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YouTube Channel: HR Think Tank
Employment is an essential part of modern life, and for many, it’s a big part of their identity. Employment provides you with the opportunity to form social networks that give you diverse and enriching experiences. And, it provides you with the financial means to choose how you live your life.
According to the ABS, over 4.4 million people in Australia have some form of disability. From this group, 2.1 million Australians are of working age. Yet only 47.8% were employed, compared with 80.3% of people without a disability.
There are significant barriers for people with disabilities to obtain employment. So, what can employees do to help bridge this gap?
On the latest episode of the HR Think Tank, we discuss this topic with Simon Darcy who is the Professor of Social Inclusion at the University of Technology Sydney Business School. He believes passionately in the rights of all people to fully participate in community life.
As a person with a high-level spinal cord injury and a power wheelchair -user, he has an insider’s perspective on empowering people with disabilities to forge their own destiny. Professor Simon Darcy is also co-lead of the UTS Disability Network, and he specialises in developing inclusive organisational approaches for diverse groups, including people with disabilities.
00:00:00 – Intro
00:01:40 – Simon’s Employment Journey
00:03:38 – Simon’s Employment Prospects with His Disability
00:07:21 – Access to Employment Pre-injury & Post-injury
00:11:08 – Common Employment Barriers for People with Disabilities
00:13:44 – What Employers Can do to Make Their Company More Inclusive
00:17:01 – Advertising Disability-Friendly Job Positions
00:17:44 – Recruitment, Onboarding and Management of Employees with a Disability
00:19:57 – Employment Screening Tips for Candidates with a Disability
00:22:05 – Disability Disclosure
00:24:57 – Leadership Development Opportunities for Employees with a Disability
00:28:42 – UTS Disability Scholarship
00:32:40 – Fast Five Questions
00:35:22 – Outro
Since incurring your spinal injury in 1983, you've been an active member in advocating and researching issues that people with disabilities face. You've held and currently hold a variety of board positions with sport and disability organisations to represent the views of people with disabilities on a range of government committees. You've had an exciting career, you've done loads of different things, you've met lots of different people, and you have access to a massive network -------- Q: Can you outline your employment journey?
Let me start by saying that I think my employment journey is one that many people who have experienced a traumatic disability encounter.
So before my surfing injury, I was pretty much the average 19-year old that went through high school with minimal effort – I did just enough to get 51. And I thought I had a chance of having an elite sporting pathway with rugby union and enjoyed some junior representative honours.
However, with the onset of my injury, I was thrust into a very different world. So literally, within a split second, I knew that I’d done something reasonably serious – I was in the hospital for six months and then moved to a Commonwealth rehabilitation centre. I experienced shock for all sorts of reasons, but most obviously, the shock of losing my physicality and now living with a high-level spinal cord injury. While I can move my arms and have some hand control, it was honestly just a major lifestyle change.
Q: Yeah, it's fascinating to see the number of different experiences you had before your injury. Where have you gone since? And how did your injury and disability affect your employment prospects moving forward?
So, I had to learn to do things again over quite a short period of time. I wasn’t writing at that stage, but I picked that up a little bit later on. Look, I was as fit as I could be for my type of injury. But I also knew I wouldn’t be a Paralympian with the sort of complete injury I had and the other complications that occurred down the line.
So I knew I had to reinvent my mind.
I ended up at Kuring-Gai College of Advanced Education, and I was doing an associated Bachelor of Arts program that looked at leisure, sport, tourism and other things – which gave me time to figure things out. I started off part-time, and then once I got the hang of things and accelerated, I joined an internship program.
I did the internship with what’s now known as Destination New South Wales, and it developed a different set of skills that I was interested in – all centred around research. So, I ended up doing a Master’s in Environmental Planning.
While I was doing the Masters, I was self-employed, doing some workshops for different non-for-profits on using Microsoft Office, Excel, Word and databases. I then picked up some work as a research assistant and worked on projects at Macquarie University with CSIRO and for the Anglican churches.
The research was completely varied and diverse, so it was exciting. Eventually, I started to work as a consultant, and an opportunity arose to become a tutor at what was then UTS North Shore Campus.
And really, my career went from there.
But the really important thing Khai was gaining experience in skills. Having volunteered with disability organisations and sitting on their boards, I learnt the way things moved within government and how to affect policy change. And also the importance of the collective as opposed to the individual. But the more I became aware of how badly disability work in policy was, I slowly got drawn into it. And it became a significant part of what I did and what I did my PhD on eventually.
Q: So, looking back between the two big periods of your life, what comments can you give around access to employment, pre-injury, and what it's been like post-injury? Just in a nutshell.
In a nutshell, at that time, when I was 19, I ended up doing all sorts of jobs that weren’t career orientated jobs. But they gave me a feel for what I liked and what I didn’t like. And I had this wonderful richness of trying all sorts of different things.
Now, post-disability, I was so lucky, I went to a university that offered an internship programme – which was a sliding door that led me into the disability advocacy space. And I wasn’t even aware in the volunteer area that I was acquiring skills all the time.
But, what I noticed after disability was, for whatever reason, the same coaching offers I got before didn’t come anymore. And it wasn’t long before I realised people had no expectations for me. It was like, everybody with disabilities on a pension. We are a burden; we’re always spoken about as victims.
This whole discourse around disability was largely negative, except every now and then, where disability would be used in an inspirational sense. But even then, a disabled person doing something that was put up as ‘extraordinary’, no matter how ordinary it was.
And so, this very poor way that society viewed disability wasn’t conducive to providing opportunities to people with disabilities. Everybody wants to have a good social circle; everybody wants to be able to earn a buck. Nobody wants to be on a pension, or a very small number of people want to be on a pension or on welfare support.
I put in 50 or 60 applications around my qualifications and other things, and I managed to get two really good interviews – one, I had no experience for that role, and then I was offered a job at the second one. But, unfortunately, the workplace premises weren’t accessible. And back in those days, the building standards weren’t the way they are now, and the Disability Discrimination Act hadn’t come in at that point in time.
Q: Well, this leads us to our next topic, which is, what are the common barriers to employment for people with disabilities?
I would put just a caveat with regards to lessons to be learned around employment and disability. And there are a few caveats. But the first big one is centred on whether a person was born with a disability or not.
Someone who was born with a disability doesn’t know anything different – they grow with their disability. And the experiences of that group of people are different to somebody that has a disability because of a traumatic injury. It happens in a split second, and there is no time to understand what’s going on; you’re just thrust into a different world – so it takes a long time to acclimatise.
Your whole life may have been built around physicality, or you might have been a tradesperson or even one of the guys whose whole life is abseiling and cleaning windows. But, unfortunately, these aren’t the sort of jobs you can go back to. And the older you are, the greater the impact is on the life you’ve already built.
For me, I was lucky because I was able to at least go back to university and try and find myself, whatever that meant. You also get people who develop a medical condition in conjunction with the traumatic injury, which also becomes disabling. It’s usually a slow onset or a form of dystrophy.
So, there are different lessons to be learned by the individuals involved in each of these three circumstances.
But I would have to say the biggest barrier is opportunity. So many people with disabilities end up settling in the first job they get and only end up experiencing one kind of thing. What everybody needs is a series of experiences – because who knows what you’re going to like or not like in a work sense.
Q: Can you give us some practical insights into what people can do to make workplaces more inclusive? I think, in general, accessible building codes have been mandated now, so any new buildings that are being built now should adhere to those, right? But in terms of the work setting itself, what adjustments can employers make to make it more inclusive?
Look, there isn’t necessarily a simple list for employers. It’s dynamic, and it’s ongoing, and you’re quite right, Khai – most of the new buildings do a pretty good job on mobility, vision, hearing, deaf and the big areas for dynamic improvement. And universities are far more accommodating of people with learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities and mental health challenges.
So companies and other entities are far more understanding if you’re a wheelie or using some other form of mobility device, or if you’re somebody with a vision impairment or a blind, and you might have a stick or a guide dog. Even if you’ve got a hearing impairment where you need a hearing aid or a cochlear implant, or you use sign language – a lot of that’s understood.
And good employers do really straightforward things.
Some of the really little things are desk heights, for example. Can a person with a mobility disability get under a desk or other areas of the business? Can they be adjusted height-wise? So that’s really something simple.
The other thing that I use that is assistive tech-wise is speech recognition computing – where my spoken word is converted text for people with hearing disabilities. And if you’re working with someone who has a visual impairment, you can implement a series of things. So, for example, you could use Braille or utilise screen reading technology that takes anything on the internet, and it reads it out to the person with a disability.
We also want employers to think about people with disabilities as a resource. And a resource based on skills you’re looking for—so high levels of education. So if you’re truly an inclusive employer, then signal it on your advertisements – “We strongly support people with disabilities to apply for these jobs. Because we believe a diverse workforce is a better workforce.”
Thanks Simon, you provided some great examples in terms of workplace adjustments. For anyone interested, you can access the Australian Network on Disability’s Access and Inclusion Index. It provides a whole range of other adjustments that businesses can make, so it's easier for employees with disabilities. It suggests things like adding additional flexibility in the roster, purchasing additional equipment, additional training, agendas, and something Simon's already said is height-adjustable workstations. Q: Could you share some practical tips around the recruitment, onboarding, and ongoing management of a candidate or an employee with a disability?
So, the research is quite emphatic that any psychometric testing process disadvantages people from marginalised groups.
A few years ago, when I was on the Disability Council of New South Wales, another person from the council, Yael Frisch, and I attended a very fruitful meeting with the Deputy Director General at that stage. We had a real win with the New South Wales Public Service – if there was a person from a marginalised group in the group of candidates, psychometric testing would not be used on the whole panel.
So it was giving those people with marginalised identities and everybody else on the panel a level playing field when it came to psychometric testing.
For example, I have a standard mouse that I use. If for whatever reason, I am feeling a little tired or whatever, the speed of my response using the mouse suffers dramatically. So getting the psychometric test completed could be a problem for me – especially if they’re timed.
Look, I think you gave a really good tip there, because we offer psychometric assessments and advice to clients, particularly when we're doing recruitment for them. So I think these tips are good to take on not only for our team but also for our clients. Q: Let me ask you a few other tips. Here, at VerifyNow, we provide employment screening services. Can you give us some tips around this part, particularly with candidates who have a disability? And we talked about the lack of employment opportunities. We talked about the network impact; sometimes, there are fewer opportunities for that. So you've got a smaller network. What tips can you give to employment screening companies? And this is specifically around when companies are doing employment history checks, and there's not the same degree of depth or lack of employment history.
So, you have already picked up on blocked mobility as a significant issue for some people with disabilities. But, when it comes to other barriers, we’ve found with people’s work histories, and actually why some people went into the self-employment entrepreneurship space, is because they might have got their job – but they certainly didn’t get an equal career development opportunity.
So people might get the job, but more often than not, they end up left in that position because their direct manager doesn’t see them in the same way that it sees other junior candidates to provide career development. So if you don’t know what opportunities are available because they’re not offered to you, how are you meant to develop?
The other consideration is the inherent requirements of the job. We find that there may be things in the job description that aren’t necessarily tied to the job itself a lot of the time. For example, a driver’s license – but it’s not actually an inherent requirement of the job because they’re not driving every day.
So an inherent requirement should be tied very closely to the job itself.
Q: So I've got to ask this one about onboarding. So you've gone through the recruitment process, you've selected who you think is the best candidate, and it turns out that this candidate or new employee has a disability. Who and when should disclose the new employee's disability? Is the hiring manager at the very start when you're introducing the new employee? Is it the new employee? What's your advice on this?
Well, I think there are two considerations: visible and invisible disability.
So by this stage, somebody with a visible disability would be talking about it, and the hiring manager should have also made it aware to everybody up the chain of command. And if an organisation has a disability action and inclusion plan or something similar, then that would just kick in during the process. It’s also important to be aware that even if the organisation is culturally inclusive, it may require improvement for this particular candidate.
And the whole point of having an action and inclusion plan is to also say, “We are not perfect, but we have a strategic approach to improving.”
The other thing is that organisations don’t want to make mistakes, so they’ve become quite fearful. And, when they’re not sure, they will avoid the situation. But that avoidance can look like they don’t want to have anything to do with you. If the employee broaches the subject, then they can say well, “Hey, I’m not expecting everything to be perfect.” And eventually, things will work out and fall into place.
It’s a collaborative effort, and in all disability spaces, access and inclusion evolve. So, what was best practice 20 years ago, may not be best practice today. And that’s certainly more in the space of sensory learning, cognitive, and definitely mental health. There are many people, for example, in the medical industries that would never disclose their mental health because of the very poor, stigmatised environments that they work in.
Q: You mentioned earlier the importance of the social aspects of employment to building trust to being visible to managers and supervisors for leadership or just new development opportunities. So, I want to turn your attention to leadership. How common are leadership opportunities and leadership development opportunities for employees with disabilities?
If we take the upper echelon of leadership, to be senior management, CEO, and sitting board – it’s almost nonexistent. I would preface that by saying, organisations that regard themselves as disability advocacy organisations tend to have over 50% of the board being disability based. But many disability service organisations are absolutely underperforming. And I would also put in that the Commonwealth Government has reduced employment by as much as 50% of people with disabilities, compared to a decade and a half ago. But we’ve seen, for the first time, that the New South Wales government has put targets on disability employment, which I think is long overdue. The same with First Nations people – they’re doing some really productive things within procurement as well.
So coming back to actual leadership, I think, yes, you can have a top-down style. But I think leadership is much better where there are strategies at every management level – right down to the lowest.
What I’ve seen with organisations that use disability action and inclusion plans is a top-down, bottom-up sideways in. You need to have inspirational leadership that leads by example. And you need that leader to make sure that all areas of the organisation have buy-in and responsibility. So if an organisation provides training, that’s fantastic, but you must stay consistent.
For example, in the hotel industry, there is a very high casual turnover. So, you need to keep training those people coming into the organisation so that the messaging is the same no matter what business unit they’re from.
Q: Simon, talking about education, we met because you were my lecturer when I studied at UTS. It's been a little while now, but we've obviously stayed in touch. Something I want to raise here because I think there will be others who can help us; VerifyNow is actually in the process of setting up a scholarship for students with disabilities for the UTS Business School. Why is a scholarship important for this group of students?
When I had a look through our portfolio of scholarships, people from migrant backgrounds and people with disabilities were missing. So I immediately see that as a gap that needs immediate filling for two reasons.
One, it recognises inequalities that occur, and it also offers material support. If you look at the statistics, migrants and people with disabilities generally have a lower socioeconomic status. Attending university is expensive because you need technology, and even more so now because of the pandemic. But, there’s a terrible digital divide.
Essentially, a scholarship says, “We want to be part of the solution.” So, I can only congratulate you.
You told me some really interesting stories from your student days that you hadn’t experienced before. That shouldn’t be the case. And all people need is a little bit in your wallet, for books and computers and all that sort of thing. Sometimes it’s just to have lunch with the rest of the groups.
K: Simon, I'm just going to put a shout out and a call out for anyone that wants to help support us and establish this first UTS Business School scholarship for students with disabilities. I'm very confident that we'll be able to get this up.
What a great way to finish the interview. And my final plug is that we’d love to see a migrant with a disability get those scholarships, we’d like to see an Aboriginal with a disability get those scholarships, we’d like to see women with disability get those scholarships.
I used to call these areas of intersectionality double whammies and triple whammies. They are significantly more disadvantaged compared to others. So, from an educational perspective, we want to do whatever we can to make sure that the door is open and there is economic support.
- What was your first job? My first job was working at a fruit and flower market not far from where I grew up.
- What’s something interesting that is not on your CV? I was an extra on Nicole Kidman’s first film, BMX Bandits. And if you watch the film, I’m number 10 on the football field.
- What advice would you give your eighteen-year-old self? First, enjoy every opportunity that comes your way and go at it full tilt. You only regret those things you don’t do. And if you fail, failure’s okay too.
- What book is a must-read, or what movie is a must-watch? Papillon – but the Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman version of the movie or the book. I read the book when I was about 13 or 14 years old. And I think the thing that really came out of it was resilience. Even though the key character was a criminal, they were framed and spent time in this hideous South American penal colony in all sorts of terrible experiences. But they got through, and at some stage in our life, all of us will need to get through something and come out to the light at the other end. And yeah, Steve McQueen is a great actor too.
- What’s a job for the future that doesn’t exist today? So, yeah, this is a really interesting one. I’m hoping that there is a job or innovation that will allow people to experience something a little bit like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where you’re able to put that little fish in your ear and be able to understand all languages so that you’re able to experience all cultures as they are through their language. And I think that’ll bring about a lot more understanding in the world, and hopefully a lot less conflict.