'There is little advocacy for the individual'

Some diversity and inclusion initiatives end up relegating people with disability to roles that do not fully utilise their ability

'There is little advocacy for the individual'

by Dinesh Palipana, Australian doctor, legal professional and disability advocate

I was once involved in a recruitment process which culminated in me being an interview panellist. The list of applicants were strong. On paper, we had two leading candidates. One had not disclosed some differences in their physical ability. That candidate was also slightly older than the others. 

At the interview, they performed seamlessly without any pre-requested accommodations which they would be entitled to by law. On merits, the candidate was at least equal to their leading counterpart. The interview panel agreed on this fact. 

However, there were later some subtle comments about the candidate's physical differences and age. One of the comments was, "would they fit in with our young team's culture?" Despite me advocating for the candidate, a unilateral decision was eventually made not to hire them without consultation. This happened in a large organisation, like many, who are trying to increase diversity in their workforce. As a person with a spinal cord injury who has undergone challenges in securing even at times otherwise guaranteed employment, I was disappointed.

Over time, I have explored opportunities for candidates like this with many organisations. One of the responses that I had from a diversity officer in an organisation with nearly 10,000 employees was that they "don't have too much sway when it comes to employment unfortunately". They did agree that, "much of the activities in the equity and diversity space comes across as tokenistic”. 

I work with organisations that struggle to increase their small workforce that identifies with a disability. However, the role of diversity and inclusion teams are restricted to policy and broad initiatives. There is little advocacy for the individual. 

In principle, Disability Employment Service (DES) providers are a way to advocate for the individual at a notable cost to the taxpayer. In my personal experience, the outcome is dependent on the provider. When securing initial employment as a doctor, the DES provider was not able to effect any meaningful impact. Some DES providers collected fees from the government, but did very little.

They were often uncontactable. One was notorious for scheduling regular progress meetings that did not happen. We had to educate them on resources that were available and organise access. Anecdotally, I have come across many stories of individuals that are connected to a DES provider, but obtained very little benefit.

There are plenty of campaigns like JobAccess' 'Employ their Ability' and the global Valuable 500 that have done a tremendous job of spreading the message broadly. Ultimately though, hiring managers for individual teams have control over incoming staff. If they do not believe in a diverse workforce or its benefits, there is no progress.

That is why in this area, the individual is important. If an organisation has 10 people with disabilities, adding one will one increase that footprint by 10%. Therefore, the role of diversity and inclusion teams should be focused on individuals and obtaining suitable work. This will create meaningful progress, at least in the early stages of this journey. A tree grows out of the seed. A forest requires many seeds.

We must also equip people for success. Some diversity and inclusion initiatives end up relegating people with disability to roles that do not fully utilise their ability. That is tokenism. Why do this if we do not want people to blossom? There are real documented benefits for organisations that have a diverse workforce. Those benefits are not achieved unless we believe in the capability of people and foster it.

Most importantly, this movement depends on people believing in doing what is right. The law is not yet developed enough to provide adequate protection. Take the 2014 Queensland case of Chivers v State of Queensland.

Ms. Chivers was a nurse who had a mild traumatic brain injury, but was able to complete her degree in nursing. She suffered headaches and nausea, exacerbated by night shifts. Therefore, day shifts were most suitable for her. Hospitals employ hundreds of nurses. If the culture is willing, there is scope for a nurse to undertake dayshift duties. However, her particular hospital argued that allocating Ms. Chivers day shifts would lead to staff resentment. The case landed in the courts.

The court decided that it was a genuine occupational requirement for a nurse to be able to work night shifts. In 2014, Ms. Chivers lost an appeal with costs. This was despite Queensland Health’s attempts at promoting a diverse and inclusive workforce at the time. For the 2017 to 2022 strategy at least, documents a principle of "Job design/redesign that supports and encourages workforce flexibility, diversity and inclusion."

I have corresponded with a global leader in diversity and inclusion, who has represented this topic at the World Economic Forum in 2020. They led a global campaign on diversity and inclusion, with many multinationals involved. Their comment was that the focus needs to be on, "Private Sector organisations with over 1000 employees because that is where we see the gap in leadership and need to put pressure on." However, public institutions in Australia is where I have observed the most resistance, as evidenced in the case of Ms. Chivers for example.

Today, broad public and private initiatives shout the benefits of inclusion from the rooftops. The National Disability Insurance Scheme has brought about sweeping social change to enable participation in the community. External funding provides almost every imaginable workplace reasonable accommodation, which benefits entire workplaces by hiring one person with a disability. A great example are electronic doors. There are even financial incentives and salary support in some cases.

The message is omnipresent, to the point of alleged fatigue. The resources are available. However, it will take an effort by each and every one of us to enable individuals to achieve their full potential to contribute meaningfully to our society. 

We will all benefit. That much is certain.

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