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Ground-breaking TV points the way for SA employers

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Discrimination against people with a disability in the workplace is a big issue in South Australia but a ground-breaking documentary shows how perceptions can be challenged, writes Commissioner for Equal Opportunity Niki Vincent.

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There’s been some life-changing TV on our screens recently – and I’m not referring to The Bachelor.

I’m talking about the ABC TV documentary series Employable Me, based on a UK program of the same name (and, commendably, part-funded by the NSW Government’s Department of Family and Community Services).

This is a truly a ground-breaking piece of work. I hope it will challenge people’s notions of what diversity and inclusion are all about — especially when it comes to the stigmas around disability employment.

It’s an area that needs much more attention. Disability employment figures are shocking. Those living with a disability aged between 15 and 64 have lower participation rates (53 per cent) and higher unemployment rates (9.4 per cent) when compared to those without a disability (83 per cent and 4.9 per cent). An estimated 34 per cent of people with disabilities work in professional or managerial positions, yet university graduates with a disability take more than 50 per cent longer to get a job.

We could do something about that if we really wanted to. That’s what the producers want us to understand, and more exposure to the issues and possibilities will help to break some of the fear that is holding us back.

The nine subjects of the documentary live with a range of neuro-diverse conditions including autism, Tourette’s and Fragile X syndrome, yet the viewer is forced to confront their own preconceptions as they watch these young people transform into very capable employees, appreciated warmly by both customers and staff alike for the skills they bring to the job. It’s gripping and often emotional stuff.

Stories about people who have been turned away from jobs time and time again concern me greatly. In fact, disability discrimination in employment is the number one issue we hear about at the EOC, in terms of the number of complaints received.

But it can be very hard to change entrenched attitudes. Many still view ‘disability’ as something to be pitied, with a real focus on the inability to do something rather than looking at someone’s individual talents. Tests commonly used in recruitment examine generic skills rather than looking at what that candidate might need to do a job.

All people have varying degrees of ability. When some people are viewed as not meeting the social construct of what’s considered ‘normal’ this is a problem – not with the individual, but with the misinformed and restrictive attitudes held by society.

But tell that to the person living with a disability and looking for a job. We know it’s the one area where conforming to the image of ‘normal’ seems the only way to succeed.

Employable Me confronts this notion directly and reviewers have been struggling to find enough superlatives to describe it. Karl Quinn from the Sydney Morning Herald said: “It doesn’t pretend that the conditions these people have do not present challenges for potential employers. It doesn’t pretend there’s any quick fix. But it does make a compelling case for us all to look beyond the conditions so that we can see the people behind them – unique, challenging, vulnerable and proud. And sometimes incredibly gifted too.”

I couldn’t agree more. We’re forced to think about the diverse stories of individuals living with real obstacles, but who also have many underappreciated abilities. They deserve the same chance as everyone else to make a real contribution to the economy, and yet they have been shut out.

With assistance, the nine subjects of the program successfully found employment in diverse fields including accounting, IT and retail – and importantly gained a boost to their sense of empowerment, self-worth and independence. It also reduced their reliance on the public purse.

Documentary producers at Northern Pictures, of course, did the hard yards in locating employers ready to give the nine candidates a job and to provide one-to-one training to help them get through interviews and briefings. That privilege isn’t open to most. But the documentary also showed employers out there what’s possible, how disability employment can enhance the success and reputation of a business, and how it will improve Australia’s productivity as a nation.

Research shows being a genuinely inclusive employer brings tangible business results. Customers are more loyal, staff are happy to work for someone who values inclusion, and employees living with disabilities make a great addition to a team. They tend to take fewer days off, stay in the job longer and have fewer workplace injuries.

It’s true there are allowances that had to be made for the subjects of the documentary, including more flexible working hours and greater access to training, but these are elements that could be beneficial for all the workforce. Although many employers believe workplace modifications might be too onerous to employ a person with a disability, if required they are rarely extensive and there is government funding available to cover some costs.

I believe it’s time to think more broadly about this topic. In the future with an ageing demographic, the cost of labour will become more expensive. For our own economic survival, we need to expand the supply pool and ‘think outside the box’. National Disability Services estimates disability employment could fill up to 15 per cent of the projected shortfall in the workforce.

It’s high time every business starts to think more closely about these issues and to make concerted efforts to reduce the level of discrimination faced those living with a disability.

I hope Employable Me might provide food for thought in this regard and inspire action.

Dr Niki Vincent is the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in South Australia, and convenor of the Chiefs for Gender Equity. Vincent recently launched a workshop series aimed at helping businesses to adopt better workplace diversity and inclusion practices. She was formerly the CEO of the Leaders Institute of SA.

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