Mark Bagshaw: Ignoring Disability a Wasted Opportunity
Talented, motivated workers are going to waste in the disabled community, says IBM accessible technologies guru Mark Bagshaw. The better news is that the Australian government is paying attention to the negative economic costs of such waste, he says.
In New Zealand for the Accessible Wellington Forum, Bagshaw said the number of Australians with disabilities who didn’t have work represented a wasted opportunity in an economy that faced skills shortages while spending $12.5 billion a year on welfare.
Bagshaw said he felt encouraged by the fact that one of the “big ticket” items in Australia’s last Budget was welfare reform, driven by hard-nosed economic imperatives.
“The economic cost of these 3.6 million people with disabilities is a 30 percent difference in workforce participation. That is, if 76 percent of the general population is working, only 46 percent of people with disabilities are working. In Australia, that’s 1.2 million Australians who are sitting around at home doing nothing,” he said.
“What if these people could work and did work, and paid taxes and bought cars? Let’s get out of thinking about sheltered workshops! They’re not just employable, but employable in productive, well-paid jobs,” Bagshaw said.
“A person with a disability brings with them something that a lot of other people don’t have – they’re able to manage a very difficult life.” They couldn’t manage ordinary life without developing excellent problem solving skills, which made them an asset, he said. “Businesses are realising that it’s reality, not a theory.”
Bagshaw gave the example of McDonalds, which experimented with employing people with intellectual disabilities. “They started out thinking ‘let’s just create a few jobs’ and within six months they’d completely changed their thinking.” People enjoyed working with them, people enjoyed having them serve on the counter, and they turned out to be capable of far more than McDonalds had predicted, he said. “Now they do every role in the shop other than managing.”
More Stories on Disability: The International Perspective
The appalling incidence of poverty among disabled people is intimately tied to lack of work opportunities, a British Trades Union Congress report says.
Three out of every ten disabled adults of working age in Britain live in poverty, and the number has grown in the last ten years, the report says. People with disabilities are twice as likely as others to live below the breadline.
While 200,000 people with disabilities make the lists as officially unemployed, another 800,000 are classed as "economically inactive but seeking work" because they either have not sought work in the past four weeks or are not available to start work within two weeks. So although the unemployment figure for disabled people looks relatively low, the number who lack work but want it is much higher.
But work is hard to get. Educational achievement at all levels still leaves disabled people with three times the rate of unemployment compared to non-disabled people with the same qualifications. In fact, a disabled person with a degree who wanted work was more likely to be unemployed than a non-disabled person with no qualifications.
Those who find work are more likely to be in low-paying jobs.
The study defines "income poverty" as a household income 60 per cent or less of the average (median) household income. One in five Britons lives in income poverty by this measure.
In New Zealand people with disabilities also have trouble finding well-paid work, and over half of them have an annual income below $15 000, according to 2001 figures. According to Statistics New Zealand's 2001 survey, 29 percent of working age people with disabilities work in full-time paid employment. In the working age population that is not disabled, 65 percent work in full-time paid employment.
This is despite the fact that the difference in educational achievement is not extreme: 61 percent of the disabled population have some formal educational qualification, compared to 76 percent of the general population. At higher levels of education the comparison is closer still: 27 percent of people with disabilities have a post-school qualification, compared to 34 percent of the general population.
Employers have a perception that disabled people are an OSH risk, Human Rights Commissioner Robyn Hunt says.
"Employers tend to see disability as a risk, and are generally very risk averse."
"But there is NZ and international evidence that disabled people are no more an accident or injury risk than other people. A healthy and safe workplace benefits everyone."
How to Develop "Disability Confidence" in the Workplace
The pathway to developing a "disability confident" culture and behaviour in the workplace has been identified by a British survey.
The Employers Forum on Disability survey was part of a drive to develop a Disability Standard which would help British employers recognise and embrace best practice for supporting disabled people as workers and customers.
Businesses that scored above average on the Disability Standard took the following actions:
- consulted with their disabled employees
- established policies to support disability in employment and product/service delivery
- put a team or individual in place to develop disability equality
- ensured adjustments were offered to every job applicant throughout recruitment and selection
- provided accessible training and development
- ensured non-discriminatory appraisal and promotion criteria
- provided accessible built environments to employees and customers
- retained employees who become disabled
- developed best practice absence and long-term sickness policies
- provided accessible information to every employee and customer
- included disability in their social responsibility agenda.
Eighty businesses responded to the survey, representing nearly 2 million employees.
Among the organisations making an effort towards supporting disability, the public sector seemed particularly aware of a need to consult with disabled people to develop a "disability confident" culture. However the private sector was showing more initiative in developing standards and policies that would support disability in employment and customer service, the report said.
Ready, Willing - and Overlooked
The vast majority of employers in Britain either do not employ any disabled people, or don’t know whether they do.
A survey carried out by British disability employment website Ready, Willing and Able (RWA) showed that ten years after anti-discrimination laws were passed to protect disabled people, most employers have no disabled staff.
The survey asked 800 private sector firms, of whom 86 percent responded. Results showed that even where disabled people were employed, they tended to be in lower-paid jobs.
"The government says a lot about getting people off disability benefits and into work. But it is clear that the move by employers to employ the vast reservoir of skills and energy on offer from disabled people is not yet underway," said RWA co-director Nick Lewis.
From December 2006, a new Disability Equality Duty will come into effect requiring public sector bodies to "pay due regard to promoting equality for disabled people in every area of work," according to Britain’s Disability Rights Commission.
In New Zealand, there is no requirement to assess workplaces for disability equality, Office for Disability spokesman Owen Hughes said.
"People can complain to the Human Rights Commission," Mr Hughes said.
Assessing the needs of disabled people was complicated by the fact that there was no standard definition of disability, and many people preferred not to declare themselves disabled, he said.
It was also difficult to get figures on how well people with disabilities were accessing employment, as there was no central organisation, he said.
"Different agencies are doing it. It just means sometimes it’s hard to work out what’s going on."
Workbridge chief executive Ruth Teasdale said there were low levels of disability awareness among New Zealand employers.
"Often they won’t know they’re employing somebody with a disability," she said.
When asked what they thought of as a disability, they usually mentioned people in wheelchairs or people with an intellectual disability, she said.
Disability in the Workplace - The Good News and the Bad News