Commonwealth launches APS disability employment strategy

By Shannon Jenkins

December 4, 2020


The federal government has released a new strategy to boost and retain the employment of people with disability in the Australian Public Service while building a lasting culture of inclusion.

The APS Disability Employment Strategy 2020-25 was launched at an IPAA event on Thursday, coinciding with the International Day of People with Disability.

The strategy has set a goal to increase the employment of people with disability across the APS to 7% by 2025, up from 3.7% in 2019.

To achieve this, it has two focus areas — the attraction, recruitment and retention of more people with disability at all levels within the APS, and the creation of accessible workplace cultures and environments — with 18 actions aimed at agencies and staff.

One action the strategy puts forward, in order to build an inclusive culture, calls for agencies to provide disability awareness and capability uplift for managers and senior leaders.

“Leaders play a vital role in creating and maintaining positive workplaces that are free from stigma and discrimination. We need our leaders to act as role models — and ideally as coaches and mentors,” the strategy said.

“Through modelling consistent and unbiased behaviours, our leaders and managers can foster a culture where all employees, including employees with disability, feel safe, valued and respected, and are supported to perform optimally. Visible commitment by senior leaders backed by meaningful assessment mechanisms can ensure acceptance and support for workplace initiatives concerning disability.”

Fiona Thornton, director of the Department of Home Affairs’ people and culture division and a panelist at the launch, said it’s important to equip managers to support their staff, “no matter what their abilities”.

“What we need to do is support [managers] with guiding principles and policies,” she said.

“We need to help them to feel empowered to order that workplace assessment that someone might need, to have that conversation about reasonable adjustment, and to go out and seek the adaptive technology that their staff member is going to need to reduce those barriers and unlock the other skills and qualities that they have to offer to the public service.”

Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources general manager and panelist Nathan Hannigan, who has a lived experience of anxiety and depression, noted that leaders also need to be vocal about their disabilities, as many disabilities — including mental illness — often go unnoticed.

“I think it’s really important that senior role models, both internal and external to our agencies, speak up and talk about their lived experience with disability and I would hope that in doing so, it sort of builds that inclusive culture, and raises awareness of disability in the places we work, and through that provides support to everyone,” he said.

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

The Senior Executive Service has been tasked with implementing the strategy, while the Australian Public Service Commission has been charged with building a partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission to identify, support and enhance good practice.

AHRC disability discrimination commissioner Dr Ben Gauntlett noted that the public service is not a business — it exists to serve the population, and must therefore reflect and understand the communities it works for, including those living with a disability.

“4.4 million Australians live with disability and 2.7 million Australians have caring responsibilities. What occurs in these people’s lives cannot be learned in a textbook. Rather, it must be learned from individuals themselves,” he said in a keynote address to the launch.

“But that’s not to say that a colleague of a person with a disability does not learn from having them in the same workplace. It is important to understand that if we want to affect societal change the Australian Public Service must reflect the communities which it serves.

“We know to affect change, you have to have an effect upon a personal, organisational and societal level when developing policy. The Australian Public Services’ disability strategy has that effect. This is not just about profit and loss. It is about good policy and ensuring we have the best policy for Australia.”

Read more: Low number of people with disability in APS raised at the UN

The strategy was developed by a cross-agency team led by the APSC and through extensive consultation with people with disability from within and outside of the APS.

Department of Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell said the strategy was an important milestone in the journey of inclusion and equality for the APS, and “marks a new era in how we empower people with disability”.

“We are moving our culture towards one which celebrates and welcomes diversity. We’re shifting the conversation away from the barriers and challenges of engaging with people with disability to a conversation focused on benefits,” she said.

“For the individual, increasing employment opportunities unlocks and improves economic security, independence and wellbeing. For the public service, having a culture inclusive of all Australians increases our appeal and attraction to prospective employees. It helps us become an employer of choice and improves our workplaces through staff being welcomed, engaged and retained.”

Campbell said having a diverse APS workforce will drive better policy programs, services, and outcomes for all Australians, and shows other Australian employers “the value of employing people with disability”.

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