Disability in the workplace: Five areas to improve

Today marks International Day of People with Disability - HRD investigated what employers can do to become more inclusive

Disability in the workplace: Five areas to improve

Key takeaways

  • The percentage of self-employed workers or entrepreneurs is higher among those with disabilities than non-disabled Australians
  • One key driver is the discrimination people with disabilities face in traditional workplaces
  • Professor says employers must be proactively encouraging those with disability to apply

Today marks International Day of People with Disability – a timely reminder for employers to reinvest time and effort into furthering their people’s careers.

Diversity and inclusion leaders are well versed in issues of workplace discrimination when it comes to gender and ethnicity.

But there is one area where Australian employers lag at making real change – disability.

Globally, Australia ranks 21 out of 29 among OECD nations for the employment of people with disabilities.

A recent research project by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Business School found that the entrepreneurial spirit developed by those with disability is in part due to the failings they experienced in traditional working environments.

It found 13.1% of people with disability are self-employed or entrepreneurs compared with only 9.2% of those without disability.

Only 53.4% of workers with disabilities manage to find employment compared with 84.1% of the non-disabled population

HRD spoke to one of the report’s authors, Simon Darcy, professor of social inclusion the UTS Business School about the workplace issues facing those with disabilities in Australia.

“As we found, a great deal of motivation for many highly skilled people was that they were discriminated against in a variety of ways,” he said.

Researchers conducted interviews with 60 entrepreneurs with disabilities, exploring the barriers they have faced in both traditional employment and on their path to becoming self-employed.

Among the qualitative findings, instances of blatant discrimination, workplace bullying, and damaging stereotypes all paint a disappointing picture for those with disabilities.

One research participant shared their experience of attending a job interview, only to overhear the interviewer say: “Oh, don't worry about the next interview, we're only doing it to be seen to be doing the right thing".

Others echoed similar sentiments, saying their decision to be self-employed was born from necessity, rather than entrepreneurial spirit.

So, what can employers do to minimise these hurdles facing people with disabilities?


Darcy said participants reported experiences of discrimination from the outset and just getting an interview can be the first hurdle for someone with a disability.

Some people who disclosed their disability during the application didn’t get responses from the job poster despite their appropriate skillsets and others said their application didn’t proceed to interview after they disclosed their disability.

One of the initial areas HR should focus on is making sure the advertisement actively encourages those with disabilities to apply and highlights their practices as an inclusive employer.

“If you don’t say it, you’re not being proactive,” Darcy said.

For example, highlighting what measures are in place that make them an inclusive employer and ensuring that if the interview is conducted virtually, the platform has the capabilities for those with disabilities.

Social inclusion

Another area Darcy highlighted was the lack of social inclusion some people with disabilities face in traditional employment that can lead to feelings of exclusion and workplace bullying.

For example, a wheelchair-using participant talked about an instance where their team had gone to lunch without them.

Unless HR professionals proactively reinforce inclusion strategies and ensure team leaders are doing the same, those with disabilities can find themselves isolated by colleagues, impacting their mental health, morale and ultimately encouraging them to leave the workplace.

Overcoming stereotypes

Having an open mind is one of the most important tools HR professionals can use to encourage their businesses to hire a diverse range of employees, Darcy said.

Overcoming negative stereotypes is the first step.

“Positive attitudes are really helpful,” he said. “Rather than looking for barriers, look for solutions.

“There’s a stereotype that employing someone with a disability has a much higher cost when actually, that’s often not the case.”

The advancements in technology have brought about much more inclusive platforms for those with sight or hearing impairments, often with no added cost to the employer.


“We know that most people employ people who are like them. When people know someone with a disability within their friendship circle, that transfers over to the workplace,” Darcy said.

By meeting and interacting with other peers at a similar level who have a disability, HR leaders can get a true understanding of the hurdles they face in the workplace.

Listening, engaging, and then bringing that understanding back into their own employment is an incredibly powerful tool to encourage real, definitive change.

Ask the questions

Confidential surveys can be a useful tool for HR professionals to assess how comfortable employees in their own workforce are about disclosing their disability, both during their application process and while in employment.

“People won’t disclose if they feel that they will be adversely affected,” Darcy said.

But by finding out how widespread the problem is within the workforce, HR leaders can address the issue and ensure their future recruiting encourages, rather than discourages, those with disabilities to apply.

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