When the Morrison government announced a 7% disability employment target for the Australian Public Service in May, it really meant that it aimed to have more public servants with disabilities listed in agency personnel files. Other reliable measures show people with disability already made up more than 7% of the APS, well before the target was set. For the public service leaders, however, the challenge is to turn their agencies into more disability-friendly employers, where staff see more benefits than risks in disclosure.
Anonymous employee census data shows 8.7% of federal public servants have a disability, but only 3.7% have this status noted in their personnel file.
A situation like this is not unique to the APS and is widely believed to reflect widespread discomfort with the idea of having disability status recorded at work.
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The government’s target of 7% by 2025 relates to the lower figure, although that wasn’t made clear when it was announced, and public service leaders have now turned their attention to understanding why the gap exists and what they can do to close it. This target is more ambitious than those in New South Wales (5.6% by 2027) and Victoria (6% by 2020), but a bit less gung-ho than Queensland’s aim of 8% by 2022.
It’s a “laudable and important goal” in the view of the national disability discrimination commissioner, Ben Gauntlett.
Industry secretary Heather Smith, who has recently chaired meetings of the APS Disability Champions Network, says the 3.7% representation recorded by agencies needs to start trending upward.
“So why would our staff not tell us if they have a disability? Fundamentally, I believe we’ve never really given them a reason to do so,” Smith said, at a recent seminar on how the APS can meet the 7% target, hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia ahead of International Day of People with Disability (Tuesday, December 3).
“Rightly, I suspect they fear that this will be seen as a negative, rather than a genuine attempt by us to use this information to provide the tools that will allow them to work more easily and effectively.”
Smith explained the role of the Disability Champions group and pointed out some bright spots among APS efforts in this area of employment diversity. But she also urged her fellow public service leaders to consider why the Coalition decided to make the 7% target an election promise, and why their previous disability employment strategies had failed to “move the dial” much at all.
“We must confront and act on the fact that many of our colleagues remain reluctant to identify as having a disability,” she said.
Smith sees two main ways to do this.
“One: we need to ensure staff see the value proposition of self reporting, which means us as employers using that information to support them. And secondly, ensuring our recruitment and promotion processes do not explicitly or implicitly discriminate against the APS providing real employment opportunities for Australians with a disability.”
While a lot of people probably see disclosing their disability as a career-limiting move, other statistics show people who declare a disability on the anonymous survey are also more likely to perceive bullying, harassment and discrimination. APS commissioner Peter Woolcott summed up the challenge succinctly after the event:
“What can we do to create safe workplaces, where there’s a value proposition for people to share their disability?”
Get the comms piece right
Ben Gauntlett sees lots of good reasons why people with disabilities would benefit from ticking the box, but says these are not communicated well by employers in general. His main piece of advice to the APS leaders trying to achieve the 7% target was “get the communications piece right” to clearly explain the benefits of disclosing a disability.
“I think there is an enormous comms piece, both in the public and private sector, to deal with the unknown of why disclosure will not affect your career.
“If in doubt, you’re not going to check the box. Stigma says that to you.
“But how much of a communication strategy exists, as to why you should tick the box? What’s the benefit of ticking the box? How do you feel about ticking the box when there’s no [clear] benefit? If that’s the case, you leave it blank, so if there’s no comms piece saying why you should tick the box, then when are you going to tick it?”
Good communication is also important at the individual level, he said. Most new employees know very little about their employer when they start; people with disability also find their employer knows very little about their situation. And if the disability is recently acquired, he added, the person may not have all the answers about their needs either, so this will be a process of discovery.
“Good, respectful, repeated communication about what are a person’s needs [and] requirements enable a person to flourish in their role,” said the human rights commissioner, adding that adjustments and assistance should be informed by lived experience rather than “observed experience” alone.
On reflection, Gauntlett said this kind of “constructive communication” was the main factor in whether his own employment experiences went well or not, over about 20 years of using a wheelchair.”That is, where I felt that I could have a discussion with my boss or my manager, in a way where I could reveal any aspect of what was occurring and I could feel comfortable that I wasn’t being judged about it.”
He also emphasised the importance of autonomy. “If a person is treated respectfully, with autonomy, they’re going to more likely want to stay in the organisation, and tell their colleagues that the organisation is an organisation they want to work for. And then the benefits of diversity multiply.”
Gauntlett said personally, he was always one to disclose his disability on job applications because it was highly visible in his case, but even he has been advised not to tell anyone in advance and just deal with any difficult scenarios as they arise. That was not the right attitude at all, in his view.
“I think the reality of what we want is people to feel comfortable to disclose. To do that, I think you need to have clear structures in place, where the person who is contemplating disclosure perceives that they will not be discriminated against or treated less favourably because of the disclosure,” the commissioner said.
“And I like policies where there is a situation wherein a sense, their disclosure is siloed from other decisions that are made about that person, so if they wish to disclose, they can disclose to someone who will not necessarily be involved in other aspects of what they do. And then if they wish to bring [another] person into the conversation, they can choose to do so. So we give the person a sense of self-determination as to the extent of disclosure, and I think then you get better outcomes from that.”
Earlier, the National Museum of Australia’s award-winning diversity and wellbeing support officer, Scott Grimley, opened the discussion with some of his more negative experiences of working in the APS with a visual impairment. Earlier in his career, he said it was a major struggle getting access to a content management system that he needed to do his job, via his assistive software, and recalled having to repeatedly ask other more senior staff to do things for him using their computers.
“One thing others have often said to me when they ask for access to this sort of technology is they’re told, ‘You can’t [have access]. It’s a security risk.’
“So they then don’t know where to go. They don’t know how to push back on that, or how to ask the question. Or if they ask the question — what’s the security risk? — [the answer is] ‘Oh, you wouldn’t understand the platform.'”
Grimley used the special forum to throw down a challenge to the Australian Signals Directorate and the Department of Finance, asking them to produce clear and simple guidelines showing how assistive technology can be incorporated into the IT platforms of all departments and agencies.
Grimley is well aware that assistive software needs to undergo a risk assessment like any other program before it can be used in the APS.
“It’s not an excuse,” he said. “So, the risk assessment needs to be done, to see what the risk is to the platform, how it’s going to be managed, and then how is the assistive software going to be implemented — not how is it going to be stopped.”
In the same vein, he said building managers often argued they could not allow certain modifications for accessibility, also using erroneous excuses. “I’ve been told once that the reason the doors are so heavy… is because the senior executive wants it that way. No, it’s just the way it came out of the box.”
Grimley also called on Finance to develop new guidelines on the ins and outs of accessible offices, from minor modifications to major renovations.
In his view, achieving the 7% target through various strategies and special entry programs like NextStep, GradAccess and RecruitAbility is not just a job for agency leaders.
“It is also up to people with disability to step up, look at the details of those [programs], see how they can benefit them, and use those pathways to get into the public service.”
Normalise disability, don’t make it ‘inspirational’
Health Smith and Ben Gauntlett both found a third statistic relevant: overall, nearly one in five Australians has some form of disability.
Smith said the APS needed to be more reflective of society, describing the word as “a catch-all phrase that encompasses many different and diverse states of being” and noting that most barriers to workforce participation could be overcome if there was the will to do so. This prevalence also increases with age and the APS is ageing, she noted.
A new disability employment strategy is on the way, along with a new Indigenous employment strategy. The latest APS State of the Service report says these will aim to go beyond increasing numerical representation into building a greater sense of inclusion.
Early results from an evaluation of the old strategy indicate it had “limited outcomes” and people with disability generally found it “underwhelming in terms of changes on the ground”, according to APS commissioner Peter Woolcott.
“We can point to better engagement and an understanding of disability in the workplace, but that is clearly not enough,” said Woolcott, adding that the APSC had a “genuine desire to collaborate across the public service” as it develops the new version.
Members of a cross-agency team responsible for consultation and drafting of the new strategy were present at the panel discussion.
The Industry secretary said a change of mindset was required and argued the APS was also failing to attract more people with disability and “missing out on having the best possible workforce” as a result. “The business case is powerful,” she said. “Studies have shown that people with disability often surpass their counterparts without disability in terms of loyalty and productivity in the workplace.”
She said the disability champions had recently heard from a panel of people with lived experience of disability, including Gauntlett, who shared their own experiences and posed a series of questions for the Disability Champions to consider.
“Why would I want to work in the APS? What’s the value proposition? We, as an APS offer a person with a disability? What’s the narrative that draws people to want to join and grow in the Australian public service? Does the APS have the structures to mitigate bias so that we retain and build confidence of our employees with a disability?”
These kinds of “authentic conversations” initially feel like awkward conversations but, in Smith’s view, they are crucial to building the shared understanding that underpins inclusion.
“In the end, as Ben reminded us at our recent meeting, it’s all about normalising disability, rather than making it inspirational. It’s about communicating and approaching disability as a fact of life.”
Gauntlett hinted that the bizarre need to see people with disability as a source of inspiration or objects of charity could be a major reason people chose not to disclose their disability to their employer. In his younger years, trying to carve out a career as a lawyer, he wanted nothing to do with “disability issues” but found himself being periodically pestered for a photo by his employer’s PR flack. So he tried to give them the run-around.
“I just wanted to be known for what I liked, which was at that time being a lawyer. … I didn’t want to always have to talk about [my disability], and I didn’t want to be defined by it.”
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