Only 53 percent of Australians with disabilities are employed, compared to 83 percent of all people of working age. Australia ranks 21st among 29 OECD countries when it comes to employment rates for people with disabilities.
However, a look at the data reveals an even darker story: Disability discrimination complaints are the largest category of discrimination reported to the Australian Commission on Human Rights (AHRC), and the numbers have been constant for around 20 years.
Lower employment levels result in Australians with disabilities living in poverty at the highest rates in the OECD.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics also found that employment rates vary radically depending on the “type of disability”. For example, people with a “mental disability” have the lowest employment rate at 29 percent.
Employment also varies based on the severity of the disability (defined as mild, moderate, severe, and profound). Employment decreases with increasing severity. Only 26 percent of people with severe or severe physical disabilities are employed.
As you can see in the table above, complaints at the AHRC are categorized according to the laws they fall under – Disability Discrimination Act, Gender Discrimination Act, Racial Discrimination Act, Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Act, and Discrimination Act because of the age.
Based on this, we can see that discrimination on the basis of a disability is consistently the highest proportion of complaints, currently at 37 percent.
When you consider that the Racial Discrimination Act and the Gender Discrimination Act total 41 percent of the cases, it gives an insight into the prevalence of workplace discrimination of people with disabilities.
The next graph shows the proportion of disability discrimination complaints related to the workplace. That’s about 35 percent from the most recent numbers, but it’s hit a much higher high.
Although we cannot explain the turnover, at various times there have been changes in the system, cuts in funding, and political tensions.
The figures show that disability discrimination has been and continues over the two decades.
Read the comments to see how people thought Australia could make employment with disabilities more inclusive.
In our investigation, using publicly available complaint summaries, we found that employers mistakenly believed that the cost of employing people with disabilities was higher than they were, or that government programs compensated them for the cost of making reasonable adjustments in the workplace were not known.
In other cases, people have been discriminated against through strict adherence to policies and guidelines.
We found several different topics in the disability complaints submitted.
For example, many employers do not offer adequate access to work. For blind people, this can be as easy as tactile floor surfaces.
In many cases it was also a manager or HR process too quick to fire an employee who had acquired a disability. Appropriate adjustments can often be made to the position descriptions.
Hiring practices have often been biased and affect applicants’ skills (also known as unconscious bias).
In many cases, the workstations did not include assistive technology such as screen reading software or hearing loops. These would have enabled disabled employees to do their jobs.
Mental health complaints have doubled over time, indicating the dynamics of disability discrimination and the willingness of people with mental health problems to disclose their disability who may not have previously incited a complaint.
Reading the summaries of the complaints at the AHRC, it becomes clear that employers, employees and third party organizations (e.g. insurance companies) treat people directly or indirectly unfairly or, in the worst case, show open hostility towards Australians a disability.
The parties involved show a lack of understanding of the basic legal principles of the Disability Discrimination Act.
These include sections on direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, unjustified hardship, inherent requirements, and reasonable adjustments.
What can be done
Some might argue that Australians with severe disabilities would be unable to work. However, their experience shows that with the right supportive technology and attitude that focuses on skills rather than disabilities, employment is not only possible but essential.
In a recently published OECD report, Denmark and Switzerland were singled out for their targeted intervention for younger people with disabilities or illnesses. This ensures that they have the highest chance of getting employed rather than becoming dependent on welfare.
The foundation of the National Disability Insurance System demonstrates the government’s desire to enable people with disabilities to switch from social assistance to employment.
While we wait for major policy changes to take effect, other immediate options are available to bring about positive social change.
Positive media exposure (see Attitude Foundation), personal contact and education can change attitudes towards disabilities. Government and nonprofits could also do more to raise awareness of best practices and inclusive support.
Job Access is a good resource. This government site provides training and resources to assist with workplace adaptation. It also provides direct help for people with disabilities.
Other organizations like the Australian Network on Disability can help businesses become more strategically inclusive. In the end, it will be important that employers give every Australian job seeker with a disability a fair start, rather than judging “what I can do what you think I can’t”.
Simon Darcy is Professor of Social Inclusion at the University of Technology Sydney Business School.
Tracy Taylor is Professor of Sports Management at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Originally published in The Conversation
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