Support for Workers with Disabilities Calls for Three-way Partnership

The Age

By Graham Bradley
President, Business Council of Australia

Improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities is a win-win goal for business and the community sector. Three recent federal government changes to disability-related payments are important steps in helping people who want to work to be in a better position to do so. But government, business and the community need to work together to make these changes work in the way they are intended.

There is much common ground between large employers and community in wanting to support groups of Australians currently under-represented in our workforce.

A similar level of common ground has been demonstrated by our political leaders in achieving bipartisan agreement on much-needed changes to disability-related payments and support. Every Australian should be encouraged and enabled to participate in the workforce and community life, yet too many people with a disability face barriers when it comes to looking for work. A little over half of working-age Australians with a disability are in the labour force compared with the 83 per cent of working-age Australians without a disability, and we need to address this imbalance.

The government’s move to change eligibility rules around the disability support are positive, focusing on what people can do rather than on what they can’t.

The government’s draft legislation relaxing tax treatments on disability payments will also enhance the capacity of recipients to achieve economic independence, and of carers to provide for children with a disability.

Finally, the decision to fund a National Disability Insurance Scheme, if implemented effectively, could increase choices for people with a disability, and support more effective participation in the community and the workforce.

The recent changes to disability payments will go some way to improving the incentives for under-represented groups to participate in the workforce. Implementing broader reforms to the transfer system recommended by the Henry review would go further in providing the right mix of supports and incentives.

Addressing the participation imbalance and catching up with countries such as New Zealand that have much better outcomes for people with a disability calls for hard work on the ground. This hard work must be undertaken by a collaboration of government, business and community groups.

Employers need to recognise people with a disability as productive contributors rather than focusing on potential added risk or cost.

Research from the Human Rights Commission has shown that employers are not at greater risk of OHS issues when they employ disabled people. On the contrary, the loyalty and commitment from employees with a disability results in lower turnover, fewer sick days and higher engagement.

Government services need to be streamlined to allow a package of necessary support services to be accessible for individual disabled clients – as recommended in the Productivity Commission’s draft report. Those support services range from health-related services to education and training, employment-related services and pre-employment preparation.

Employers need better support in being able to find and employ people with a disability who have the right skills and competencies. Current services are too remote from understanding employers’ needs and being able to locate or develop suitable candidates.

In all of this, it is important to remember that these initiatives are designed to help people with a disability to realise their potential. This means getting the financial incentives right and providing the support services people need for independent living and working.

The announcements to date are a good first step. We look forward to seeing more in the government’s response to the Productivity Commission’s report.

Solving these problems is by no means easy. But when different sectors unite to identify and implement solutions, the task becomes more achievable.