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Disability in APS: bullying, distrust, bad ICT spark concern

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Something is rotten in the APS — at least for those with disabilities. The latest service-wide employee survey results from the Australian Public Service Commission show a worrying state of affairs for staff with a disability and it intends to find out what is behind the latest findings. Commonwealth ICT procurement regulations are also being challenged for failing to consider systems compatible with screen readers and other accessible technology.

Public servants with disability are twice as likely to be bullied or harassed in the last 12 months compared to the rest of the Commonwealth workforce. The warning bell of how different the public sector employment experience is for people with disabilities is found in their consistently lower satisfaction with the work they do, their immediate supervisor, remuneration, their work group, and the senior leadership in their agency. People with disabilities are also more likely to be forced out of the APS for reasons other than their choosing.

Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick has ordered an investigation into the troubling findings that will continue under his successor in 2015.

No other diversity group had such a negative collective experience. Indeed, indigenous public servants reported higher satisfaction in their supervisors and agencies than did the rest of the workforce.

Employee engagement -- employees reporting disability (2012 and 2014)
Employee engagement — employees reporting disability (2012 and 2014)

The APS has several schemes to encourage agencies to hire people with disabilities, including National Disability Strategy 2010–20, the As One — APS Disability Employment Strategy, the RecruitAbility pilot scheme for getting more disability candidates to interview stage, and a “Working Together” mental health at work guide from the APSC. In September the APS recruitment guidelines were streamlined to allow agency heads to nominate and recruit to more disability-designate positions without needing the commissioner’s consent — effectively providing a way to bypass the current national recruitment freeze.

Senior leaders in the service are fully on board. Earlier this year the APS Diversity Council set up a Disability Champions Network of mostly SES band 3 officials as visible role models and advocates for employees with disabilities. Department of Communications secretary Drew Clarke is its sponsor and represents the network on the Diversity Council. A new video series (above) was published featuring senior leaders in the APS discussing the engagement and development of employees with disability, including challenging attitudes about people with disability in the community.

Given all this central effort into bringing more people with disability into the workforce and demonstrate leadership commitment to being an employer of choice, how has the public service found itself with results like those published this week?

Disability discrimination commissioner Susan Ryan says the statistics are “very alarming” and she’s keen to find out what has happened. She’ll meet with Sedgwick or his successor about the results and the scheduled investigation.

“This requires explanation and action,” Ryan told The Mandarin. “The APS has a huge role to play in recruiting and employing people with disability. They have a huge employment base, they employ people over Australia, they have had important and relevant ethics. So why this has come out so badly I can’t explain it, but I’m very distressed to hear it.”

Targets remain worthwhile as a management tool, Ryan says, because they increase accountability. “If the APS sets a target, publicly, it makes it much more accountable to Parliament and the government, and it also means NGOs and other advocates can monitor it much more closely,” she said.

Separations of ongoing employees reporting disability by type of separation (2013–14)
Separations of ongoing employees reporting disability by type of separation (2013–14)

Since picking up the responsibility for disability earlier this year (funding cuts saw the disability discrimination commissioner abolished), Ryan has already realised the difficulty in changing systems and processes in the APS in pursuit of a good idea or a better outcome. After learning that some public servants still do not have appropriate accessible technology to enable them to be effective in the job they are qualified for, Ryan sought to change the procurement practices to encourage buying systems that are compatible with screen readers and other accessible technology for people with disabilities. Ryan says the problem is extant.

“It’s very uneven across the APS and sometimes a blind person will be in a well-supported situation with technology, in others they can turn up and find the technology is not compatible with the technology they use to access computers. The compatible technology is widely available by big suppliers because in the United States now the federal government requires compatibility in all its technology for the visually impaired — it’s a legal requirement. The European Union has now put in their regulations. The problem has been identified.”

Amending procurement rules has many complex factors, so Ryan is pursuing further discussions with ministers, agency heads and decision-makers in the APS about what it would take to add a requirement to Australia’s regulations.

If the technology isn’t there, how can public servants with visual disabilities feel welcome, Ryan asks. “I think it’s easier to get the respect of your colleagues if you’re producing the same work that they are — and you’re able to if the technology is right. If the technology is not right then you can’t and that would make contributing to the team a bigger challenge.”

Wednesday (December 3) is international day for people with disabilities.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.