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Launch of Accessing Abilities

Disability Disability Rights

Launch of Accessing Abilities:
Recruiting and Retaining People with Disabilities in the Western Australian
Public Sector

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM,
Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner

15 September 2004

Sev Ozdowski

Acknowledgments and introduction

Sheila McHale, Minister for Disability Services;

Noela Taylor, Director of Equal Opportunity in Public Employment;

Friends and colleagues from government and the disability community.

Allow me to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land
on which we stand [the Nyoongar people] and pay my respects to their elders
both past and present.

Recognising the indigenous history of this land is an important element
in recognising the truth of our diversity as a people.

Another important truth, and one that receives welcome recognition in
the Strategy being launched today, is that people with a disability are
an inherent part of the diversity of the Australian community.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures tell us that around one in five
Australians, including one in five Western Australians, has a disability.
The real figure may be even higher. Another eight per cent of the community
act as carers for family or friends with disabilities on daily basis.
We also know that these numbers are growing and will grow further as our
population ages.

When you look at these facts it is remarkable that for so long people
with disabilities were pushed to the margins, or not thought of at all
in major social decisions.

  • That we built systems for public transport, or education, or healthcare,
    or telecommunications, or information and entertainment, or political
    participation, which excluded people with disabilities.
  • That we built disabling environments even in our buildings and streetscapes.
  • That we did not have the supports in place to enable people with intellectual
    or psychiatric disabilities to live effectively in the community and
    participate equally in community life, and instead allowed exclusion
    and prejudice to reinforce each other.

The strategy being launched today is another welcome step in building
a society which recognises, accommodates and takes advantage of the diversity
of all its members.

Inclusion as a major national reform agenda

I have said this before, but what economic or social reform could be
more significant than moving to make fuller use of the abilities of a
fifth of our people, and enabling them to participate more effectively
in employment and education and other fields?

This agenda is very far from finished. People with disabilities and their
families around Australia can and do point to many areas of needs which
are insufficiently met, and rights at best partially fulfilled.

In the midst of a Federal election campaign, there are limits on what
I can properly say as a Federal statutory officer on actions which governments
ought to be taking to address these issues.

But I do want to pay tribute to the leading role that government here
in Western Australia has taken on a range of disability issues over the

  • In being one of the only two States with a requirement in its Disability
    Services Act for all state and local government agencies to develop
    disability plans
  • In seeking to integrate disability issues into mainstream planning
    processes and not relying solely on the expertise and hard work of the
    specialist Disability Services Commission
  • In taking a leading role on public transport accessibility, with a
    disability action plan lodged back in 1996, and implementation of national
    standards for accessible public transport well advanced even before
    those standards entered force.

Building accessible and inclusive communities requires leadership and
resources from government. Of course, it also requires more than that
- including appropriate actions by private enterprise and within each
local community and school, and the advocacy and activism and expertise
provided by disability community.

Legislative history

As in many other countries, the 1981 International Year for people with
disabilities provided a pivotal point for community activism and government
In the early 1980s States which already had anti-discrimination legislation,
covering grounds such as race and sex discrimination, added coverage of

Western Australia's legislation passed in 1984, like later legislation
in other states, included disability from the outset.

As you know, the Federal Disability Discrimination Act followed in 1992.

This Act was initially proposed only as employment discrimination legislation.
The government however accepted arguments by HREOC and other organisations
that to be effective even in relation to employment the legislation would
have to address related areas such as education and training, access to
buildings and information, and access to transport.

We have now had federal disability discrimination laws covering employment
and these other areas for over ten years. In Western Australia equivalent
legal protection has been in place for twenty years. So how are we going?

Outcomes in employment opportunity

The Productivity Commission's review of the DDA, released in July, pointed
to some areas of success. But it pointed to employment opportunity and
outcomes as one of the areas where improvement has been least impressive.

I welcome the commitments to accountability on employment outcomes in
the strategy being launched today.

One of the major problems with disability policy in Australia is that
we do not always have access to sufficient data on outcomes and barriers,
whether in employment or other areas.

But what data we do have does not make encouraging reading.

The Accessing Abilities strategy is an important recognition of the fact
that, apart from passing laws, government can also provide a positive
model for the private sector and the community in how it operates itself.

By referring to a "model" I mean both the role of government
in setting a positive example in adopting inclusive approaches as a matter
of principle, and roles in working through all the practical issues that
arise in achieving real equality of opportunity, and making that experience
available for other employers.

So given the importance of this role of government in providing a model,
I have to say again how concerned I am by evidence that employment of
people with disabilities as a proportion of the Commonwealth Public Service
is continuing to fall.

This is occurring not only overall - which might be explained by reduced
numbers of entry level positions - but at all levels - when we might have
expected and hope that improved representation, particularly at more senior
levels would be flowing from

  • reasonable adjustment and non-discrimination policies now in place
    for many years;
  • developments in technology which should have made it easier to remove
    many disability related barriers for people with sensory or physical
    disabilities in particular; and
  • advancing educational opportunities for people with disabilities in
    recent years.

The picture in the wider community does not appear to be significantly

Unemployment rates for people with disabilities are twice those for the
rest of the community, while workforce participation rates are 30% less.

The ABS figures for 2000 indicate that when the general unemployment
rate was 6%, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 13%.
The general labour force participation rate for people of working age
was 80% but the corresponding rate for people with disabilities was only

That has been calculated to mean an extra 1.22 million people with disabilities
not working compared to what would happen with the same participation
and unemployment rates as for the general population.

Mark Bagshaw, that tireless proponent of the economic rationalist case
for an inclusive society, has estimated that on these figures government
was spending over $11billion on paying people not to work, while the Australian
community was losing $41 billion of lost potential productivity, for a
total economic cost of $53 billion.

At the same time he was only able to identify half a billion dollars
spent on targeted measures to increase employment of people with disabilities
- including frankly quite tiny amounts on the workplace modifications,
wage subsidy and supported wage schemes.

These numbers seem to me to indicate a major economic issue requiring
attention, as well as a denial of the human right to equal employment
opportunity and a consequent failure to ensure the right of people with
disabilities and their families to an adequate standard of living.

The Productivity Commission report made important recommendations for
improving the DDA including making clearer the duty to make reasonable
adjustments in employment and other areas.

I also view as very important the recommendation for the Australian Government
to review the effectiveness of the various schemes it uses to subsidise
costs of adjustments needed by people with disabilities.

I would hope though that as well as covering costs of adjustments for
employers, such a review would also look at cover participation costs
for people with disabilities and also for carers.

A public inquiry?

You may be aware that I am currently seeking views on the possibility
of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission conducting an inquiry
on issues affecting employment opportunity and outcomes for people with
disabilities. This would follow on from the Productivity Commission inquiry
which was both broader - in that it dealt with all issues covered by the
DDA - but also narrower - in that focussed on the legislation rather than
on all the other factors which may affect employment in practice.

I have requested comments, preferably by the 18th of this month, on possible
terms of reference.

Whether or not a public inquiry by HREOC is appropriate on each of the
issues covered in my request for comments, employment will be a major
focus of our work over the next year or so.

The point of a public inquiry of course is partly to bring together information
and perspectives on an issue and try to identify solutions, and partly
to raise the public profile of an issue so that there is more support
for implementing those solutions.

In considering a possible inquiry I am also conscious of a wide range
of issues beyond employment which also deserve attention.

Obviously we would like to see government and business getting on with
the job of implementation wherever it is possible without needing to wait
for information or motivation from an inquiry from HREOC or anyone else.

And I am also aware that there have been a range of recent reviews related
to employment and disability.

In particular, the Review of the Employer Incentives Strategy released
by the Department of Family and Community Services last year.

This review recommended a range of actions including

  • Providing targeted information, advice and support to employers
  • Improving job matching services to increase mainstream recruitment
  • Facilitating work trials for people with disabilities.
  • Improving productivity based wage assessments
  • Improving the administration of the Workplace Modifications Scheme
    to make it easier to access.

It could be said that we do not need an inquiry to consider these issues
further, so much as practical action to implement of the recommendations
already made.

On the other hand, an inquiry could provide at least part of the collaborative
policy development process which this review recommended for implementing
its substantive recommendations.

Practical commitments and strategies

I welcome the commitments contained in the Accessing Abilities strategy
both in principles and practical actions.

The strategy documents include a range of useful fact sheets and links
to further resources.

I hope that the strategy will be a living resource which is added to
with more experience and work over time. I would like to quickly flag
a couple of issues where further development of resources and policy might
be found useful:

First, the possibility of a central clearinghouse and/or advisory service
on accommodation issues and solutions. Such a service exists within the
United States government on making information and communications technology
accessible, and more generally for all U.S. employers there are the online
services of the Job Accommodation Network. This is something I would like
to see nationally here, but perhaps a State government could show the
way on this issue just as was done in legislating against disability discrimination.

Second, the United States government has legislative and policy requirements
for accessibility or adaptability of equipment procured by government.
Again I would like to see a similar national initiative here but again
a State government could consider leading the way.


Diversity is not only about different accents and the cultural perspectives
that come with them; or different gender perspectives and different experiences
and roles in relation to family responsibilities.

Thinking about disability in terms of diversity may make it easier to
think about accommodating disability in employment not as something extraordinary
or costly, or to be done out of charity or soft centred social justice
thinking, but as part of making the fullest use of the skills and abilities
available in our economy and society.

I welcome the material in the strategy documents on benefits of inclusive
workplaces and dispelling myths about people with a disability. I hope
that there will be further development of this material as the strategy

Diversity policy has begun to refer to the need to recognise that workers
with family responsibilities should not be viewed as a burden to be tolerated
- they often have had no choice but to develop valuable time management
and problem solving skills just to get through the demands of the weekly
schedule. I think the same is true for many people with disabilities.

There is plenty of evidence that not just equipment but also systems
designed with people with disabilities in mind can have benefits in accommodating
diverse human capacities and needs more generally. For example the same
flexibility in where and when work is performed may assist

  • a person with a physical or psychiatric disability,
  • a person with family or carer responsibilities or
  • an older worker seeking to remain in or re-enter the workforce.

I commend the Government of Western Australia for developing and adopting
the Accessing Abilities strategy. I urge you to continue and broaden the
efforts to build an inclusive society for all of us.

See Also

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