DRC Part 2: Understanding employment barriers for those with disabilities

Despite diversity being accepted as an integral part of HR, people with disabilities still feel left out when it comes to entering the workforce. It was aptly put in the Disability Royal Commission (DRC) that while employers are willing to embrace workplace diversity, this doesn’t usually translate to more opportunities for people with disabilities as employers often regard the inclusion of people living with disabilities to be of lesser importance when establishing a diverse workforce.

So far the DRC has summarised the barriers to employment faced by people with disabilities in four broad categories: attitudinal, physical and environmental, organisational, and structural. In order to understand these barriers, let’s explore these in more detail.


Attitudinal Barriers

Attitudinal barriers is a term used to refer to the set of difficulties or challenges experienced by a person with disabilities that result from misunderstanding, confusing, or ignoring the disability, using the disability to dismiss the person, or to make unfair comparisons about the person's work performance. Attitudinal barriers are pervasive negative perceptions and value systems that focus on a person's disability, rather than their actual level of ability and other characteristics.

In regard to employment, these perceptions and negative attitudes can include the assumption that a person with a disability is not capable of working, or that they are not capable of performing a role to a high standard. As a result, people with disabilities can experience discrimination or lack confidence that they can safely disclose their disability to their workmates or managers. An example of the issue of whether to disclose a disability was highlighted in the DRC; Cody talked about how after completing TAFE, he realised that while job-seeking, he did not get past the interview stage whenever he disclosed his disability. This was further highlighted by another person now working in the Australian Public Sector, where they were deemed uncompetitive when disclosing a disability, despite being competitive in applying for the same job the prior year and not disclosing the disability in that instance.


Physical and Environmental Barriers

Physical and environmental barriers refer to the physical space within a working environment and whether it is able to be accessed and used by people living with disabilities. Whilst it is easy to assume that physical and environmental barriers might be limited to ensuring that workplaces have an accessible entry and exit, other examples of physical barriers include having an accessible toilet that is close by and easy to use, as well as designing working environments that take into consideration people with psychosocial or cognitive disabilities. This could look like the provision of “quiet rooms” where people are able to more easily communicate using modified phones or assistive technology or take time out from noisy open working environments to refresh.

The DRC also noted that another form of physical and environmental barrier involves the use of technology that is not accessible for people with disabilities, including “computer systems or programs that cannot run screen readers or speech to text, touch screens without audio descriptors, training videos without Auslan translation or captioning, or requiring all staff to use the telephone”. As in Beth’s situation, she struggled to find work due to there being no information available about accessible venues as well as having to use a lift to travel six floors to get to the nearest accessible bathroom, which impacted her productivity and wellbeing at work.


Organisational Barriers

Organisational barriers are things like company policies that don’t take into account the needs of employees with disabilities, the lack of appropriate support services, refusal by employers to make reasonable workplace adjustments for employees who require them such as providing a ramp or a desk-mounted armrest, and recruitment processes that are inaccessible (for example, shortlisting activities that are only carried out over the phone excludes people who live with a hearing impairment).


The DRC reported that one of the biggest contributors to inaccessible recruitment is the existence of the discriminatory inherent requirement mandating the holding of a driver's license as a necessary selection criteria. The DRC has also heard of multiple experiences in which people with disabilities had negative experiences with Disability Employment Services, with a recurring theme that they do not take into consideration the skillset and relevant experiences of the person with a disability when seeking work. Also, there have been numerous reported experiences involving people with disabilities being left out of opportunities for career development, and being dismissed when seeking available paid work even when they possessed relevant volunteering experience. This has been evidenced by a person with a disability who shared with the DRC that despite completing a Master's degree in Social Work his application for a paid role at the organisation he volunteered for was rejected, yet he was retained in the volunteer role doing the same work.


Structural Barriers

Structural barriers to employment can be caused when the foundation of organisations, institutions, governments, or social networks contain an embedded bias that provides advantages for some people and marginalises or produces disadvantages for others. When considering employment for disadvantaged people such as those with a disability, there are usually some government initiatives that aim to reduce the inequities faced by those people. The DRC noted that there exists numerous structural barriers in the employment of people with disabilities not limited to: “a lack of appropriate jobs available in the labour market and a lack of effective labour market policies that incentivise and prioritise the employment of people with disability”.


A key example is the initiative of Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs), which has been identified to be a breach of Australia’s obligations under international human rights law. Appallingly, employees of ADEs have been reported as being paid as little as $3 per hour. According to the CEO of Inclusion Australia, ADE’s are based on the idea that people with disabilities are not capable of working in the community, and that it is not fair to make them work in the mainstream community. It has also been noted that approximately less than 1% of people with disabilities in ADE’s transfer to mainstream employment.


These barriers result in a lack of opportunities for people with disabilities to enter mainstream employment and maintain steady incomes. But they also have other negative effects on a wider scale, including a lack of representation for people with disabilities in public roles, making it harder to recognise their potential, and an increased focus on low-skilled, casual jobs and programs driven by government compliance requirements that do not offer stable or long-term career progression.

Despite the barriers faced by people with disabilities when it comes to employment, they have significant potential that can benefit a workforce in a wide range of sectors and roles. In our next blog post, we will explore what people with disabilities say needs to happen in order to improve their experiences with employment.


Karen Ansen Consulting is passionate about creating workplaces that are diverse and inclusive. For more information on how we can enable your organisation, please email enquiries@karenansen.com or call 0407 863 017