Big corporations like Westpac do a better job of employing and retaining people with disabilities than government does, say leading inclusive employment advocates.
As large profit-driven companies ramp up their commitment to workplace diversity and corporate social responsibility, government departments and agencies are falling behind as an employer of choice for people with disabilities.
The government is also finding it hard to retain them too, with public sector staff with disabilities reporting high levels of bullying and harassment and lower levels of job satisfaction.
The proportion of people with disabilities working in the Australian public sector (APS) has steadily declined from 4.8 per cent in 1999 to 3.1 per cent in 2014, according to the Australian Public Service Commission’s State of the Service Report 2013-2014.
The lowest levels of employment for people with disabilities are found in Foreign Affairs and Trade (1.2 per cent), Treasury (1.7 per cent) and Finance (2.1 per cent) with only a handful of departments and agencies in other areas offering a beacon of hope, notably the National Disability Insurance Agency (12.2 per cent), Social Services (6.1 per cent), Human Services (5.5 per cent) and Health (4.8 per cent).
However, these figures are likely to be inaccurate because there is no data on the disability status of around 28 per cent of APS staff. This could be down to staff fearing that disclosure could lead to discrimination or the lack of effective and accurate HR information systems.
The number of people with disabilities employed in the APS is likely to fall further because more people with disabilities are leaving the public sector than joining it and this situation hsa been aggravated by deep public sector job cuts and hiring freezes.
In 2013-14, employees with disability represented 2.5 per cent of engagements but they made up 4.8 per cent of people leaving the public service.
Advocacy for Inclusion’s General Manager Christina Ryan said the statistics were “dismal”, especially considering that 18.5 per cent of Australians reported having a disability in the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s 2009 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers.
A disability is defined as being: “any limitation, restriction or impairment which restricts everyday activities and has lasted, or is likely to last, at least six months.”
“It compares very badly to the private sector but this isn’t done well across Australia. Big corporates like Westpac really have done well. Their diversity has been quite outstanding. They have about 12 per cent [of their staff with disabilities],” she said.
“And when times get tough and things are tight, people with disabilities find it much harder to get a job.”
CEO of Disability Employment Service Rick Kane also feels that the people with disabilities are under represented in the ranks of public servants.
“I think we can all agree that the public service is not doing very well. There’s a long way to go to even get to a point where we’re doing reasonably well,” Mr Kane said.
“In the last five or ten years, larger employers [in the private sector] have become much more interested in becoming disability confident, setting targets and building within their organisations the ways a person with a disability already working there can feel more confident.”
It’s not just about encouraging people with disabilities to apply for a dwindling pool of externally advertised public sector vacancies, it’s also about how to retain staff with disabilities.
Ms Ryan said she had spoken to many people who left the public sector because they were bullied, looked down on or they felt the culture was hostile to them in some way.
“The attrition rate tells us something. I put it down to culture. A lot of people actually leave the public service position that they worked so hard to get because of bullying,” Ms Ryan said.
“I’ve heard horrible tales of how they have felt devalued, had a consistent level of undermining and people have been made to feel like they’re a freak on the block – the token retard.”
The Commission’s report found that 30 per cent of people with disabilities said they had been subject to bullying or harassment at work – that’s twice the rate of employees without a disability.
It also said that employees reporting disability had different employment experiences to the rest of the APS.
“Employees reporting disability consistently indicated lower satisfaction with the work they do, their immediate supervisor, remuneration, their work group, and the senior leadership in their agency,” the report said.
What can be done?
Ms Ryan said change need to be lead “right from the top” to underline that employing staff with disabilities was an organisational priority.
She said there should be more people with disabilities in leadership roles.
“They’re not seen as the decision makers, the serious ground breakers and role models. Until this changes in any real numbers people with disabilities are seen as not as good and those that get into leadership positions are undermined or they’re a threat.
“There’s still very big suspicions about people with disabilities in our community and this translates into the workplace.”
She said peer networks that met in work time helped people share their stories and build up support were invaluable, as was improving the culture of teams by having at least two people with a disability employed in them.
Although governments were generally quite good at providing the physical adaptations needed for people to do their jobs, e.g. through furniture or software, much more work needed to be done to make work more flexible for people with disabilities, for example through flexi-time or redesigning processes.
“Flexibility isn’t understood well for people with disabilities. A position may be described around specific tasks but the focus should be on outcomes, less on specific tasks. It’s about building the job around the individual and responding to them,” Ms Ryan said.
“One lady I spoke to was criticised for writing in a particular way. This generic response to people is a very big barrier.”
Ms Ryan said it wsa important to address bullying and harassment by giving employees a way to anonymously and swiftly raise their concerns at work when things went wrong and by improving disability awareness training. She added that this should preferably be delivered face-to-face (not online) by people with disabilities.
“There needs to be mandatory training, particularly for people in supervisory roles to be on top of this stuff and to understand some of the barriers. Culture is the key,” she said.
Mr Kane agrees that creating a good atmosphere for people with disabilities in the workplace is crucial in encouraging them to stay.
“If you are working somewhere and you feel that your employer is making an attempt to make your experience at work better they you will give them more of a go and stay on,” Mr Kane said.
He also said that employers should talk to other employers who currently had staff with disabilities working for them because they “were more likely to listen” and to take on somebody with disabilities. This was not about bleeding hearts but good economic sense.
Mr Kane said it would help to actively approach people with disabilities or advocacy organisations when advertising positions, like the NDIA did.
“Other government departments can learn from the NDIA. This needs promoting.”
Ms Ryan is in favour of having targets similar to those which Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion announced this week for indigenous employment, 3 per cent of federal government within five years.
“It’s exactly what we need to see in the disability space and have been asking for for some years. Levels of disability employment are woeful.”
However, Mr Kane said he was less convinced by quotas, saying: “I hesitate because I think it becomes an external pressure and I think that the pressure has to be internal”.
The government piloted the RecruitAbility scheme in June 2013, which aims to support people with disabilities when they apply for APS jobs, ensuring they make it to interview when they meet the position’s minimum requirements. The scheme was also applied in 11 graduate programmes.
But the APS itself admits the scheme has not been a runaway success. Former APS Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick said in his speech to a national disability conference in May 2012: “The pilot has been affected by the interim recruitment arrangements for the APS, as RecruitAbility relies on mainstream recruitment opportunities.”
When Government News checked the RecruitAbility box searching the APS jobs website none of the 286 jobs advertised came up.
You can read the APS’ Disability Employment Strategy, As One, here.