Public sector must lead fight against disability, age discrimination

By Stephen Easton

April 23, 2015

Discrimination and unfair treatment in employment on the basis of age or ability is a social ill that unfortunately can only be cured slowly, much like homophobia, racism, or sexism.

Governments have a big role to play as some of the biggest employers around. All governments support diversity principles and have plenty of initiatives, projects and policies already in place, but the slow, grinding task of making them a reality takes persistence.

Of course, age and disability discrimination are separate and different issues, especially in terms of specific actions to address them. But with equal opportunity pioneer Susan Ryan responsible for both categories at the Human Rights Commission, it makes sense to combine them for the latest inquiry, Willing to Work, announced by Attorney-General George Brandis last week. Significant progress was made on these issues under the previous government and there are hopes this will keep the momentum going.

Susan Ryan
Susan Ryan

Ryan agrees the two are very different areas, and plans to manage the inquiry in two streams for that reason. In the disability stream, she’ll be seeking a commitment to achieve “a much better result” from federal mandarins. “Alarming” is how she describes recent statistics that showed Commonwealth public servants with disabilities report feeling bullied and harassed at far higher rates than their colleagues, inadequate provision of assistive technology and a decline in overall workforce participation.

“When it comes to the Australian Public Service, although the trend line for age is improving — there have been more opportunities for older people to either continue their employment or get employment, the performance in terms of disability employment is very poor, and worse than it was a few years ago,” Ryan told The Mandarin.

The dual-focus inquiry will also examine the diversity outcomes achieved by states and territories and their strategies to improve them. Ryan hopes all kinds of employers engage with her team and take note of their findings, but says its the larger ones that are best positioned to offer jobs to people of all abilities, given they have a more diverse range of positions to fill.

“I believe that there is a lot of government interest in changing this,” she says. “The relevant ministers are there saying this is no good, [that] we have to change this. I’ve already started meetings with the public service commissioner John Lloyd, and he is fairly responsive. But there’s a long way to go.”

“It’s not just a question of getting a job … you want to get into some sort of career stream like everyone else.”

The former ACT senator, who was Australia’s first minister with responsibility for the status of women, hopes the inquiry will be an opportunity to discuss discrimination as a broad social issue, and how combined efforts led by large organisations might change that. For the public service, she hopes the inquiry can shed more light on exactly what the barriers to progress are, particularly for people with disabilities, given there has been high-level recognition of the issue and concrete steps being taken for some time.

“I expect we’ll be having a big focus on people in middle management; they’re the ones who are managing the person with disability,” says Ryan. “How well prepared are they for these responsibilities? What do they understand about the circumstances of their employees with disability?”

The commissioner praises the APS disability employment strategy As One, and the RecuitAbility initiative that sits within it, which she believes will lead to more people with disabilities getting appropriate jobs. “But it’s not just a question of getting a job,” she adds. “You get the job and then you want to maintain the job; you want to get into some sort of career stream like everyone else. So, I think RecruitAbility is a very good approach but of course, by itself it’s not enough.”

The challenge of providing the right assistive technology required for various different disabilities, as revealed by APS surveys, is an issue Ryan is already very familiar with. She says it has taken months, in some cases, to have work spaces customised, leaving the person with disability in an awkward position where it is difficult to contribute to their team. It could be that the high prevalence of what is broadly termed “bullying and harassment” is in fact linked to a lack of accessibility, which further sets the person with the disability apart from their colleagues.

“That scenario I can readily understand and I have had anecdotal accounts to that effect,” says Ryan.

One change she is already pushing for is to have accessibility a mandatory requirement for all procurement, so that as equipment and supplies are replaced it becomes easier and easier for new employees with disabilities to hit the ground running.

Today, Ryan and Treasurer Joe Hockey launched the biggest ever national survey of the prevalence of ageism in the workplace. Among its findings, which confirm ageism is rife, it shows that public sector employees are more likely to think about packing it in after they experience age discrimination.

Older people are not officially considered a “diversity group” in the APS, and while there could be arguments both ways, Ryan believes it would be helpful if they were, and if the public service commission reported the age profile in all of its statistical releases.

Everald Compton
Everald Compton

Everald Compton, the founding chair of National Seniors Australia and current chair of the Per Capita think tank’s Longevity Forum, is probably Australia’s foremost anti-ageism activist. His most recent contribution was to Per Capita’s Blueprint for an Ageing Australia and he worked closely with Ryan’s predecessor Elizabeth Broderick on the former government’s Advisory Panel on the Economic Potential of Senior Australians, which managed to stand out in an area awash with countless reports saying largely the same things.

The panel found over 50 instances of age discrimination in legislation relating to public service work, at state and federal level, leading it to suggest age discrimination could be more prevalent in the public sector than the private sector.

“What’s the point of the government telling us [businesses] we’ve got to cut out ageism, when the government practises it themselves in the public service?”

“I think it would be stretching it to say it’s worse,” Compton told The Mandarin last week. “Ageism prevails in the community, there’s no two ways about that. Employers, whether they be public or private, practice ageism. An enormous amount of experience is lost to the nation because of that. There are too many employers, either public or private, who believe that on your 65th birthday … your brain clicks over and you become geriatric at that point.”

He does believe, however, that governments should be model employers.

“I believe that if governments announced that they were removing every bit of age discrimination in the public service, that they were introducing legislation to do that, that would set an example to the private sector that the government is finally changing,” he says. “I found back in the days when I chaired the forum for Wayne Swan, the private sector would say: ‘What’s the point of the government telling us we’ve got to cut out ageism, when the government practises it themselves in the public service?'”

That kind of thinking prevails, despite a significant amount of research showing older workers are more productive, ethical and loyal than the average.

“There are people and people; I mean I’ve met some people of 25 who in my opinion are brain-dead,” says Compton bluntly. “You know, it’s got nothing to do with age, it’s got to do with an individual person.”

There’s also a growing body of statistical research on the strengths of workers who have various kinds of disabilities.

Ryan says the Willing to Work inquiry will examine all the most up-to-date evidence and conduct some new research of its own to inform what will become the latest in a long line of reports, when it is released some time before July, 2016.

There is still lots of work to be done to chip away at these two forms of discrimination in employment opportunities, and the unfair treatment in the workplace that results from the same irrational biases. Public sector employers are not necessarily leaders in either but, says Ryan, they can and should be.

Read more at The Mandarin: Disability in APS: bullying, distrust, bad ICT spark concern

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