Australia

Grace wants to work, but says employers can’t look past her physical disability

Grace Poland has been searching for a job for more than 10 years but says she’s had no success.
It’s not that she’s not qualified – she has a double degree in law and arts.
She believes it’s because of her disability.
“I’ve sent my resume out 200 times and I’ve had no success,” she said.
“I feel undervalued, and no one values whatever contribution I might be able to make to society.”

Ms Poland has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair, but she knows that wouldn’t stop her thriving in an accommodating workplace.

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“We actually want to stay once we’re employed – we don’t want to leave,” she said.
“I can use a screen reader, I use voice recognition technology, but people have negative attitudes towards people with disabilities.”
Grace is one of the more than four million Australians with a disability.
But those aged between 15 and 64 are nearly twice as more likely to be compared to a person without a disability.

Small changes can go a long way

Karen Lebsanft founded Kurrajong Kitchen in Hawkesbury in New South Wales 30 years ago.

She has 35 employees, about six of which have a disability.

A woman standing in a doorway

Karen Lebsanft says employing people with a disability has created an inclusive working environment that means people want to stay longer. Source: SBS

“We have an inclusive policy and that means making sure we can accommodate people with disabilities,” she said.

The business has invested tens of thousands of dollars in upgrading alarm systems, hiring Auslan interpreters for meetings, and using machinery which can be adapted to someone’s certain physical requirements.
Ms Lebsanft said the economics stacks up.
“The return on this is about having loyal long-term employees,” she said.
“[During the uncertainty of COVID-19] it’s certainly been able to hold a stability line in our business.”

Australia’s workplace employment rate for people with a disability is 53 per cent, well below the national rate.

A man sitting in a room

Professor Simon Darcy says workplace changes during the pandemic has provided an opportunity to include more people with a disability in the workplace. Source: SBS

It’s a figure that hasn’t changed in more than two decades, despite widespread technological advancements.

“It’s pretty extraordinary that rate hasn’t changed given the amount of money put into disability employment services,” says Simon Darcy, a professor of management at University of Technology Sydney Business School.
“The vast majority of people with disability don’t require workplace adjustments and if they do most of those are under $1,000 and there are various schemes set up by governments to offset that.”
Australia has one of the of employment for people with a disability in the OECD.
Last year, the Disability Royal Commission called on ambitious change to increase the number of Australians with a disability in employment.
It would also greatly benefit the economy.
shows that if Australia improves in that space, it could add $50 billion to Australia’s economy by 2050.
A man and a woman sitting next to each other.

Brandon Tomlin and Georgia Burn are researching what workplaces can do to make environments accessible for people with a communication disability. Source: Supplied

Professor Darcy says workplace flexibility introduced over the past two years is something that could benefit people with a disability.

“People with a disability have been calling for this flexibility for the past 30 years,” he said.

‘There’s an under-supply of workers and there are a lot of companies reconsidering their employment strategy and considering people with a disability as a human resource.”

Attitudes the hardest to shift

Workplace accessibility incorporates more than just adjusting physical surrounds, such as building a ramp.
It can also include digital accessibility, ensuring websites are user friendly, and introducing accessible communication tools.
Brandon Tomlin is a research assistant for the University of Melbourne, and is looking at what businesses and services can do to ensure an environment is accessible for people with a communication disability.

He has cerebral palsy and is non-verbal and uses technology to communicate.

The best thing a workplace can do in order to make a workplace accessible is simply to ask the person.

Brandon Tomlin

“Each employee is different and will have different needs,” he says, adding that a communication accessible environment can benefit everybody, not just people with a disability.
“Physically accessible environments are designed primarily to benefit people who use mobility equipment such as wheelchairs … but they benefit a much broader percentage of the community, like parents with prams, delivery people who use trolleys and the elderly.
“Our research is finding a similar effect occurs for communication accessible environments. It can actually benefit people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, the elderly and those with limited education.”
The hardest part, he says, is not introducing inclusive policies or taking steps to make a workplace accessible, but shifting attitudes.
“With the knowledge that there are over 245,000 people with a communication disability [in Australia], using ignorance to justify not talking to or including people with disability is no longer acceptable,” he says.
That’s something that Grace Poland can also relate to.
“I’ve been told I have to fit into a box or be normal but that’s not how it is,” she says.
“Workplaces need to listen to individuals about their needs and actually have a plan for how they’re going to integrate that person in the workplace ,and allow that person to use the technology that can help them.”

Thursday 19th May is Global Accessibility Awareness Day

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