Here’s the T: Australia has to do better for people with disabilities. We’re currently ranked 21st of 29 OECD nations when it comes to employment rates for people with disability, which means Australia is falling behind in the competition to be a kind country.
So what can be done? What can you do, as an individual?
We asked Suzanne Colbert, CEO of the Australian Network for Disability for some tips, since it’s literally her job to help businesses open themselves up to a neglected worker-and-customer base, working with the likes to Qantas, Uber, IBM, L’Oreal and Westpac. Here’s what she wants you to do.
But first, to solve a problem you need to understand the problem.
Suzanne says one major reason we’re doing so poorly on issues of accessibility is because when we think of disability, many of us think only along the lines of visibility. And while of course visible disabilities remain important to consider (and still overlooked), their hold on us restricts our understanding of how prevalent disability is in Australia.
“We have really outdated stereotypes,” says Suzanne. “We might think people with disabilities are a small part of the population but there are 4 million Australians with disabilities, and 36 per cent of Australian households live with disabilities. It’s much more mainstream than marginal.”
There’s also a diversity of disability that many of us forget: the term encompasses those with issues regarding mobility, vision, hearing, cognition, mental health as well as living with illnesses.
That lapse in visibility means, in turn, that people only focus on what they can see – and, in addition to that, who’s literally in front of them.
For example, Suzanne points towards a survey AND did where nearly 30% of companies they work with explained that they hadn’t worked on accessibility issues in the past year since no customer had asked them to. People do care about accessibility, but only in a passive sense.
That means that really easy fixes aren’t even considered until someone asks, because we’re not even aware there’s a problem. Which is why just 53% of Australians with disabilities have jobs.
“So part of it is about attitude and our lack of understanding and perception,” says Suzanne, “but the other part is much more real barriers that prevent people from doing things in a fair and equitable way.”
For Suzanne, one super simple fix for companies is tech accessibility.
“We need to think about whether we’re using technology that’s barrier free,” says Suzanne. “Australia has been quite slow making sure that we’re using more accessible technology.”
Often we think of accessibility as physical: how many stairs are there in this building? Are spaces open enough to fit wheelchairs? Those issues are incredibly important, of course, but most companies are put off by the prospect of cost. But tech issues are cheap, easy and fundamental: so why aren’t they already implemented?
It’s not the funnest answer, but the reality is that we’re just not consciously thinking about our every day actions. One EG. is software: if you’re in an office, do the computers have accessibly-ready software installed? Is it something you even knew existed?
“Microsoft, for example, are working a lot harder and now have a system to make sure all software is accessible when it hits market,” says Suzanne. “It’s good leadership that helps other organisations follow suit.”
With 24 years in the job, Suzanne has heaps more examples.
“I think you and I might take it for granted that if we were looking for a job, we could just search online and apply,” says Suzanne. “But for people who are blind or low-vision, they simply can’t if the site isn’t accessible – and if they don’t have a human at the company to talk to, as there often isn’t, because employers don’t want applicants calling up, then they’re locked out.”
“Or what about if you’re a person with a movability disability booking tickets for a show?,” says Suzanne. “Often you’ve got to wait to speak to a human rather than just ordering online, and the process can take hours. Suddenly little things take hours and hours.”
You can check if your company’s website is accessible via just typing it into a few online checkers, though Vision Australia offers consultancy. On a similar level, are your workers trained to use the National Relay Service to call deaf customers or potential workers?
“If you’re deaf and the first job interview you get is a screening via a machine, you’d never be able to take that call,” says Suzanne. “But if someone asked you the best way to get in touch, you wouldn’t be locked out.”
Simply giving people an opportunity to share their preferences makes a massive difference. While we should pre-emptively make changes before issues of inaccessibility reveal themselves, a lot of the time there would be no issue if we didn’t just assume what works for us works for everyone else.
“[One thing to help] is to not make any assumptions about anyone and ask people what their preferences are,” says Suzanne. “By not assuming anything about anyone, you open everything up.”
While as a society we appear to be listening to minority voices more and more, there’s a notable gap towards granting agency to people with disability.
The Fair Work Commission receives more calls of discrimination from people with disability than those race- and gender-related combined. That’s not to suggest that one sort of discrimination happens more than the other (it’s hard to quantify the subtle ways in which racism and sexism shape our experiences), but perhaps that disability-based discrimination remains more unashamed and out-in-the-open.
In a recent AND survey, there was a gaping difference between companies viewing employees and customers with disabilities: many outright suggested that job applicants with disability weren’t “appropriate”.
And yes, before commenters make the genius point that there are some jobs people with disability might not be able to do, that doesn’t discount Australia’s reluctance to view people with disability as individuals and assess applicants by a case-by-case situation. You know, treating people like people.
That’s what we have to change, straight up. Suzanne cites a billion positives.
“I’ve been an employer for 24 years or so now,” says Suzanne, “and the benefits I’ve had as an employer of people with disability are exceptional productivity, reliability and a real addition of diverse viewpoints which helps us be a better workplace.”
“Across the globe, the literature says people with disability stay in jobs longer, have equal or better productivity levels, have less accidents and make a very positive contribution to the morale of a workplace.”
“Then there’s the social good: if could reduce disparity of disability unemployed by 10%, we’d add $43 billion to the economy.”
“I think we’ve all got a role to play in making our society a fairer, better and more vibrant place to be: there’s an ethical case, here.”
Image source: Getty Images