Growing up, I thought my disability was my issue and that it was my responsibility to adapt. Over the years, we as a community have come to understand that disability is not an individualised medical experience and identity but rather, a somewhat shared identity made vulnerable through institutional structures. Evidently, there are many structural barriers within our institutions. These disparities are echoed within our communities and affect me and many others in our daily lives.

With legal reform being paramount to achieve substantive and effective change within our structures – people with disabilities unquestionably need to be included within said structures and within the legal workplace to try and shift the able-bodied status quo to an environment that is inclusive of diverse abilities. On October 17, I was fortunate to be the facilitator of a panel reflecting on accessibility in legal workplaces with speakers Alastair McEwin and Rania Saab, which was organised by the Law Students’ Society through the Social Justice portfolio held by Sarah Avery and Inga Nielsen.

Speakers on the panel

Alastair McEwin is the Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, who throughout his role has advocated strongly for the authentic empowerment of people with disabilities, while Rania Saab is a lawyer who happens to be hard of hearing – working at Legal Aid for over ten years, mostly in family litigation. This panel was generously supported by the Disability Project Fund – a unique initiative to UTS to encourage the creation of projects that promote disability diversity and awareness within the university. The night saw the speakers draw upon their own personal and professional experience to discuss the current state of the law, diversity within disability, societal and cultural attitudes towards disability and adjusting for accessibility.

The disability movement is relatively new in comparison to other activist movements. I acknowledge that we do not yet have a full macro understanding of this community or this movement. With the understanding that the people of this community have a range of experiences and intersecting identities. Although we could not have possibly spoken on behalf of everyone in our community, I was fortunate to be able to provide insight into some of the issues we face.

Disability in the workplace

According to the Willing To Work Report of 2016 about the disability community of Australia in the workplace – in 2014–15 the Australian Human Rights Commission received 3,529 enquiries about disability discrimination with 1,249 (35.4%) of these enquiries being in the area of employment. Both Alastair and Rania considered this a key reason as to why people are hesitant or face challenges when trying to disclose their disabilities through their recruitment process, and even once employed.

Workplaces place doubt or create assumptions about the capabilities of people with different access needs and through lack of exposure, are unsure or simply do not want to accommodate for these different needs. This proves difficult for people trying to get employed or maintain their employment – leaving Australian’s with disabilities more likely to be unemployed (10.0%) compared to those without a disability (5.3%), according to Disability, Ageing and Carers stats from the ABS. There are also additional challenges for people with psychosocial disabilities, mental illness and those with non-apparent disabilities – being prone to more assumptions towards them and less structured support available to them because they don’t necessarily exhibit their differences as people expect.

Inclusive practice

Additionally, the means to have universal design appears to be sparse and very costly within many professional workplaces. Assistive technology, space and modification are changes that are necessary to accommodate for people with access needs, but are not necessarily provided through the unfair judgement of cost and productivity. However it has been proven to be worthwhile in the long run to have employees with disabilities, as research shows that 90% of employees with a disability are equally or more productive than other workers (according to Deloitte’s Increasing employment for people with disability report). Along with that, employees with disabilities have a lower turnover, typically staying in their place of work for more than 28% longer (from Human Rights Commission paper on disability in Australia).

Despite the amount of progress that we still need, there was a collective agreement that inclusive practice has exponentially improved in a short amount of time – with more of the disability community getting access to education and the assistance they need to be more involved in their communities. The Commissioner is especially hopeful that with the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme we continue to see progress and structural change in our institutions and our involvement.

Like Alastair and Rania, I am hopeful that progress equates to the inclusion of the disability community being champions of our own narratives – advocating for ourselves and for others. We have not yet encompassed the full scope of our voices nor do we know the capacity of which our voices can, and will, collectively achieve.

Providing access

There is information available for employers, employees and jobseekers on the JobAccess website. Some of the topics covered include: financial support, workplace modifications, help with finding and changing jobs, creating flexible work environments, links to career advice and training courses, connecting with employers, providers and peak bodies and a range of other tools and resources for people with disability, employers and service providers.

Feature image by: Sebastian Pichler

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