Australia Must Engage Employers on People With Disabilities

By Andrew Heaton

(image via Sik Employment)

In any recruitment process, it is the employer who makes the final hiring decision and who must be persuaded that a particular candidate can help to drive positive outcomes for his or her business.

This is especially the case when it comes to people with disability.

Yet in Australia, an absence of engagement with employers is partly to blame for a lack of progress in employment outcomes for people with disabilities, for whom participation rates have remained stagnant at 53 percent against more than 83 percent for those without disabilities for the past twenty years despite strong levels of investment in employment services (DSS figures).

Whilst a current reform process is looking at how the system for disability employment services (DES) can be improved, there is a belief that improvements in outcomes will be limited unless efforts to improve services are matched by those aimed at increasing demand for workers with disabilities through better engagement with employers.

Suzanne Colbert AM, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Network on Disability, says improved services to employers are not a focus of the DES reforms. Instead, she says government is largely continuing to take a ‘market driven’ approach whereby natural market forces are relied upon to drive service delivery forward.

“I think the needs of employers have not been sufficiently considered,” Colbert said. “And as they are a critical stakeholder, more of the discussion about improving employment participation for people with disabilities needs to be with employers who have opportunities.”

“Largely, the conversation has happened in the contract between the federal government and the employment service providers, whereas it is employers who have the job opportunities and who need to hear about the skills and capabilities of people with disability.”

Peter Smith, Director of the Centre for Disability Employment Research and Practice, says Australia has generally adopted the wrong starting point for DES services. In order to qualify for DES, Smith says people first have to demonstrate that they are in fact disabled – a process he says puts the focus upon their limitations and handicaps from the start. Once in the system, he says providers often look at the barriers which the person has and make decisions about where the person can work based on these barriers.

As for employers, he says the focus has too often revolved around selling them upon hiring people with disability through arguments about matters such as their reliability and loyalty. Such approaches, Smith said, relied largely upon appealing to the employer’s sense of altruism.

Instead, he said, the starting point should revolve around first gaining a strong understanding of the individual in question including their aspirations, likes, abilities and the type of work environment in which they would be ideally suited. From there, he said it was possible to identify potential employers before visiting that company’s premises to gain an understanding of what they do and the type of roles which they have. Following on from that, it was possible to either identify any existing roles which the employer may have which are a suitable match for the client or alternatively to talk with that employer about new roles which match the client’s capabilities which would add value to the employer’s business and go to that employer with a commercial proposition which would add directly to their bottom line.

“The answer to that question from my perspective is that no, we haven’t done a good job because our starting point is incorrect,” Smith said, asked about whether or not Australia had done a good job at promoting employer interest in hiring people with disabilities.

“Our starting point has always been a bit like we are trying to sell them a pup – buy them because they are cute and cuddly.”

“The reality is that the focus should be on the ability of the person and the value they bring to your business. Employers look for a simple proposition, ‘what skills does this person have that I can exploit to make money?’ If you can’t answer that question, there is no reason to employ anyone irrespective of whether they have a disability or not.”

According to Colbert, a critical barrier to employer enthusiasm about hiring people with disabilities revolves around concerns regarding additional costs associated with catering for needs of the person in question and additional risk to which their business may be exposed – concerns she says tend to be especially prevalent amongst employers with limited experience in hiring people with disability.

In fact, she says such concerns are often misplaced. Courtesy of assistance available through Job Access, she says there is often no net additional cost to employers of hiring people with a disability. From a risk perspective, she says many people with disabilities are aware of areas which might present a challenge to them and are adequately equipped to overcome those challenges.

To overcome this, Colbert says it is important to raise awareness about available supports. It is also important to encourage employers to have an open dialogue with their employees or prospective employee to find out what needs to be done in order for these risks to be managed.

Especially in light of the fact that employers are running a business and are often stretched for time, meanwhile, she says it was critical to carefully align the role for which to put candidates forward with the skills, aspirations, personality and capability of the individual in question.

As for those with disabilities who do apply for roles, she encourages talking with employers during the interview process about what can be done to assist them to thrive in the workplace as well as any strategies which the candidate in question had adopted in order to mitigate the impact of their disability in the past. Someone with a wheelchair, for instance, might describe how they have been able to manage independently during previous employment positions or when performing non-workplace related tasks. This, she said, would help to address any concerns which the prospective employer may hold in respect of the disability.

Smith says the Federal Government should require DES providers to use evidence based methods in their practice whilst greater up-front effort was required in order to adequately and properly understand the client.

Beyond that, he says we must move away from common assumptions surrounding 38 hour per week arrangements within traditional forms of employment. In many cases, he says that self-employment or starting a business will often be a viable alternative, as was the idea adjusting the target number of working hours to match a person’s capacity and work ambitions. In some cases, he said, a successful outcome may be eight or fifteen hours per week under an arrangement which at least gives that person a little more independence compared with what they may have had previously.

In a free enterprise economy, employers are the ones who make final hiring decisions.

In order to maximise employment-related outcomes for people with disabilities, effective engagement with employers is needed.

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