WORKING TOWARDS A NATIONAL DISABILITY EMPLOYMENT STRATEGY
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Destination 2010 – ACE Conference 2006
6 September 2006
I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.
Before I commence, on behalf of HREOC, I would like to thank ACE for the opportunity to discuss a national disability employment strategy and importantly the opportunity for multiple perspectives to be presented here today.
HREOC believes this is critical – unless there is genuine broader understanding of why such a strategy is needed and everyone agrees this is what is required, there will not be sufficient impetus to bring about change on the ‘big picture’ level.
At a time when there is a national skills shortage and record low unemployment rates for people without disability, there is no excuse for the continuing high rates of unemployment and exclusion of people with disability from the open workplace. As you all know, there is a large and talented pool of job seekers with disability who are eager and ready to work but many are continuously overlooked or rejected.
HREOC believes a national disability employment strategy is urgently required for two reasons. Firstly, to ensure equality of employment opportunity for people with disability. And secondly, to ensure that people with disability will not be exposed to personal or financial risks by either entering employment, attempting to enter employment or remaining on welfare.
While many positive policy changes have recently been implemented at government and service provider level, these responses by and large address single specific problems. For this reason, they are unlikely to substantially impact on equality of employment opportunity or increase the rate of employment of people with disability.
It is not enough to say that we will “wait and see” and review the situation in four years time, in 2010, if we know now that the changes implemented will not address the myriad barriers which maintain low employment rates.
The National Inquiry into Employment and Disability
The primary goal of the Inquiry was to identify and develop measures to improve the participation, recruitment and retention rates of people with disability in the open workplace. The Inquiry sought to achieve this goal by collaborating with all those involved in the employment process.
The Inquiry gathered and published 162 written submissions, conducted roundtable discussions and individual meetings, convened four working groups, consulted directly with the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations and researched international models. ACE lodged two submissions and participated in three of the four working groups.
Barriers identified in HREOC's employment and disability inquiry
Information gathered by the Inquiry suggests there are three sets of obstacles of common concern to people with disability who are, or who are about to be, in the open workforce, and to their actual or potential employers:
- The first obstacle is about Information – specifically, an absence of easily accessible and comprehensive information and advice to people with disability and employers that assists in decision making processes and responds to ongoing needs
- The second obstacle is about Cost – more specifically, concern about costs of participation for people with disability and possible costs borne by employers when employing a person with disability
- The third obstacle is about Risk – more specifically, concern about any possible financial and personal impact on people with disability and their employers, especially if a job does not work out.
The Inquiry also discussed the specific issues arising at the three stages of the employment process, namely:
- Getting ready for the open workplace;
- Recruitment in the open workplace; and
- Job retention in the open workplace.
Solutions identified in HREOC's employment and disability inquiry
The Inquiry made 30 recommendations to address the identified barriers to employment. HREOC maintains that all the recommendations must be considered in a holistic manner. While implementation of any one of the Inquiry’s recommendations will be a positive step towards addressing the barriers facing people with disability and their actual or potential employers, they are unlikely to have any substantial impact if implemented in a piecemeal fashion.
It is for this reason that the critical recommendation of the Final Report was the final recommendation – that the Commonwealth government lead the development of a National Disability Employment Strategy for Australia.
Before I discuss this overarching recommendation, I will summarise some of the individual recommendations.
The first set of recommendations relate to the collection and provision of information to people with disability and employers.
HREOC hopes that JobAccess, DEWR’s new one-stop-information-shop website and advice service, will greatly assist with the provision of information to people with disability and employers. While this is an important step, there are other areas where information is still greatly needed: for example, in relation to occupational health and safety.
The second set of recommendations relates to cost issues. People with disability raised major concerns during the inquiry over the costs of participation in employment, and also in education and training.
The Commission has indicated its concern regarding the ‘Welfare-to-Work’ changes implemented over the last year. A major part of that concern is that some people with disability who want, or are forced, to participate in employment will face extra costs in doing so. These extra costs include transport, added health costs, costs associated with aids and equipment, and costs of personal support services.
For these people reducing eligibility for income support and concessions may well reduce ability and incentive to work, rather than increasing it as the government intends, as costs of participation may be greater than income.
For this reason a suite of cost-related recommendations were made by the Inquiry including:
- that the Productivity Commission research the economic cost of disability to people with different disabilities
- the introduction of a cost of disability allowance and a cost of participation allowance
- extension of eligibility for health care concessions
- extension of eligibility for transport concessions
- increases in the mobility allowance to allow reimbursement of the cost of transport to and from the workplace and
- increased funding and improved access to personal assistance at home and in the workplace.
Costs of adjustments
Economic issues for employers were also raised in relation to the perceived or actual costs of making adjustments to accommodate disability. The Inquiry made three recommendations in this regard including that the Commonwealth Government examine the option of adopting an accessible government procurement policy and also research into the structure and effectiveness of tax incentives to encourage employment of people with disability.
The Inquiry also made a recommendation to improve the Workplace Modifications Scheme. It is hoped that the boost in funding and changes in eligibility criteria announced this year to this scheme will greatly assist with reducing this barrier to employment.
Apart from issues of costs and access to information, the other major theme raised during the inquiry was that of perceived or actual risks in taking on workers with disability.
The Inquiry found that one of the main impediments to the employment of people with disability lies in employer concerns about increased exposure to legal and financial risks related to occupational health and safety, disability discrimination and unfair dismissal laws.
The primary concern appears to be the belief that there are higher health and safety risks when there are people with disability in the workplace, and therefore greater exposure to workers compensation claims. While the Inquiry did not receive any clear evidence that there is, in reality, a generally higher safety risk, the perception appears to be strong enough to have a significant impact on hiring decisions by employers.
Due to the enormity of this problem, a recommendation was made to continue work in this area. HREOC was pleased to hear that the Heads of Workers’ Compensation Authorities has recently commenced work with its members in relation to HREOC’s recommendation to disseminate information and develop disability employment strategies.
Another recommendation for addressing barriers arising from perceived risks was through further development of the concept of work trials.
HREOC was pleased to see the announcement in this year's Budget of an unpaid work experience scheme which includes provision for insurance cover for work experience up to eight weeks duration. HREOC hopes this program will address initial risks and encourage employers to give people with disability an opportunity in their workplace.
Provision of supports to people with disability and employers
Another set of recommendations are associated with how supports are provided to employees with disability and employers. These include:
- improvement of transition-to-work schemes
- a review of government-funded employment support services with a view to ensuring availability of support on an as-needed basis, without time limitations
- development of guidelines and strategies to promote flexible workplaces
- development of measures to address the recruitment and support needs of people with mental illness, and
- working with private recruitment agencies to adopt policies and practices designed to encourage hiring of people with disability.
Working with employers
Another set of recommendations specifically address employers – both public and private.
With regard to the public sector, the Inquiry recommended that the Commonwealth government develop and introduce a comprehensive national strategy to increase employment in the public sector. We hope that the release of the Management Advisory Committee's report 'Review into the Employment of People with Disability in the APS' last week will highlight the necessity for such strategy if employment rates of people with disability in the public sector are to increase.
With regard to the private sector, the Inquiry recommended the introduction of a widely promoted national scheme of employer awards which ensures promotion of best practice models and the benefits of employing people with disability to the business community.
The Inquiry also recommended that DEWR, in cooperation with employer organisations, develop a business leadership project which provides incentives and support to businesses to engage in proactive recruitment and retention strategies.
A multi-sector leadership coalition
As you can see the recommendations of the Inquiry cover a wide range of issues and include all stages of the employment process, including getting ready for the open workplace, recruitment and retention.
HREOC strongly believes that any genuine attempt to improve employment opportunities for people with disability must involve meaningful consultation with representatives of people with disability and all groups involved in the employment process and take a whole-of-government approach.
For this reason, the Inquiry recommended that DEWR coordinate an on-going multi-sector leadership coalition including:
- people with disability and disability peaks
- employers and employer peaks
- employment service providers and service peaks, and
- relevant Commonwealth, State and Territory government agencies.
A National Disability Employment Strategy
Albeit a brief summary of the Inquiry recommendations and Government responses to date, as can be seen, a more comprehensive response is required to address the myriad barriers identified by HREOC’s Inquiry.
HREOC believes the best way to do this and achieve equality of employment opportunity for people with disability is through a national disability employment strategy.
The strategy needs to focus on at least the following issues as a matter of priority:
Firstly - the development of a whole-of-government approach to ensure appropriate financial and practical support to people with disability, which includes a streamlined system to provide adequate:
- transport, equipment and health care subsidies and concessions
- workplace supports and
- personal care in the home and workplace
Secondly - improving the effectiveness of government-funded employment service delivery to people with disability and employers, including access to supports on an as-needed basis.
Thirdly - improving transition-to-work schemes for people with disability in secondary, tertiary and vocational education and training institutions.
Fourthly - ensuring better relationships between private sector employers and government-funded information, recruitment and employment support services.
Fifthly - increasing recruitment and retention of people with disability in the public sector.
And finally - the development of a benchmarking, monitoring and reporting system to ensure accountability and ongoing improvement to the incentives supports and services available to people with disability and employers.
In the absence of further reform, HREOC is concerned that as a result of Welfare-To-Work more people with disability may be exposed to discriminatory decisions not to hire on the basis of disability, not be provided with the necessary adjustments or supports or face greater personal or financial risks.
The development of a national disability employment strategy, which has a whole-of-government approach and is developed with a multi-sector coalition, is essential to achieve equality of employment opportunity for Australians with disability and to enable people with disability to participate with dignity and without discrimination or disadvantage. It is unlikely that the situation will change without this coordinated and holistic approach.
I hope today we can identify a way to make this happen.
The final report (WORKability II: Solutions – People with Disability in the Open Workplace) and the interim report (WORKability I: Barriers – People with Disability in the Open Workplace) of the National Inquiry into Employment and Disability can be found on HREOC’s website at www.humanrights.gov.au/disability_rights/employment_inquiry/index.htm