A brand new strategy to disability within the office

Despite making up almost a fifth of the population, people with disabilities are dramatically underrepresented in the Australian workforce.

People with disabilities who want to work are twice as likely to be unemployed as people without disabilities. In Australia, the employment rate of the working age population is around 83 percent, but for people with disabilities it is around 50 percent.

A recent survey by the Australian Commission on Human Rights found that the main barriers to employment for people with disabilities are lack of access to education and training, inaccessible work environments, misunderstanding, stigma and discrimination.

A number of barriers to employment persist for people with disabilities. Image: Pexels

Despite the existence of anti-discrimination laws in Australia, the Australian Commission on Human Rights receives a large number of complaints of discrimination on the basis of disability each year.

Researchers at the Center for Workplace Leadership (CWL) at the University of Melbourne are trying to reverse these sobering statistics.

According to Dr. Jesse Olsen, Senior Research Fellow, can greatly benefit a more diverse workforce when properly supported and managed.

“The greater involvement of people with disabilities in the workplace is of crucial importance not only from a community perspective for the benefit of society as a whole, but also from an economic perspective,” says Dr. Olsen.

“It is well known that creating an inclusive and diverse workplace can lead to higher group performance.”

He also points out that increasing the labor force participation of people with disabilities means a better standard of living and better physical and mental health.

Flexible work practices are an important part of supporting people with disabilities in the workplace. Image: Pexels

To support the jobs and employ more people with disabilities, Dr. Olsen and the CWL team, what organizations are already doing well so that other workplaces can apply best practices.

Dr. Raymond Harbridge, Research Associate at the CWL, played a key role in the design and implementation of the project. One of the biggest challenges he has found is spreading reports and articles highlighting what is doing badly in jobs.

“By emphasizing what employers are doing right, we hope to encourage other organizations to follow suit,” said Dr. Harbridge.

In 2016, the Australian Network for Disabilities (AND) asked CWL to help develop an online tool that employers can use to assess how comprehensive they are to customers and employees with disabilities. The Access and Inclusion Index enables employers to reflect on the issues that hold back people with disabilities.

Now the CWL is working with AND to study how workspace adjustments are made in large organizations.

Some organizations set a high bar for helping people with disabilities in the workplace. Image: Pexels

So far, the team has interviewed a number of organizations using a specially developed online tool and then conducted face-to-face interviews with employees.

“What we’ve found so far is incredibly encouraging,” says Dr. Olsen. “There are some really simple ways that workstations can successfully customize, such as B. flexible working arrangements.

“Letting people work from home or elsewhere and postponing their workdays is often an easy way to enable people to reach their potential and creates an inclusive work environment.”

Some large workstations use “passports” that record the exact type of adjustments employees need. The document is kept by the employee. If he moves to another part of the organization, he simply offers his new manager the passport and asks for adjustments.

“Some of the successful adaptations we’ve seen so far come from employees’ own networks as well as from third-party organizations that deal with assistive technologies,” says Dr. Olsen.

According to the CWL, organizations need to expand their definitions of disability in accordance with the Disability Discrimination Act.

“When people think of employees with disabilities, they may think of someone who uses a wheelchair who needs an accessible toilet, or someone with a hearing impairment who needs an adapted phone,” explains Dr. Harbridge.

Many organizations need to expand their definition of disability beyond those that require wheelchair access. Image: Visualrhetor / Flickr

“However, employers need to be aware of less visible disabilities such as learning disabilities, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis. We also need to think about adjustments for situations that we may not consider a disability – for example, women who are breastfeeding or are going through menopause. “

Early results show a significant lack of knowledge and misunderstanding about how adjustments can be made.

Alex Holland, CWL Research Assistant, finds from both research and individual cases that perceived costs can be an obstacle to adaptations in the workplace. She says employers often don’t know what resources are available to provide them with an accessible workplace. In addition, many people with disabilities are simply not aware of the adjustments available.

Another problem, according to Ms. Holland, is disclosure: “I think this is one of the biggest obstacles facing people with disabilities – the dilemma of whether and when to tell your employer about your disability.

“There is much evidence that a formal disclosure process can encourage people with disabilities to get in touch. However, it is also important that there is no disclosure requirement.

“Companies should also take formal follow-up to see how well adjustments are working, as some employees may be reluctant to provide feedback.”

The CWL continues to work with major organizations in Australia and will collate its findings later in 2017 for recommendations to employers, industry groups and policy makers.

Dr. Jesse Olsen holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior and his research interests include diversity management, intercultural management and virtual work.

Dr. Raymond Harbridge is a Doctor of Law and Professor Emeritus at Victoria University of Wellington, doing research on disability, aging and ethical behavior.

Alex Holland is a graduate of Melbourne Law School, a former research fellow at the CWL and a current graduate of the National Disability Insurance Agency.

Marlena Raymond is a Juris PhD student at Melbourne Law School with a passion for equality and discrimination law and human rights for people with disabilities.

Banner image: Shutterstock

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