Disability employment services provider calls for end to stigma surrounding invisible disabilities

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday December 1, 2020


Disability employment services provider atWork Australia is calling on workplaces to educate staff on invisible disabilities ahead of the International Day of People with Disability this week.

Held on December 3, the day aims to increase public awareness, understanding and acceptance of people with disability, and will this year coincide with the release of the Australian Public Service Disability Employment Strategy 2020–25.

In recognition of the 2020 theme ‘seeing the ability in disability’, atWork Australia has noted that not all disabilities are visible. This includes mental and neurological conditions, impairments to the senses, chronic pain, and issues that restrict movement, according to Shaun Pianta, atWork Australia DES ambassador and disability awareness trainer.

“For example, people who live with a mental health condition may not ‘appear’ to have a disability but much of their daily life is affected by their condition. It’s the same with chronic pain, or diabetes. As a result of these conditions not being instantly apparent, this can lead to a multitude of misconceptions, judgements and sadly, discrimination,” he said.

Disability discrimination has consistently accounted for the highest volume of complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission for the past five years.

atWork Australia has argued that a fear of discrimination and social stigma could lead to people with an invisible disability hiding their condition from prospective employers.

Pianta said that in order to shape a society that is inclusive for all people living with disability, injury, or a health condition, society must recognise that not all disabilities are visible, and that “no matter the condition, we need to remove stigma to create better relationships for all”.

Business leaders in particular have a “pivotal role” to play in educating themselves and their staff about the benefits of hiring someone living with disability, and seeing the abilities that these workers can bring to their roles.

Read more: An ableist public service? How to shift the underemployment of people with disability in the Australian Public Sector

Sharah Smith, an atWork Australia client, lives with depression and anxiety. At one point this led to a severe social phobia and agoraphobia, which left Smith unable to leave the house alone, and had other impacts, such as loneliness.

“The fact that I couldn’t leave my home made it incredibly hard to even consider employment, and I worried that while people are usually understanding, some may still judge and think that I was ‘lazy’ or needed to ‘get over it’. When I began speaking with atWork Australia however, I began to trust them and the process due to their understanding of my illness,” she said.

“I now actually work for atWork Australia and love my job. While I still struggle with tasks such as making phone contact with clients when there are other people in the room, my experience as a client and living with an invisible disability has benefited both myself and my clients, as I am able to empathise with their situations and service them in a way that helps their progress.”

The Department of Social Services has produced a number of resources to help organisations plan and promote events celebrating the International Day of People with Disability.

atWork Australia has noted that while many organisations may still be working remotely, they can get involved online to celebrate staff members who may be living with disability and inspire employees to join in the conversation.

The Australian Public Service will release its new disability employment strategy this Thursday, to coincide with the International Day of People with Disability. The strategy will set a 7% disability employment target for the APS by 2025, and will focus on “attracting and retaining more people with disability and creating accessible, inclusive workplaces”.

APS employment data for the 12 months to June 30 shows the representation of employees with disability has risen slightly from 3.9% to 4%, according to the recently released State of the Service Report. However, this figure may be underreported, with 8.4% of employees reporting as having a disability in the 2019 APS employee census.

Agencies that hired a high proportion of employees with disability, as at June, were the National Disability Insurance Agency (11.1%), the Australian Public Service Commission (8.6%), the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (8.2%), Safe Work Australia (7.4%), and the Department of Social Services (7.3%).

The report noted about one-fifth of the Australian population live with disability, and 2.1 million Australians of working age (15–64 years) have a disability. Those of working age were twice as likely to be unemployed compared to people without disabilities, it said.

Read more: Why a 7% disability employment target for the APS really means a greater sense of inclusion and psychological safety


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