The Rights of People with Disabilities in Australian Workplaces

Written by Leon Woo

It is said that a nation is judged by not only its strongest, most prominent members of society, but by how it treats those who are often the most frail. In 2015, a survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed there were roughly 4.3 million Australians with disabilities, nearly 1 in 5 of all Australians. Of the 15.4 million Australians living in households who were of working age (15 to 64 years old), over two million of them had disabilities of some sort.

On the face of it, the Australian government has taken steps to ensure the welfare and equality of those disabled. Section 15 & 17 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) states that a prospective or current employee (or contract worker) must not be discriminated against because of the person’s disability. The Disability Employment Services, run by the government’s Department of Social Services, offers aid to people with disabilities in finding and preparing for a job.

So why is it, according to reports by the Australian Network on Disability (AND) and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), that Australia is still rife with disability discrimination? Australia was ranked the lowest in relative income for disabled people among OECD countries in a 2014 AHRC report, and according to the AND, up to 25% were neutral or negative about their organization’s attitude towards people with disability. In a 2016 Sydney Morning Herald interview with businesswoman Zoe Brissett, who suffers from hearing impairment and cerebral palsy, Ms Brissett said she previously struggled to find a job despite having the relevant experience and qualifications, and said she was more likely to get a job if she didn’t disclose her disabilities beforehand. In one case, she even overheard a recruiter mention that they were only doing the interview with her to be seen doing the right thing.

That last sentence sums up the underlying problem with today’s disability discrimination in the workplace: the laws and image may have changed, but people’s attitudes have not. While on surveys and paper, businesses may claim fair employment practices and workplace attitude towards the disabled, but the truth is much less prettier. Graduates with disabilities take 56.2% longer to find full-time employment than other graduates, and people with disability aged 15-24 years are 10 times more likely to experience discrimination than those aged 65 years and over, with their employer being the source of discrimination in almost half the instances. Even among businesses that hired people with disability, 61% of them said it helped to ‘strengthen workplace morale’. This hiring-for-show practice is one of the biggest problems behind the workplace discrimination toward the disabled, and merely serves to undermine the actual struggle of employment for those affected.

To understand why this is happening, we first have to understand the reason behind this discrimination by employers. First and foremost is the accommodation an employer has to make when hiring a person with disabilities, be it physical like wheelchair ramps and lift access, or workplace and schedule related such as allowing off-time to see a physician, or learning to work with those affected with mental disabilities. All these factors require changes to the workplace, such as (as the AHRC suggests):

  • Changing recruitment and selection procedures. For example, providing a sign language interpreter for a Deaf person or ensuring the medical assessor is familiar with a person’s particular disability and how it relates to the job requirements.
  • Modifying work premises. For example, making ramps, modifying toilets or providing flashing lights to alert people with a hearing loss.
  • Changes to job design, work schedules or other work practices. For example, swapping some duties among staff or providing regular meal breaks for a person with diabetes.
  • Modifying equipment. For example, lowering a workbench or providing an enlarged computer screen.
  • Providing training or other assistance. For example, running induction programs for staff with a disability and their co-workers, providing a mentor or support person for a person with an intellectual disability, and including staff with a disability in all mainstream training.

While the AHRC considers this reasonable for employers to make, many are not willing to make such compromises, often citing cost or time being sunk into a change that would benefit one or two people at most in the workplace. As such, many people with disabilities are not hired in the first place, leading to lower employment rates.

About the author

Leon Woo