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A little less conversation, a little more action needed on disability employment

24 August 2022 at 6:22 pm
Danielle Kutchel
The new federal government is investigating how to get more disabled people into employment, but advocates say it’s time for action.

Danielle Kutchel | 24 August 2022 at 6:22 pm


A little less conversation, a little more action needed on disability employment
24 August 2022 at 6:22 pm

The new federal government is investigating how to get more disabled people into employment, but advocates say it’s time for action.

The unemployment rate for Australians living with disabilities is stubbornly high – twice as high as people without disabilities.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, working age people with a disability are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without a disability, with the unemployment rate for this cohort hovering around 10 per cent.

And just 53.4 per cent of people with disability are in the labour force, compared with 84.1 per cent of people without disability. 

This gap has remained largely unchanged since 2003. 

Flurry of activity as politicians prepare

As the business world gears up for next month’s federal Jobs and Skills Summit, a number of other employment-related events are quietly taking place.

Government ministers are using these opportunities to talk to key stakeholders about employment issues facing minorities.

One of those minority groupings is people with disability, with ministers holding events to discuss how to increase the employment rate for people with disability.

In mid-August, NDIS minister Bill Shorten held the first NDIS Jobs and Skills Forum.

The day included a panel discussion featuring people with disability talking about their experiences at work and finding work.

And this week, social services minister Amanda Rishworth held a disability employment roundtable to hear from stakeholders about how to overcome the barriers preventing people with disability from finding jobs.

Business leaders were in attendance along with Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott.

Rishworth said in a statement that the roundtable would be a “foundational part” of the government’s plan to improve employment opportunities for people with disability, with input from the roundtable feeding into the Jobs and Skills Summit.

“The Albanese Labor government is committed to ensuring a better future for Australians with disability so they can benefit from equal opportunity in the community and importantly, in employment,” she said.

“Our guiding principles are no one left behind and no one held back, this includes Australians living with disability.

“We want to work with people with disability, their families, carers and others to ensure that disability employment policies and programs are well targeted and meet the needs of people with disability.”

“Same old, same old”

Over the years, Australia has held various inquiries and roundtables on disability employment.

There was the National Inquiry into Employment and Disability in 2005.

And the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, which examined employment in 2021.

And there were investigations and analyses back in the 80s and early 1990s.

Advocates have told Pro Bono News that we already know what the problems are; now, it’s time for governments to act.

“It’s just the same old, same old,” said Christina Ryan, CEO and founder of the Disability Leadership Institute.

“When it comes to disability employment, I think we do just need to get on with it. How many more [inquiries] do we need? It’s not actually producing the outcomes to have inquiries… unless you’re prepared to implement the recommendations, nothing’s going to happen. 

“So we keep going round and round and round, tinkering at the edges. And it isn’t a solution.”

The Disability Leadership Institute was founded by disability leaders, for disability leaders, and provides coaching and professional development for disabled leaders.

“One of the things that we’ve observed over several years is, you can ‘do leadership’ as long as you put your disability to one side and deny that it exists. But it’s not a recognition that disability might be a leadership attribute, that it might be something that is an asset to how you do your leadership,” Ryan explained.

“We focus very much in that space of working with people to understand how their disability is an asset to their leadership and how that makes a difference.”

It’s an area close to Ryan’s heart; she is critical of the fact that many employment initiatives for people with disability focus on entry-level employment, rather than recognising that many people with disability are already highly qualified and are seeking employment at a management or governance level.

Many of the barriers that these people face aren’t related to a lack of skills, but to a culture of ableism among employers.

“I hear revolting stories where, you know, people overhear their managers saying, ‘oh, we have to interview these people because they’ve come through the RecruitAbility framework, but we’re certainly not going to have them on our team’… it’s prejudice. Straight up,” she said.

Unfortunately, Ryan said, even companies working in the disability sector are getting this wrong, operating without a person with disability at the helm or within the leadership team — including the NDIS.

She’s a fan of quotas to address the imbalance, and argues by mandating positions for people with disability, those cultural changes will come.

“Many of the big corporates are now setting targets on their disability employment levels, but it would be better if they were quotas, because then we’ve actually got an imperative for something to happen,” Ryan said.

“And it isn’t just about workforce quotas. Where are the quotas for board numbers? Where are the quotas for management teams and executive teams? We need people in the room. Then we’ll see more disability employment; diverse people employ more diverse people.

“Culture change comes from the top, and we don’t have disability leadership to help with that happening. So that’s the big shift that’s needed.”

The Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) has two programs designed to enhance the leadership skills of people with disability: the Disability Leadership Program, run in partnership with the Department of Social Services and the Australian Network on Disability, and the Directing Change Scholarship, run by the Australian Network on Disability with AICD on board as partner.

This year, the Disability Leadership Program received over 300 applications, while the Directing Change Scholarship received more than 200.

It’s the first time the programs have been run, an AICD spokesperson said, so there aren’t any metrics to show their success yet, but their progress will be measured over time.

The programs aim to “build the skills, confidence and empowerment of leaders with disability to participate on boards”, the spokesperson added.

At the same time, the two programs are designed to build the disability awareness and confidence of boards, so that organisational leaders without disability engage with people with disability and learn how to reduce the barriers they face.

“Building the capability of leaders with disability is one of a number of levers required to ensure meaningful and sustainable inclusion of people with disability at board level. As we’ve seen with longer-running campaigns to increase the participation of underrepresented groups such as women on boards, cultural change is necessary,” the spokesperson said.

Listening, then acting

The full list of attendees at September’s Jobs and Skills Summit is yet to be released, however, Physical Disability Australia (PDA) is urging the federal government to ensure people with disability are given a voice at the summit.

“PDA contends that given the under-representation of people with disability in these groups, people with disability deserve dedicated representation. This is particularly important when this under-representation extends to the federal bureaucracy and members of parliament,” the organisation said in a statement.

“There is a history of well-intentioned undertakings made at times of reform such as this. However, history has also shown that these undertakings rarely translate to better opportunities for people with disability. The lack of lived experience among decision-makers plays a large part in this.

“Feel-good statements about the importance of diversity and inclusion and commitments to ‘do better’ might boost corporate reputations and provide good narratives for the media. However, they are meaningless to people with disability when nothing changes and no one is held accountable.”

Australia’s only openly disabled federal member of parliament, Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, agreed that lived experience of disability, and listening to the voices of people with disability, is critical to achieving true reform.

“Authentically engaging with lived experience is always a very, very good thing to do. But what matters most is how you enable the voices in that room to speak the truth, to feel empowered to speak clearly,” he told Pro Bono News.

“And then, what action do you take after such conversations? We’ve had a lot of conversations in the disability community over the years. We need to be moving to urgently actually address some of these issues. So engagement is great, but I’d say a lot of these issues have been well known for a very long time and we need to move urgently to address them.”

He said the government needs to work together with the disability community to “bring down the barriers of ableism that prevent disabled people entering the workforce and maintaining employment”.

That discrimination could be within the role in people’s attitudes, or it could be in the barriers people face to getting to their dream job like inaccessible public transport, Steele-John said.

The senator himself was recently overlooked for the position of chair of the Joint Standing Committee on the NDIS, in favour of Liberal senator Hollie Hughes, in a move that he said was “really disappointing”.

He said he hears from people in the disability community every day about the discrimination they face around employment, from comments and assumptions to underpayment in disability enterprises.

“Members of the disability community talk with me and my team all the time about the terribly discriminatory comments that they receive at work, the way they are passed over for promotions, the way that they are refused even the opportunity to interview for new roles, the assumptions that are made.

“There are massive challenges facing disabled people when it comes to employment and to tackle them we need to recognise the source is ableism and we’ve actually got to tackle ableism in the same ways and with the same urgency that we tackle other forms of discrimination… like quotas, like strong employment discrimination legislation, like the abolition of exploitative wage arrangements, for instance,” Steele-John said.

Like Christina Ryan, he is concerned about people with disability being passed over for leadership and governance opportunities. He believes that a strong signal could be sent about the leadership capabilities of people with disability if the vacancies in the NDIS board are now filled by disabled people.

“I think there is a real urgent need now… for those positions to be filled by disabled people as demonstration of the fact that it is acknowledged that disabled people are capable of playing leading roles,” Steele-John told Pro Bono News.

“State and territory governments have failed to listen to the community’s calls for action in this space and have instead sought refuge in endless disability access, inclusion plans and roundtable discussions and strategy overviews and refuse to recognise that the actions that are needed are pretty self-evident and have existed for a long time. 

“They are employment quotas, meaningful targets and measurement tools for the acquisition of those targets and critically accountability should those targets fail to be achieved. They are a revamp of the disability discrimination legislation so that it has teeth and can pursue employment based discrimination in the workplace, and reform to the education system so that we’re actually giving disabled people the tools, just like every other student, to go into the workplace should they want to. 

“The government, dominated by non-disabled people, has just failed to take this seriously or listen to the community.”

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.


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