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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

The forgotten 20 percent

Employing disabled people is not only the right thing to do, it’s the bright thing to do, says Anne Hawker. She looks at the challenges disabled people face in finding meaningful work, and at what employers can do to ensure their workplace is inclusive and accessible.

Employment is often seen as an opportunity and means for people to be truly contributing citizens, with economic and social values that benefit our communities and society as a whole. But for many disabled people, it can be difficult to get a foot in the door, stay in the job, and to have meaningful career development.

With disabled people making up 21 percent of our working age population, only 49 percent are in paid employment. Compare this with 77 percent of non-disabled people and we start seeing that there’s a gap.

We know that disabled people are less likely to be employed than any other minority group. And that disabled students are twice as likely as non-disabled people to leave school without a qualification.


There are myths about disabled people: “they’re a health and safety risk”, “they’ll be away a lot”, “they’ll cost more”. These myths are easily busted. A Deakin University study of the benefits and costs of employing disabled people published in 2002 found that:

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    Disabled people were absent from work 15 percent less than their colleagues without disabilities.
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    Employing disabled people was financially cost-neutral or cost-beneficial to the organisation as a whole. Technology has also removed many barriers faced by disabled people, enabling more people to reach their full potential.
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    Disabled employees averaged one-sixth the recorded occupational health and safety incidents of non-disabled employees. In managing their impairment, disabled people have developed strategies to address health and safety risks.

However, much more often, we are seeing the challenge for disabled people to find meaningful employment may not be about their visible impairment, but society’s attitude towards disability and disabled people. In particular, the soft bigotry of low expectation, unconscious bias, and deficit-based language can be a daily experience for some.

In her 2014 Ted Talk, Stella Young, an Australian comedian and disability activist, talks about society’s attitude to disabled people—the images of disabled people doing everyday things that are labelled exceptional. In particular, she talks of wanting “to live in a world where disability is not the exception, but the norm … where a kid in year 11 is not one bit surprised that his new teacher is a wheelchair user.”

Consider also the quote “the only disability in life is a bad attitude”.

“No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp,” says Stella. “No amount of standing in a bookshop and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn those books into braille”. A good employer will work with people to make sure the workplace is inclusive and accessible to them.

With New Zealand ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), and the New Zealand Disability Strategy (2016 to 2026), expectations have been established for disabled people that they will have the same opportunities to be included as valued and contributing citizens. However, looking beyond this mandate and considering that the economic cost of excluding disabled people from the workplace is $11 billion—that we miss out on the skills and experience of 20 percent of working age New Zealanders—it becomes clear that employing disabled people is not only the right thing to do, but the bright thing to do.


To be an accessible workplace, means that the workplace and its processes are inclusive from the recruitment stage, through to the work environment, and professional development and performance policies and processes. There are ways to make your workplace more accessible.

When advertising for positions, use a statement like “We welcome enquiries from everyone and value diversity in our workforce”.

Increasingly on-line recruitment is being used. Websites, application forms, job descriptions and contracts should all be tested for accessibility.

Job descriptions should not be too specific about how a task is to be completed, for example requiring the employee to have a driver’s licence when the task simply requires someone to be able to travel.

When arranging an interview, ensure that the disabled applicant is not disadvantaged by the format of the interview. Ask all candidates if they need any accommodations, which might include making sure the room is accessible for a wheelchair, assessments in a particular format, or having the interview in school hours.

It’s important that questions relate to the requirements of the job. In particular, avoid any questions you do not ask of a person without a disability.

It has been identified that successful managers get the best from their staff when they identify and accommodate what will assist that employee to do the best job possible. This is called reasonable accommodation and is supportive for many employees, not only disabled people.

When the person starts the job, it is important to check with them what reasonable accommodations (workplace adjustments) if any they need. Where equipment has to be purchased, make sure it’s in place before the person starts.

The most common reasonable accommodation for everyone is flexibility, including flexible hours. Most accommodations have little or no cost, such as providing instructions in writing and showing people how to do a task.

One area to consider is whether your staff would benefit from having disability responsiveness training. This will help give the team the confidence to talk with their colleague about how best to work them, and give the disabled employee the opportunity to give feedback.

Disabled people want to be both included and belong to an organisation. Ensure disabled people can access meetings, training and professional development opportunities and social activities. Having, for example, accessible venues, accessible formats and access to New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) interpreters can help them to feel included.

Disabled employees, like most employees, have aspirations for career progression. Being offered professional development and training opportunities that are designed with accessibility in mind is an important step in assisting their career progression.

When developing training modules for staff, the first step is to engage with your disabled employees by involving them in the planning and design, and by providing the material before they begin any training so they can become familiar with it.

Make sure that e-learning is based on accessible templates. If you are using videos in your training, make sure they are captioned. When looking for accessible tools, don’t overlook Microsoft, which has a number of tools that can assist in the workplace.

If you are using examples, include positive stories about disabled people. This is important as it will change some of the beliefs around disability.

When running a meeting or event, make sure it’s inclusive:

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    Before an event, provide attendees with opportunities to share information about their specific needs;
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    Be respectful and kind—show all participants that they are valued and that their views are equally important;
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    Design the event to be accessible to those attending. For example, do not expect attendees with visual impairments to be able to read a PowerPoint presentation.

Take a look at what you have developed and review it based on your experience. Also seek feedback to make sure all aspects of accessibility have been covered.

Remember the best way to find out what people want is to ask. Don’t make assumptions about who should be asked—ask everyone.

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”—Lao Tzu


ANNE HAWKER is the principal disability adviser at the Ministry of Social Development.

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