5 People Living With Disability Pinpoint How Workplaces Can Do Better

Everyone deserves to feel safe and included at work. But there is still a long way to go to make Australians who are living and working with a disability feel that way in the workplace.
According to research conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in six people aged between 15 and 64 who have a disability has experienced discrimination in the past year. Of those people, one in four was discriminated against by an employer, and two in 11 were discriminated against by a colleague.
Stamping out this discrimination is a priority, and creating accessible systems and inclusive spaces is just as important. Each of us has a role to play in creating a culture where every colleague is safe, respected and treated equally.
We asked five people who are living with a disability about what we can all do in the workplace to be better allies, and foster a more inclusive workplace.
Here's what they had to say.

Renay Barker-Mulholland (she/her)

Unfortunately, I've been on the receiving end of racism and discrimination based on my physical and psychosocial disabilities in almost every workplace I've been in. Some of it comes from the lack of physical access (like when I'm unable to even enter the building because it isn't wheelchair accessible), but a lot of it has been a result of people's attitudes.
I believe that everyone has a responsibility to contribute to making any public space they're in an inclusive environment. So, if you see an area where your workplace could improve? Do everything in your power to enact that change. If you can't change it, find out who can.
The most impactful change that workplaces can make to be more accessible and welcoming to everyone would be to employ someone (with suitable lived experience) to ensure that equitable access is always a priority. Having an Access and Inclusion representative is a must!
Actively listen to and centre the voices of people with disability. Stick up for us even if we're not there. Challenge the ideas, structures and systems that discriminate against us. 

Molly Kennedy (she/her)

I struggle with fine motor skills on my right side. At work, I used to have other nurses say, "I can do that for you; let me do it." This infuriated me — let me have a go at the task and then ask for assistance if required.
I have many thoughts about this; however, the one I keep coming back to is listening. Listen to the person who has a disability in the workplace. That person has often worked ten times harder to enable themselves to have a chance at being in the position. They hold so much wisdom around 'life' and have adopted different skills and knowledge to defy the odds of their disability to be in the workplace.
But listening must go hand in hand with oversight from the employer. They must be the ones who recognise and acknowledge that there is a problem and be willing to point out what the problems are. It's important to hold regular chats about what works — and be honest about what doesn't.
When hiring a disabled person, have an open conversation about their strengths and weaknesses early, so the workplace can adapt the environment for the person to feel safe when they arrive and not like a burden. When I got my new job, my boss gave me a form to fill out about my desk situation, and I was able to express that I needed a certain chair and that when my cerebral palsy flares, I need to stretch and move my body. 
Lastly, it is also the responsibility of allies and peers to be the voices of the disabled person; to drive the movement and act as a catalyst. If this is done correctly, this team of the ‘disabled person’, the organisation/employer and allies are able to stamp out discriminatory behaviours.

Akii Ngo (they/them)

Workers with a disability are twice as likely as workers without disability to experience discrimination and/or harassment. They are amongst the most discriminated cohorts in Australia and this is evidenced by the fact that the employment rate for disabled people has barely changed in 40 years! A lot of this is because of ableism — where society often has low expectations, preconceived notions and misconceptions about people with disabilities. And if we have different (or additional) intersections and identities (race, gender, sexuality, age etc), the discrimination and challenges are even worse.
Change needs to be systemic and sustainable. There need to be enforced frameworks, policies, practices and procedures in place to truly protect employees. Organisations not only need to recognise but genuinely implement anti-discrimination laws, supportive practices and reinforce the protected attributes of their employees. It needs to be role-modelled from all aspects of a workplace, from the top down and bottom up. Staff need to feel supported, appreciated and welcomed.
Employers and their colleagues need to recognise that every worker (with or with disability) are people, and that all of who they are should be valued and respected. When employees feel safe and supported, they are more likely to be committed to working and feel more loyal. Every person has the right to be who they are, not hide parts of their identity and be unapologetically themselves.  All workplaces truly committed to inclusion should have inclusive policies on topics such as accessibility, flexible workplaces, LGBTIQA+, trans and gender-diverse staff, gender-affirmation leave, parental/carers leave, family/intimate partner violence and any other policies specific to their sectors.
You can be a better ally to colleagues living and working with disability, by personally breaking down any internal or external ableism you may hold (intentionally or unintentionally!) so that you can genuinely recognise and accept that we can and do positively contribute to workplaces (and society as a whole). Colleagues with disabilities can be, and are often, just as capable as you are, if not more...or in different ways! We're highly adaptable and problem solvers - living in a world, literally not built for us.
The only potential difference of having colleagues with disabilities is that they might need adjustments to access the work/information differently, move about the world differently or communicate differently than you. It’s not bad, an inconvenience or wrong.. just different. Facilitating accessibility and meeting your colleagues' access needs is levelling the playing field and making things more equitable so everyone can have a fair go!

Nas Campanella (she/her)

I've had different work experiences, but mostly, they have all been pretty inaccessible. Even simple things like induction papers or OH&S forms — all those things that you fill out when you start at a workplace — were not accessible.
Even something as simple as when you apply for a job, the application process is often not accessible. It's usually on a very visual system and not compatible with screen readers. So, even at the point of recruitment, you are disadvantaged.
And then I've also obviously faced discrimination and people having low expectations in regards to my abilities and people thinking that I was not worthy of a job because I wasn't able to fulfil what they perceived as the requirements. And then other things like people thinking once you get a job, you're happy with that job, and you can't possibly want career progression or a more senior role.
This has been my experience with every workplace, across a wide variety of sectors. This is not isolated to one industry or type of job, and this is the experience that four million-plus Australians with disabilities face every single day.
I think [being an ally] is not waiting for someone with disability to flag a problem. If you see someone struggling with something, just ask in a way that's really respectful, whether someone needs additional support or adjustments to make their job a bit more accessible or inclusive.
It shouldn't just be the disabled person who needs to always push for systems to be accessible and inclusive. If someone with a disability makes a comment about something not being accessible, then take it upon yourself to talk to the managers. It shouldn't just be us. Disability inclusion ultimately impacts everyone and it's a good business decision to be inclusive and accessible. We all have a responsibility to do it, not just the people who are directly impacted by something.
[Workplaces also need] to be doing disability awareness training. Everyone needs to have an employee-led network so there is support and mentoring for people with disability. You [also] need to make sure your [internal] systems and your basic systems online for recruitment and retention are accessible. You need to make sure that the actual physical space is disability-friendly. And you need an action plan that doesn't just sit in a desk drawer.

Fiona Murphy (she/her)

It is not unusual to feel nervous when talking about disability and discrimination. These are big conversations! But we all play a part — access and inclusion are everyone’s business, and there are so many ways you can be inclusive.
I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said, “But you don’t look deaf”. This might seem like a harmless comment, but it reveals so much. I’ve learnt that no matter how much detail you provide someone about your medical history, if you don’t fit their definition of what a disabled person “looks like”, chances are slim that they will respect your access requests.
Don’t wait for someone to disclose that they have a disability. Make access a priority for everyone in the workplace. Get into the habit of asking your workmates questions like, 'How do you work best?' 'What’s your preferred mode of communication?' and 'Do you have a preferred working style?'.
If a workmate discloses that they have a disability, don’t pry into personal details (that’s just rude!). Instead, ask if they have any access requirements you should be aware of.
Change takes time, repetition and leadership. Create opportunities for accessibility to become a routine conversation in your workplace. For instance, aim to make every meeting (online and in person) accessible and inclusive. There are countless ways to signal that accessibility is a priority:
- Offer a range of meeting times.
- Provide an opportunity for people to alert the meeting host that they have access requirements.
- Include an access check at the beginning of every meeting. This may include a short spiel, such as: 'If you have any difficulty hearing, seeing or participating in today’s meeting, please let us know.'
If you want to be a better ally, start thinking about equity. Often people believe that equality is achieved by treating everyone exactly the same regardless of their individual circumstances. True equality is achieved when you consider a situation through the lens of equity: you may need to allocate different amounts of resources to ensure that everyone achieves an equal outcome. For instance, when a disabled person makes an access request, they aren’t asking for 'special treatment' — they are asking to be included.
For anyone reading who doesn't have a disability, now is the time to follow these five people's advice: don't wait. Ensure that access is up to scratch in your workplace; you can find more access and inclusion resources here.
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