The Sorry State of Disability Employment in Australia

The Australian job market is not a friendly place for those with disabilities. Despite organisations having diversity policies in place, many do not incorporate disability employment into their actual recruitment processes. Whilst being a first world nation, Australia has had little improvement in disability employment since 1993. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked Australia 21 out of 29 countries in the employment participation of people with disability. Furthermore, Australia was ranked 26 out of 27 OECD countries in the percentage of people with disability living in poverty. This is simply unacceptable for a country that has a high standard of living, bountiful resources and stable economy. This article will explore some of the reasons behind the high unemployment rates amongst disabled workers, and outline some potential solutions to improve the engagement of people with disabilities into the workforce.

The current challenges in Australia pertaining to the state of disability employment include; a lack of understanding of challenges faced by people with disabilities, minimal engagement of corporations & Government Departments, and the lack of formalised process for disability recruitment.

Challenges Faced by Disabled Candidates

The low employment figures of those with disabilities stem from a lack of recent experience, out of date references and the inability to perform all aspects of a job. People with disabilities tend to have employment gaps stemming from the onset of a physical or mental disability. Most disabled job seekers have gaps ranging from 2 to 10 years of unemployment, and their disabilities can range from health related (mental illness or physical injury), to psychological (anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar etc) or circumstantial (depression caused by family breakdown or trauma). Any reasonable person that experiences any of the above conditions would need time off to cope with the symptoms. This typically requires months of therapy, medical treatment or ongoing medications. In the best-case scenario, a person who is undergoing the onset of a disability may reduce their working hours instead of completely remove themselves from the work force, but this rare. Once a condition has stabilised and the desire to work returns, the job market becomes a very unfriendly place. Advertised positions typically require 1 to 2 years of recent experience within a particular field. Employment gaps will be questioned by employers, and the stigma attached to supporting someone with a disability eventuates with the disabled person being ruled out in the first phase of a recruitment cycle. Therefore the employment gap becomes the first hurdle that a person with a disability needs to overcome. Often the best way to return to work is to go back to something you have done in the past. However most people with disabilities find that they are unable to return to the type of occupation they are most familiar with, least not in a full capacity. At times the disability may have been caused by the previous line of work, and they need to look towards alternate career paths. As most positions require previous experience, the range of roles available to a disabled person is now extremely limited. For example, an ex-accountant who can now only work part time, will no longer be able to pursue a role that requires full time hours, and they will need to settle for a position as an accounts clerk or book keeper on a part time basis. However these roles are few and far between, and the level of competition is high for any accounts related roles in metropolitan areas.

The lack of recent experience also means a person with a disability may not have valid references, as managers move and contacts are lost. This creates an additional barrier, as most hiring processes require references from past employment. At times organisations are willing to accept a personal, or character reference from a colleague or friend, however such indiscretions are rare. This makes it extremely difficult for any person with a disability to secure a legitimate position within a reputable organisation. People with disabilities have the option to apply for roles that do not require references, such as entry level telemarketing, face to face fund raising or leaflet distribution. However these positions can be quite strenuous and require a high degree of stress or physical movement. None of which are favourable conditions for a person with a disability, and may at times exasperate existing medical conditions. The aim of the Government Disability Service contract is to source suitable and sustainable job opportunities, yet with such a narrow window of opportunity in the job market, it is not surprising that people with disabilities remain stagnant on the welfare system for many years.

Society fails to truly realise the impact unemployment has on an individual, and our current hiring practices lack the understanding on how to re-integrate a disabled candidate into the workforce. A person with a disability typically cannot perform all aspects of a job and can only work 8 to 15 hours a week (most cases). A person with a disability will have the capability to perform some aspects of the role but not all, therefore part time roles with limited duties are the best option. For example, a disabled job seeker with an anxiety disorder, or mild schizophrenia may seek a role in back office administration. The job may require data entry, office support, filing office maintenance, receptionist duties and commitment to full time. In this scenario the candidate may be able to perform data entry, filing and provide office support, but will struggle with receptionist duties and working full time. The candidates disability renders them unable to cope with customers, conflict or high levels of stress, thus they are limited to seeking only this type of work. Organisations are rarely willing to modify their job descriptions to accommodate people with disabilities, and they are unware of the support mechanisms available to them. Disability Service Providers will try to “create tailored positions” within organisations who are willing to engage and change some aspects of their role to match the candidate. However, this is rare and is a highly time consuming process. Job creation is vastly different to regular recruitment, as the organisation is essentially supporting a candidate in the work place as opposed to hiring a candidate to fulfill a specific job specification. This means the organisation needs to be in a stable position, with capable staff and adequate allowances to support a person with a disability, and most organisations do not have the time or resources to do so.

With over 500,000 people registered with a disability in Australia, this issue deserves a some consideration, and the challenges faced by people with disabilities may be overcome through greater awareness.

Minimal Engagement of Corporations & Government Departments

Most organisations in Australia are currently not in a position to take on a person with a disability due to the level of commitment, support and flexibility required to incorporate them into their staffing structure.

Simply put, margins are low, we operate in a highly competitive economy where most small to medium enterprises (SME’s), corporations and Government Departments operate on extremely tight budgets. They need their staff to be performing and hitting targets in order to retain business. Organisations which are just starting out, experiencing growth, instability, or extensive change are not suitable for those with disabilities either. This does not create a highly inclusive environment for engagement of disabled workers. For people with moderate to severe mental illness (depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, psychosis etc), a highly stressful work environment without support mechanisms will definitively worsen their existing conditions.

However SME’s, corporations or Government Departments that have reached a certain point of maturity in their life cycle, have the capability to take on a person with a disability. Stability within the organisation is critical to provide adequate support and guidance once a disabled candidate commences employment. The company must be in a state where they have steady or sustainable growth, adequate staffing numbers, training and induction processes and a desire to support a disabled worker. Potentially a disabled candidate hired on a part time or casual basis can minimise the workload on existing staff, and actually add value to the organisation by removing medial tasks. People with disabilities employed in these types of roles have higher rates of retention, job satisfaction and minimal absenteeism. Yet those organisations who have the capacity to take on a person with a disability rarely do so due to the lack of engagement or awareness the benefits.

Most recruitment processes of corporations or Government Departments have high barriers to entry, which inhibit people with disabilities from entering their work force. Lengthy applications, excessive selection criteria and surface level judgements during the recruitment process plague our job market, and create levels of bureaucracy that deter most people with disabilities. Anyone who has worked as an Employment Consultant, or Case Manager within Disability Services Australia can relate to the frustration of assisting a client with a job application, only to have them rejected in the first instance. Small to medium size organisations (SME’s) however offer flexibility, greater levels of engagement and willingness to change their recruitment processes to accommodate people with disabilities. Statistically SME’s employ more people with disabilities than corporations or Government Departments. Since 2003, there has been a decline of people with disabilities being hired into Government roles. Rather than having to jump through lengthy applications, complete irrelevant selection criteria’s and deal with a multitude of hiring managers, SME’s allow direct interaction with decision makers who can sign off on necessary changes, develop support mechanisms and modify job specifications. Direct interaction is the key to the success, as most corporations and Government Departments prefer to rely online applications. This makes it very difficult for a candidate with a disability to distinguish themselves from other candidates and does not allow them an opportunity to discuss their employment gaps. Understandably hiring managers, recruiters and human resources teams often lack the authority to deviate from regular recruitment processes. Therefore SME’s who have reached a level of maturity are the best possible option for placing a candidate with a disability into suitable and sustainable employment. Yet the time and effort taken to; establish a relationship, educate the decision makers, source a suitable candidate and create support structures, means that we are unlikely to make a dent in the unemployment rate of disabled workers through SME engagement alone.

Lack of Formalised Process for Disability Recruitment

Disability affects at least one person in your immediate circle, and may also affect you at some point in your life. For this reason, it is important that to have a robust model to continue the working lives of people after the onset of a disability. Too often this experience leads to long term unemployment, a decline in mental health and social isolation, and ultimately stagnation on the welfare system.

There is a need for an education process to convey relevant information to organisations about the steps involved in tapping into the disabled work force. Levels of stigmatisation will fade through education, and the challenges felt by disabled workers will eventually be overcome. A new disability employment model needs a method to engage corporate decision makers, recruitment, human resource and procurement managers. These high-level managers have the power to create effective change across corporations and Government Departments, and open up their recruitment processes to the disability sector. As decision makers are time poor, an effective education model will convey only the critical overarching concepts, and generate motivation to incorporate a better disability employment practice. From there individual cases can be discussed in greater detail with team leaders or managers who will guide a disabled candidate within the workplace. The Government’s Disability Service Contract provides extensive support to organisations (Employment Assistance Fund for Workplace Modifications), for any monetary risk or financial burden that a company will incur when hiring a disable candidate. As disability is a broad spectrum, with high levels of complexity, only a concentrated effort to educate and create awareness amongst high-level decision makers will make an impact on the unemployment rate. Those with the greatest power to make change in this space, are rarely approached in a practical manner that accommodates them.

Our job market has been changing over the past 20 years, positions are becoming increasingly casualised, thus creating more suitable opportunities for people with disabilities to re-enter the workforce. However these positions are typically offered by large corporations or Government Departments. If current trends continue we may reach a point where the majority of vacancies in the job market, that are suitable for people with disabilities, are actually not available to them. Perpetuating greater levels of unemployment and discrimination. Despite statistics showing that people with disabilities, have a higher retention rates, greater commitment to work and less absenteeism, we are yet to fully utilise the potential of the disabled work force. Companies need to look towards people who are actually seeking casual or part time hours to fill their entry positions, and allow them to apply through a more direct means. Corporations and Government Departments will have higher rates of success in their recruitment and retention of staff by targeting this under utilised work force. There is of course hesitation amongst human resource teams and recruiters in opening their doors to a flood of unscreened candidates with disabilities, and this has worked out poorly in the past where structures have not been put in place. A formalised Disability Employment Process that addresses the concerns, delivers a select group of pre-matched candidates and provides additional support post placement will alleviate some risk factors and improve successful hires.

A formal Disability Employment Process would include:

· An avenue for SME’s, Corporations and Government Departments to express interest in hiring a candidate with a disability.

· A vetting and education to ensure they have the level of flexibility and support required to hire a person with a disability.

· Candidates are supplied by Disability Service Providers via an alternative recruitment pathway which removes the need for recent experience, references and allowances are made to tailor job specifications to a candidate.

· An onboarding process which includes support, training and management plan to ensures a smooth transition to employment and long term retention.

Engaging corporations and Government Departments is critical in making a significant improvement to the disability sector in Australia. Our current level of technology, and recent trends in industry disruption, create a highly inducive environment for change. With training, adequate advertising, a robust online portal and collaboration between Disability Service Providers, there is no reason why a new model could not be developed and trailed in the near future. Through such a model we would see an opening of job opportunities to people with disabilities, greater levels of retention in entry level positions and organisations truly engaging Equal Employment Opportunity practices.