelchair user will be able to travel for work.

What adjustments, big and small, can businesses make to be more accessible?

One of the most important adjustments for businesses to become more accessible is to make sure that your recruitment website and your recruitment process is barrier-free to people with disability. Many recruitment websites prevent people who are blind or have low vision, people with dyslexia or people with print disability from being able to apply for roles.  Websites should meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.  Also, organisations can become more accessible from a recruitment perspective by ensuring they are clear about the key requirements of their roles.  Often, position descriptions are written with lots of jargon and little detail about the main outcomes to be achieved – this makes it much harder for skilled and talented people to select roles that are suitable.

The Australian Network on Disability’s newly launched ‘Manager’s guide to creating a disability inclusive workplace’ provides some great practical advice for managers, supervisors and team leaders wanting to improve their strengths in this area. From a customer perspective, our 'Welcoming customers guide' supports business to become more accessible to their customers with disability.  Both publications are available from www.and.org.au.

If it’s not on the agenda, how can stakeholders start this conversation?

I think our diversity and inclusion challenge is all about intersectionality.  Around 14.5% of Australians of working age have disability and there’s a correlation between age and disability (31% of people aged over 55-64 have acquired some type of disability throughout their working life) so those organisations with an older workforce will certainly have employees with disability.

Around one third of Indigenous employees experience some type of disability.  Starting the conversation is as simple as asking, do our current employees feel comfortable to share disability related information with us? If not, why not?  Have we given them an opportunity to share their information with us and have we let our employees know that we are flexible and we make adjustments to accommodate disability?  Do we know whether our recruitment process inadvertently prevents people with disability from applying?  Does our workforce reflect the community in which we operate? 

Australians do strongly believe in fairness – it’s simply not fair to exclude people who may be highly qualified and capable of our jobs just because we haven’t thought about including them.

DCA Members can exclusively access our resources on disability and accessibility.

Everyone can find out more about the Australian Network on Disability and hold an event in their organisaton on or around December 3.


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