Royal commission hears people with disability in APS higher than databases show

By Jackson Graham

Thursday November 25, 2021

The disparity in the figures is partly due to under-reporting.
The disparity in the figures is partly due to under-reporting. (auris/Adobe)

The number of employees with disability at three APS workplaces is likely much higher than human resources databases show, a royal commission has heard. 

The Australian Taxation Office database indicates 4.6% of the workforce has a disability, but its submission to the APS census showed there were 1126 (8.9%) employees with a disability.

A similar story emerged at the National Disability Insurance Agency and the Department of Social Services, where senior public servants revealed to the disability royal commission on Wednesday that census data showed nearly double the number of workers with a disability than HR records did. 

The disparity in the figures is partly due to under-reporting, and also a push by the organisations to encourage workers to disclose their disability status. 

CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said in evidence she gave on Tuesday that there was a “clear gap” in the public service between the existence of disability and workers disclosing they had a disability. 

Donnelly said in a submission that the number of APS employees with a disability may exceed 8%. This is despite an Australian Government Disability Employment Strategy setting a target to lift the employment of workers with disability to 7%. 

“It would be unfortunate if this strategy did not result in more employment of people with a disability, and the only thing it achieved was addressing that disclosure,”  Donnelly told the royal commission. 

“That would be a good thing, but it doesn’t change the paradigm for people with disability.”

When it comes to encouraging more workers to disclose their disability — a process that was voluntary at the three APS organisations — Donnelly said a supportive culture and environment was necessary. 

A union survey found its member believed the potential for discrimination and barriers to employment opportunities were among the reasons some employees didn’t disclose a disability. 

The union also surveyed members about getting reasonable adjustments in their workplaces, and found fewer than 20% had a positive experience. 

“There are examples of people getting the support they need, but it really was luck of the draw about who your manager was and the particular outlook they had of those processes,” Donnelly said. 

The NDIA provided a survey to the royal commission showing less than half of respondents rated a “passport” system used for workplace adjustments as effective. 

The passport system helps workers with disability take workplace adjustment requirements with them throughout their employment without having to continually request adjustments. 

NDIA chief people officer Hamish Aikman told the commission the agency was committed to reviewing the passport. 

“We certainly ascribe to the objective that employees don’t have to relive or justify the reasons for which a workplace adjustment has been provided. That should carry though,” Aikman said. 

The agency employs a much higher proportion of people with disability (19%) compared with the general APS (4%), according to the APS census. 

“Work was commissioned in the early days — which has actually formed part of the structural setup of the agency to ensure that we do have policies and practices in place — that enables us to be accessible to people with disability,” Aikman said. 

Department of Social Services deputy commissioner Adrian Hudson said the public office did not capture the cost of workplace adjustments for people with disability. 

The royal commission heard earlier evidence of a perception of expenses for hiring employees with disability, but Hudson pushed back against this suggestion. 

“I don’t have a sense in our organisation that financial restraints are a consideration when you are applying reasonable adjustments. Of course, I will qualify that by saying I don’t have the data to back that up,” Hudson said. 

He told the hearing people with diverse backgrounds were drawn to work at the organisation due to the nature of its work. 

“We place a lot of emphasis on diversity in the workforce including disability,” Hudson said. 

ATO deputy commissioner Brad Chapman also said the office had put an increasing focus on diversity and inclusion in recent years, pointing out this had increased the representation of people with disability. 

“We have put a concerted effort into the importance of people disclosing diversity status to assist us in planning and providing support so we can channel information directly to our people that may be of assistance to them,” Chapman said.


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