You're a good person. You're conscientious, and maybe your organisation is already working in diversity areas. But disability makes you nervous. And not because you think there’s anything wrong with disability. Mostly, you just don’t want to make a mistake.

You don’t want to accidentally cause someone to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. Plus, you don’t know anyone in your workplace who is disabled. So, you focus on diversity areas you feel you can impact, and as much as it bothers you, you let disability fall to the bottom of the priority list.  

That’s the story we heard time and again from employers while researching how to create a leadership program for disabled young people.

Leadership can relate to the self, to family, to recreation, sport, creativity or community. But more often than not, disabled young people who co-designed our leadership program brought it back to employment.

Attitudes towards disability

So, we spoke to employers. We asked them where disability fit in their current operations. 

Their honest, unguarded responses came together to form the above story and teach us that, sadly, disability is not a priority. Compared to other diversity areas like LGBTIQA+ or CALD communities, disability is often at the bottom. Why?

Here is a list of reasons that many employers, managers, supervisors and decision makers all privately nod about, but might not say in public:

  • There aren’t any disabled people in the workplace (or more likely, people who openly identify) so there’s not a lot of personal motivation.
  • There’s a concern that adjusting the workplace would be difficult and expensive. 

  • Feeling intimidated by the huge range of access needs out there, and envisioning needing to accommodate for every single type of disability all at once.

  • Worried that staff aren’t ready to work with disabled people.

  • Thinking that certain activities in the workplace would never be able to accommodate disabled people.

When we combined the stories with the statistics, it becomes clear that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. A circular logic. It doesn’t seem like there are many disabled people in the workplace because workplaces discriminate against disabled people.

  • Australia has only 53% of disabled people working compared to 83% of non-disabled people. That ranks us as 21st out of 29 OECD countries and it’s getting worse.
  • Only 6% of Victorians have had contact with a boss with disability. That’s not 'worked for', that’s simply 'had contact with'.
  • 1 in 7 disabled people have faced discrimination in the past 12 months, and most often, from their bosses.

So we know workplaces and staff aren't ready for disabled people, and that's exacerbated by there not being enough disabled people in workplaces in the first place. Once a disabled person is in a job, they may not identify as disabled because workplaces don’t want to make adjustments, or worse, discriminate against them.

Young disabled people are under even more pressure, finding it hard enough to get their first job, let alone know when it is safe to disclose that they have a disability. So disabled people often aren’t broadcasting their disability or access needs, meaning bosses and managers aren't making adjustments or changing the workplace. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Circular logic.

Here’s a way to break this cycle: We know that the fears and concerns of employers are unfounded. They are valid but they aren’t accurate representations of reality.

We know that because we employ disabled young people!

I am a manager with a disability, and before I started at YDAS I ran media businesses and employed disabled young people. The facilitators of the Emerging Young Leaders Program who work with me are disabled young people too.

YDAS is currently staffed entirely by disabled people. The young leaders coming through our program have a huge range of different disabilities. All of us are doing solid work in a variety of industries, across a broad spectrum of tasks and skills, so with everything we've learned, here are some tips to make your workplace more accessible and inclusive.

Start with one person

A specialist school teacher explained how he wished he could tell more employers to not think about all the different disabilities and adjustments out there. To just think of Frank.

Frank wants to work with animals and help save the environment. He loves working outdoors and is particularly good at learning a routine like tending animal pens. He is autistic. Sometimes he needs to go somewhere quiet on-site, listen to his headphones and sort his trading cards.

How would you work with Frank one day a week? Start with one person, make it work for them, and see how you go.

Making adjustments

It’s noble to think of changing your entire business and practice to suit all disabilities at once, but it’s just not possible. Even our workshop, designed to do exactly that, couldn’t reach such a lofty goal immediately.

Politely and respectfully asking is the first step to adjusting a workplace to suit a person. 

The things you then adjust can often be the same things you do to enable anyone else to work well. 

  • Flexible work times are not only better for all of us—they enable disabled people to fit their lives into their day and still get their work done. Isn't it easier to start later or earlier in the day and work from home sometimes?
  • Using different forms of communication makes it easier for workers, especially those with communication access needs, to receive the information they need to do their jobs. Don't you have your own preference when it comes to email, Slack, Teams or a phone call?

When I was running a video production company, one of my team was an illustrator and graphic designer. Her visual mind created brilliant graphic communications that added a level of depth and cut-through writing alone failed to achieve. 

This artist also had dyslexia, and so the usual text messaging services we used were frustrating. Instead, we used short voice messages that were part of the same chat app anyway.

Once we started, we all got addicted, preferring to use our voice because it was easier to get ideas across and just plain quicker. Our artist was thrilled to be part of the conversation in a natural way, and we got the best infographics! 

Support for employers

There’s so many sources of support, training, and funding that you may not be aware of.

Australian Network on Disability is a great place to start, with even more links and information about employing disabled people. Visit the Australian Network on Disability's employment webpage.

JobAccess is the Australian government hub for workplace and employment information for disabled people, employers and service providers. Visit the JobAccess Available Support webpage to find out what support is available.

The Victorian government established Jobs Victoria, which provides tailored services to support and connect jobseekers and employers. Visit Jobs Victoria's How we can help your business webpage to find out what help you can get with recruitment.

Local Learning and Employment Networks increasing opportunities for young people in education, training or employment. There are 31 around Victoria—each drawing together community organisations from a local area. Visit the Victorian government's LLEN webpage to find your nearest LLEN.

YDAS resources

We have created a series of resources to help you work with disabled young people.

In the YDAS leadership program, before we connect our young graduates with disability to work opportunities, we have conversations with employers. It’s really important that we create a safe space for those employers to express their concerns, worriers, anxieties and fears.

If no one supports employers to overcome that initial apprehension, there’s a far lower chance they ever will. We know you can take more disabled young people on board. If you want to enable capable, talented young people with resilience, tenacity, and a unique perspective, try some of our tips. More importantly, start a conversation. Organisations like YDAS are here to help.

Find out more about YDAS and what we do by visiting our About YDAS webpage.

Simon Green is the Project Coordinator for our Emerging Young Leaders Program.