A new approach to disability in the workplace
While people with disabilities still struggle to find a job, many employers are introducing positive new strategies to support a diverse workforce
Despite making up nearly a fifth of the population, people with disabilities are drastically under-represented in the Australian workforce.
People who have a disability and wish to work are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without a disability. In Australia, the workforce participation rate among the working age population is around 83 per cent, yet this drops to around 50 per cent for people with a disability.
A recent inquiry by the Australian Human Rights Commission found the major barriers to employment for people with disabilities include lack of access to education and training, inaccessible work environments, misconceptions, stigma and discrimination.
Despite the existence of anti-discrimination laws in Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission receives a huge number of disability discrimination complaints each year.
Researchers at the Centre for Workplace Leadership (CWL) at the University of Melbourne are looking to turn these sobering statistics around.
According to Dr Jesse Olsen, Senior Research Fellow, a more diverse workforce, when supported and managed properly, can have great benefits.
“Increasing the participation of people with disabilities in the workplace is crucial, not only from a community perspective, for the benefit of society as a whole, but also from an economic one,” Dr Olsen says.
“It’s well established that creating an inclusive and diverse workplace can lead to higher group performance.”
He also points out that increasing labour force participation of people with disabilities means they have a better standard of living, as well as better physical and mental health.
To support workplaces to employ more people with disabilities, Dr Olsen and the CWL team are investigating what organisations are already doing well – so other workplaces can adopt proven practices.
Dr Raymond Harbridge, Research Fellow at the CWL, has played a central role in designing and implementing the project. One of the biggest challenges he has found is the prevalence of reports and articles highlighting what workplaces are doing badly.
“By emphasising what employers are doing right, we hope to encourage other organisations to follow suit,” Dr Harbridge explains.
In 2016, the Australian Network of Disability (AND) asked CWL to help develop an online tool which allows employers to gauge how inclusive they are of customers and employees with disabilities. The Access and Inclusion Index allows employers to reflect on the issues that are barriers to people with disabilities.
Now the CWL is working with AND to research how workplace adjustments are being adopted in major organisations.
To date, the team has surveyed a range of organisations using a custom-built online tool, and followed up with in-person interviews with staff.
“What we have found so far is incredibly encouraging,” says Dr Olsen. “There are some really simple ways workplaces are successfully providing adjustments, such as flexible work arrangements.
“Letting people work from home or elsewhere, as well as shift their workdays, is often an easy way to allow people to work to their potential, and it creates an inclusive work environment.”
Some large workplaces are using ‘passports’ which capture the exact nature of the adjustments employees need. The document is held by the employee, and if they transfer to another part of the organisation, they simply offer their new manager the passport and ask for the adjustments to be made.
“Some of the successful adjustments we’ve seen so far have come from employees’ own networks, as well as from third-party organisations who deal with assistive technologies,” Dr Olsen says.
According to the CWL, organisations need to widen their definitions of disability, in line with the Disability Discrimination Act.
“When people think of employees with disabilities, what springs to mind might be someone who uses a wheelchair who needs an accessible toilet, or someone with a hearing impairment who needs an adapted phone,” Dr Harbridge explains.
“But employers need to be aware of less visible disabilities, such as learning impairments, Parkinson’s or Multiple Sclerosis. We also need to think about adjustments for situations we might not think of as disabilities – for example women who are breastfeeding or menopausal.”
Early findings reveal a significant lack of knowledge and misconceptions about how adjustments can be made.
Alex Holland, CWL Research Assistant, notes from both research and anecdotal evidence that perceived cost can be a barrier to workplaces making adjustments. She says employers are often unaware of funding available to help them provide an accessible workplace. In addition, many people with disabilities are simply unaware of the adjustments available.
Another issue according to Ms Holland is disclosure: “I believe this is one of the biggest barriers facing people with disabilities – that dilemma of if, and when, you tell your employer about your disability.
“There is a lot of evidence that having a formal disclosure process can encourage people with disabilities to come forward, however it’s also important there is no obligation to disclose.
“Organisations should also have formal follow-ups to see how well adjustments are working, as some employees might be hesitant to give feedback.”
The CWL is continuing its work with large organisations in Australia, and will compile its findings later in 2017 to form recommendations to employers, industry groups and policy makers.
Dr Jesse Olsen holds a PhD in organisational behaviour and his research interests include diversity management, cross-cultural management and virtual work.
Dr Raymond Harbridge is a Doctor of Laws and Emeritus Professor from the Victoria University of Wellington, and is conducting research on disability, ageing, and ethical conduct.
Alex Holland is a graduate of the Melbourne Law School, former research assistant at the CWL, and a current Graduate at the National Disability Insurance Agency.
Marlena Raymond is a Juris Doctor candidate at Melbourne Law School with a passion for equality and discrimination law and disability human rights.
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