The right to a job

Katrina Breen
Everyone has the right to a job. People with a disability can make great workers. But people with a disability can have difficulty finding a jobs. It can be hard to decide whether to tell an employer about your disability. Telling them can help make sure you get the support you need to do the job. But some employers might treat people with a disability badly. There is a lot of information and support for people seeking work. There is also help for those are being treated badly.
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Katrina Breen on 04/05/2011
Two men are working together, leaning over a large map. One man is wearing a tie and holding a marker pen.

People with a disability can make great employees, but discrimination still exists

Everyone has the right to a job. That includes the two million working age Australians with a disability.

People with a disability can make great employees. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) says organisations can greatly benefit from employing people with a disability. VEOHRC says research has found people with a disability are more likely to stay in a job for longer. We are also less likely to take time off from work.

VEOHRC says it is illegal to discriminate in the workforce on the grounds of disability or illness. Workplaces must also make reasonable adjustments for people with a disability. But thousands of Australians with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed. And unfortunately, discrimination can be difficult to prove.

Disclosing your disability

Many disabilities and chronic illnesses are "invisible" to others. Many working people have conditions they have never disclosed to their employer. It can be a hard decision whether to disclose or not. There is no legal obligation for an employee to disclose their disability. The employer might be able to provide important support and workplace adjustments. But some employers might discriminate.

Riki is legally blind as a result of an acquired brain injury (ABI). Riki is searching for a job. Sometimes the application forms ask whether she has a disability. She feels like she has to say yes because her sight requires special accommodations. But Riki says she would prefer to be able to wait until the interview to disclose her disability.

Employers can ask at any time during the recruitment process whether the applicant has a disability. They can ask if it is for the purpose of determining whether any adjustments may be required to adequately perform the job. But Riki wonders how many employers are using the question to discriminate against people with a disability.

Workplace modifications

The Federal Government has a Workplace Modifications Scheme. The scheme pays for modifying the workplace or purchasing special equipment for new employees with disability. But Riki says many employers are unaware of this. Riki also has other disabilities other than her vision impairment. But she chooses not to disclose these unless she believes that they will significantly affect her performance in a job.

VEOHRC advises that if a job applicant's disability will not affect their work performance, they can state "not applicable" to questions about whether they have a disability. It is also illegal to ask whether a person has a mental illness. Riki says she chooses to disclose her vision loss as she believes it will help her get the workplace modifications she needs to increase her productivity. (But) I am reluctant to disclose my ABI in the workplace due to people's assumption that I have other social interpersonal handicaps, she says. Other than my vision loss, the side effects resulting from my ABI do not affect me in the workplace. This is the other reason why I choose not to disclose them.

Misunderstanding and prejudice

There can be advantages and disadvantages for people disclosing their disability to their employer. For example, people with a mental illness can often experience misunderstanding and prejudice. A boss or organisation may not be supportive of an employee with a mental illness. But a supportive workplace can provide great benefits to both the employee and the organisation. Another example is that people with Aspergers' syndrome or autism can benefit from having supervisors understand their condition. It can be important that people recognise some behaviour is not intentional rudeness or ignoring directions.

Disclosure can have negative consequences if bosses are not supportive. I have spoken to people with a mental illness who have described instances of bosses intentionally causing them stress. Discrimination like this can be difficult to prove. But support is available. The Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council is a good starting place. VEOHRC, Consumer Affairs Victoria and the Fair Work Ombudsman could also provide support. It might also be appropriate to contact your union.

Finding jobs

There are many agencies in Australia that assist people with disabilities to find jobs. Try searching "disability employment services" on the web. Examples of agencies include:

  • Break Thru People Solutions
  • Distinctive Options
  • Echo Australia
  • Job Focus
  • Jobco
  • Matchworks
  • Salvation Army
  • WISE Employment.

Agencies can let the organisation know that the person has a disability. They can also support employees in the workplace. Only short-term support might be necessary. Ross Lewis from Break Thru People Solutions tells the example of a client with an ABI who was a veterinarian. He needed support with organising his working day when returning to work. But after a short period he was fine on his own.

Creating a job

Agencies can also support organisations to "create" a job for a person with a disability that suits their capabilities. This might include a part-time role. Agencies might also suggest "job carving" to an employer. This means creating a job from basic tasks that more senior staff are currently performing.

Educating and supporting employers is an important part of increasing employment opportunities for people with a disability. Last month the Federal Government announced funding for a new guide to help employers better understand the needs of employees with disability. It is called A Guide to Employer Engagement – From the Employers Voice. The Workplace Modifications Scheme also funds awareness training for colleagues in relation to various disabilities. Meanwhile, the Disability Employment Advisory Service is working to increase employment opportunities for people with a disability within Victorian government departments.


Readers comments (3)

I do have doubts whether to tell employers about my ulcerative colitis as bowel problems can be the butt of many jokes.

I look for positions where I know that a toilet will be nearby and that it won't matter if I stop what I am doing and go to the toilet without getting someone to take over what I am doing.

I have become annoyed with employment services for suggesting inappropriate jobs, for instance gardening, fruit picking - where is the quickly accessed toilet?

Most of the jobs I am offered by employment services seem to assume that as a person with a disability I am stupid and very low skilled. To the contrary, I am very highly educated with a masters degree.

I have worked in a factory as an able-bodied worker where the workforce was at least 10 per cent disabled - most with mental disabilities. I think the carers and parents of those people with disabilities would be disgusted if they could have seen how their charges where treated. Some where ripped off, some were ridiculed. Most would have got little enjoyment or benefit from their "work", to me it was more just a form of day care.

In Australia discrimination in giving the disabled is systematic, automatic and running rife.

Government needs to do much more to include the disabled.

For instance lead by example and each politician employ a disabled person or several.

Centrelink employ more visible disabled people. Councils - any body that gets funding from the government needs to employ the disabled because as sure as hell businesses will not.

Australians in general just like to pick on and knock disabled people not giving them a chance - so the Australian Goverment needs to employ us.

Graham, I have found the same issue with employment services. I have always found my own work and not bothered any more with them. I agree fully with your statement 'Most of the jobs I am offered by employment services seem to assume that as a person with a disability I am stupid and very low skilled'. I have also encountered this.
I am currently studying for my masters and working part-time in a hospital as a switchboard operator. I was asked at the interview 'Why do you want this job? You are really over-qualified'. I had to validate WHY I wanted a job. I was perplexed to say the least.
Heather, I agree also. however, living in country Victoria it seems most local council jobs are 'advertised' but already filled by the supervisors family and or friends. Employment needs to me more accessable.

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