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Disability in the Workplace and Persistent Stigma

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Did you know that over two million people of working age in Australia are living with a disability?

And yet, only 45% of employers in healthcare, social and education services sectors believe that their organisation is equipped to employ them.

(Australian Network on Disability 2018; Choahan 2018)

What Does ‘Disability’ Cover?

Disability can include (but is not limited) to the following:

  • Total or partial loss of a body part, or its function;
  • Mental, psychological, or sensory impairment or disorder;
  • Learning impairment or disorder;
  • Medical conditions such as HIV or Hepatitis C that have the potential to cause disfigurement, disability, or malformation.

(Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission n.d.; Comcare 2013)

It is vital that your workplace allows a person living with a disability to work just as someone without a disability would be able to.

Many of the restrictions faced by people with disability arise because of society’s outdated and narrow ways of thinking about disability. A refined model of thinking could conceive of disability as the result of an interaction between a non-inclusive society and its individuals (Australian Network on Disability 2018).

Inclusive Language

Language is powerful. Historically, the terms we have used to talk about disability have ranged anywhere from insensitive to outright insulting.

The following provides examples of inclusive language:

  • Use ‘person with disability’ and ‘person living with disability’ - don’t use ‘disabled person’ or ‘handicapped’.
  • Use ‘person without disability’ - don’t use ‘non-disabled’, ‘able-bodied’ or ‘normal’ people.
  • Person-first language is the most widely accepted terminology. Examples of person-first language include: ‘person who is deaf’, or ‘people who have low vision’. Person-first language is achieved by putting the person first, and the impairment second (when it’s relevant).
  • People are not ‘bound’ by wheelchairs, the term wheelchair-bound should be avoided as it may cause offence. ‘Person who uses a wheelchair’ is preferred.
  • Avoid terms such as ‘suffering’ ‘inflicted by/with’ to describe someone living with disability. Make an effort to remove emotion from the description. For example, ‘Sam has epilepsy’.

(Australian Network on Disability n.d.)

For more information and more examples of inclusive language, visit this link.

It is a breach of Australian law to discriminate against someone in the workplace based on their disability.

In July 2008, Australia signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The aim of this Convention is to:

‘Promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.’

(UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2008)

Who Does the Law Protect?

We are legally bound to the standards of the UN Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In addition to this, Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act 1992 explicitly protects:

  • People living with a disability (temporarily or permanently);
  • People who have lived with a disability in the past; and
  • People who may have a disability in the future (for example, people who have a genetic predisposition to a certain medical condition).

(Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission n.d.)

The law also protects:

  • People who are accompanied by an assistant, interpreter or reader as required;
  • People who are accompanied by a trained animal such as a guide, hearing, or assistance dog;
  • People who use equipment or aids such as a wheelchair or a hearing aid.

(Australian Human Rights Commission 2014)

Employees who have a disability are protected from discrimination in all stages of employment, for example in the case of:

  • Recruitment: advertising; interviewing; and other selection processes.
  • Workplace terms and conditions: rates of pay; working hours; and leave entitlements.
  • Dismissal: including demotion and retrenchment.

(Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission n.d.; Australian Human Rights Commission 2014)

Direct and Indirect Discrimination

Discrimination in the workplace against people with a disability can occur in a way that is overt or subtle, termed direct and indirect discrimination.

Direct Disability Discrimination

Direct disability discrimination is the situation in which a person is acted toward less favourably, or not given the same opportunities as others solely because of their disability (Australian Human Rights Commission 2014).

Indirect Disability Discrimination

Indirect discrimination is less obvious. Indirect discrimination occurs when employers enact conditions, practices or requirements that might seem as though they treat everyone in the same way but, in fact, disadvantage people who have a disability.

An example of this would be requesting that a person who is deaf attend meetings in which no Auslan interpreter is provided. By not being able to understand what is being said during the meeting they are clearly being disadvantaged.

Disability Employment in the Healthcare Industry

A recent report highlighted that Australian employers have room for improvement when it comes to hiring people with a disability. It revealed that more than half of Australian businesses in healthcare, social and education services sectors overlook applicants with a disability (Choahan 2018).

The report is based on findings from the Australian Department of Social Services looking into employer attitudes towards hiring people with a disability. They discovered that only 58% of employers are currently employing someone with a disability (Choahan 2018).

Alarmingly, 38% of employers in the healthcare, social and education services industry surveyed consider employing someone with a disability to be ‘a step in the unknown’ (Choahan 2018).

The healthcare industry should be leading this movement, given that it is an industry that interacts with this community so closely (Chair of RACGP’s Disability Specific Interests Network, Bob Davis, quoted by Choahan 2018).

Accessibility In the Workplace

Reflect on whether your work environment is open, inclusive and accessible to people with a disability. Is there anything that could potentially impede a person living with a disability?

It is reasonable to request that your workplace improves accessibility in the following areas:

  • Access to the workplace (design, architecture and equipment);
  • IT and software;
  • Providing disability training for every worker (online or face-to-face);
  • Engage with accessibility suppliers;
  • Documents, websites and email messages; and
  • Communications, media and events.

(Queensland Government 2019; Australian Human Rights Commission n.d.)

Recommendations from the Australian Network on Disability, outline that your workplace should:

  • Express a clear commitment to improved access and inclusion.
  • Be able to demonstrate a strategic plan to address access and inclusion.
  • Engage with people who have a disability to find out what kind of adjustments they may require to perform their roles.
  • Have in place a clear and effective process for recording and implementing workplace adjustments.
  • Ensure that all staff, including people who have a disability, are able to access opportunity and career development equal to those who do not have a disability.
  • Training and events in the workplace should be completely accessible to people who have a disability.
  • Always use inclusive language.
  • Have physically accessible premises.
  • Provide information in accessible formats such as braille, large text, or in audio formats.
  • Have an accessible website, intranet and other digital assets.
  • Have recruitment and selection processes that are inclusive of people living with disabilities.
  • Have policies to ensure that their suppliers and partners are accessible to people living with a disability.
  • Have measures to prevent workplace discrimination in alignment with the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.
  • Have programs or initiatives in place to increase the confidence of, and actively encourage, people living with a disability.
  • Have fair and effective policies in place for sharing and monitoring information about disabilities.

(Australian Network on Disability n.d.)


While these adjustments may assist someone with a disability, it is worth noting that 88% of people who have a disability reported that they did not require additional support from their employer to be able to work (AIHW 2019).

This suggests that the primary reason for underemployment is a persistent stigma at a society-level, rather than any actual difficulties or restrictions to employing people with disabilities.

This idea is mirrored by the Australian Network on Disability, who claim that stereotypical assumptions and attitudes of employers about what people with a disability can or can’t do are the most significant barriers for people with disabilities (Australian Network on Disability quoted by Australian Government Comcare 2013).

A range of resources and supports are available to employers through the [JobAccess website] to assist them in the process of hiring a person with a disability.

The benefits of hiring people with a disability are numerous. Beyond the well-known benefits of a diverse workforce, workers with a disability have been shown to have, on average, higher job retention; better attendance; comparable levels of productivity; and fewer work health and safety incidents (Australian Government Comcare 2013).

Additional Resources
  • JobAccess, 'Access for People with Disability': https://www.jobaccess.gov.au/people-with-disability
  • JobAccess, 'Access for Employers': https://www.jobaccess.gov.au/employers
  • JobAccess, 'Access for Service Providers': https://www.jobaccess.gov.au/service-providers
Multiple Choice Questions Q1. True or false: Only 45% of employers in healthcare, social and education services sectors believe that their organisation is equipped to employ people who have a disability.
  • True
  • False
  • Q2. Which stage of the employment process is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992?
  • Recruitment
  • Workplace terms and conditions.
  • Dismissal
  • All of the above.
  • Q3. More than half of Australian businesses in healthcare, social and education services sectors…?
  • Overlook applicants who have a disability.
  • Are currently employing people who have a disability.
  • Are hoping to hire people who have a disability.
  • Feel ill-equipped to hire people with a disability.
  • References
    • Australian Government Comcare 2013, Disability in the Workplace, Australian Government Comcare, viewed 27 November 2019, https://www.comcare.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/127425/Disability_in_the_workplace_PDF,_71.9_KB.pdf
    • Australian Human Rights Commission 2014, Disability Discrimination, Australian Human Rights Commission, viewed 27 November 2019, https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/GPGB_disability_discrimination.pdf
    • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2019, People With Disability in Australia, AIHW, viewed 27 November 2019, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/disability/people-with-disability-in-australia/employment/employment-participation-needs-and-ch allenges/workplace-arrangements
    • Australian Network on Disability 2018, Workplace Considerations for Inclusion of People with Disability, Australian Network on Disability, viewed 27 November 2019, https://www.and.org.au/articles.php/37/workplace-considerations-for-inclusion-of-people-with-dis ability
    • Australian Network on Disability n.d., Inclusive Language, Australian Network on Disability, viewed 3 December 2019, https://www.and.org.au/pages/inclusive-language.html
    • Chaohan, N 2018, ‘Healthcare Employers Can Improve in Hiring People With Disability, New Report Shows’, NewsGP, viewed 27 November 2019, https://www1.racgp.org.au/newsgp/professional/healthcare-employers-has-room-to-improve-in-hiring
    • Queensland Government 2019, Make Your Workplace Accessible, Queensland Government, viewed 27 November 2019, https://www.forgov.qld.gov.au/make-your-workplace-accessible
    • Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission n.d., Disability - Workplace, Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission, viewed 27 November 2019, https://www.humanrightscommission.vic.gov.au/the-workplace/workplace-discrimination/type-of-discrimination/disability
    Author Ausmed Editorial Team

    Ausmed’s Editorial team is committed to providing high-quality and thoroughly researched content to our readers, free of any commercial bias or conflict of interest. All articles are developed in consultation with healthcare professionals and peer reviewed where necessary, undergoing a yearly review to ensure all healthcare information is kept up to date. See Educator Profile

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