The Australian Human Rights Commission is urging directors to lead the change on inclusion by boosting employment for people with disability — and there are substantial performance benefits.
Disability Discrimination Commissioner Dr Ben Gauntlett is asking directors to help turn around a trend in which people with disability are left behind in the labour market. “I hope people can learn that any disability is normal and as with any other aspect of diversity, by treating it normally, we can lead sustainable change,” he says.
Board leadership means taking these effects, recognising that “this issue matters”, measuring outcomes and continuously evaluating what’s working and what isn’t, “as with any other aspect of diversity” according to Gauntlett. “Boards also need to say they will listen and that the first person to ask how to do it, is [someone] with disability themselves.”
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) says four million Australians have a disability, yet the labour force participation rate for people with disability aged 15–64 years is 53.4 per cent, compared with 84.1 per cent of people the same age without disability, according to a 2020 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, People with Disability in Australia.
In 2011, Australia ranked 21st out of 29 countries in the OECD for the employment of people with disability, and little has improved. People with disability are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as people without disability, according to Disabled People’s Organisations Australia. There are no figures on the number of boards with directors with disability, but Dr Gauntlett expects the number is low.
Diversity and inclusion
Gauntlett started work on IncludeAbility in 2019, the year he was appointed AHRC Disability Discrimination Commissioner. COVID-19 caused some delays and the program will be launched this month with 15 organisations signed on as members of the IncludeAbility Employer Network (see breakout). “These organisations have made a commitment to IncludeAbility and what we’re trying to do is to work with them, to co-design what would be a reasonable outcome,” says Gauntlett. “You need to take a long-term approach and modify your thought processes in everything from recruitment to the design of the job, to performance management, communication within your teams and promotion and retention, which is a really important aspect of getting disability employment right. You have to be very careful to make sure you don’t just think a job is good enough. It should be a good job.”
One way for employers to improve their record on disability rights is to prepare a disability action plan created under the Disability Discrimination Act and registered with the AHRC. The plan should outline how they make their products and services accessible to people with disability, and their approach to diversity and inclusion. Gauntlett says just seven of Australia’s top 50 ASX-listed companies have registered action plans.
These organisations have made a commitment to IncludeAbility and we’re trying to work with them to co- design what would be a reasonable outcome.
A Systematic Review of the Benefits of Hiring People with Disabilities (2018) found benefits of hiring people with disabilities included improved profitability, turnover and retention, reliability and punctuality, employee loyalty and company image. It resulted in a competitive advantage through more diverse customers and customer loyalty, as well as increased innovation and productivity, plus an improved work ethic and safety awareness.
A 2020 international study, The Participation of People with Disabilities in the Workplace Across the Employment Cycle, covered 11 stages of the employment cycle, unpacking common misconceptions among employers like an underestimation of how many qualified people with disability were in any given application pool or that accommodating people with disabilities will be excessively costly. It found a primary reason for lower participation rates and underemployment of individuals with disability was that employers were often pessimistic about their work-related abilities.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the last major human rights international treaty, was signed and ratified in Australia in 2008.
oo often, disability issues seem to be filed away to be dealt with quietly at a later date, rather than incorporated into policymaking at all levels... ultimately we’re dealing with people.
Gauntlett notes about 80 per cent of disability is invisible and that directors and business leaders may not know that the person sitting next to you has a disability. “Understanding the needs of a significant part of the population... is incredibly important to business,” he says. “I’ve been pulled aside by relatively senior management in organisations [who] disclose to me they actually have a disability and [that] it was great to hear we wanted to normalise the conversation. The question I ask is: ‘Why haven’t you revealed it?’
“One of the critical concerns underlying this issue is the issue of stigma relating to disability. This means we need to work on having a pride movement in disability, where people with disability understand that their life backgrounds give them value for organisations.”
The AICD is working to elevate awareness on diversity issues for boards and directors and to make disability part of the conversation. “This is especially important when considering other diversity characteristics like gender,” he says. “Some of the most marginalised people in Australia [have] intersectional characteristics. Women with disability have an incredibly difficult time finding work and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability experience some of the most egregious poverty in the country. Too often, disability issues seem to be filed away to be dealt with quietly at a later date... It can be lost in this debate that, ultimately, we’re dealing with people.”
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