Disabled people are mostly ignored by Australian businesses but Melbourne conference highlights five ways to create social change and employ more people
As you would expect, the economic and social welfare of disabled Australians was the key point of discussion at the Disability, human rights and social equity conference held at the University of Melbourne this month.
The program was headlined by Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, disability advisor to the World Bank Group, while other sessions were led by prominent spokespeople, including Ron McCallum, Graeme Innes and Rosemary Kayess who all have lived experience of disability.
Disabled workers can’t afford justice to deal with workplace harassment
In a rare show of solidarity, academics, disability practitioners and activists all agreed the stories we tell around disability have to avoid merely tugging on the heart strings in order to make any real lasting social change.
Well-meaning intentions are nice, but they have done little in a practical sense to get us employed and therefore economically active in our communities. Instead what emerged from the conference was a practical five-point plan for the business community to adopt to really make a difference.
Hire disabled people
People with disability make up 10% of the potential workforce yet the unemployment rate, as MacCallum said, is sitting at 9.4%, compared with 6% of the rest of the population.
Recent research by Prof Anne Kavanagh also shows the state of unemployment affects disabled people’s wellbeing substantially more. But don’t pity them, employ them. The JobAccess website has plenty of information on how to adjust the workplace and culture to make it workable for all.
Disabled people are ignored at best, and dismissed at worst, because in various degrees, they function slightly differently from the norm. As a result, a capable, not to mention vibrant, portion of Australian society are sitting at home, unemployed. As human rights lawyer Rosemary Kayess said, “No one is talking about our rights as human beings…” let alone, enforcing them.
McClain Nhlapo made the point that business must understand what exclusion really means in order to see disability as a catalyst for economic growth. If we look at disability through a social lens, rather than a medicalised impairment framework, we begin to see inequality and discrimination everywhere. We build inaccessible buildings and don’t blink because “it’s more financially viable”.
And so the destructive cycle begins.
Good access is good business
As MacCallum pointed out statistics show one in five people have some sort of disability. So potential customers are encountering serious obstacles in their attempt to access businesses.
I’m not even talking here about explicit physical access. Too often, when considering accessibility, people think of wheelchair ramps and handrails, then conclude they are too hard or costly to implement.
Instead as McClain Nhlapo said in her keynote address, it’s about access in the broadest sense, and being aware that not everyone navigates society in the same way.
What if the computer says no because you are a disabled consumer?
So having clear and wide pathways would be an excellent start, and if you need signs, ensure they are pictorial in some way, and at a reasonable height. Retail businesses should also adopt flexible return policies for people who can’t try products in the store, and ensure any exchange of goods and money is simple and straightforward for everyone. This is about creating an inclusive mindset to provide services to all people, regardless of ability.
And if there’s not an accessible entry, don’t apologise profusely. All that’s required is to be gracious, and make the person feel like a valued customer. Think of this as building the social framework for an inclusive community (in the absence of the physical architecture).
Assume all customers are capable and competent
Make sure the way you deal with everyone is inclusive. People may have hearing, vision or even communication difficulties, so it’s important to make sure employees takes time to communicate clearly.
Listening is a quality that is vital when dealing with someone who is trying to acquire any service.
All too often communication is directed at those who may be accompanying the person with a disability.
Small things go a long way to helping the customer feel seen and respected for who they are.
However, if exaggerated gestures or loud, slow speech is used, it may come across as condescending and undo all the good work done so far. These strategies are often ineffective in communicating anything other than your own discomfort. If you are nervous or uncomfortable, just acknowledge it, take a breath and have a laugh about it – believe me, disabled people have heard all the silly things before, and survived.
Develop good community partnerships
Local organisations that cater for the disabled are often looking for ways to participate in the wider community and no offer of assistance will go astray. Even if premises are inaccessible, there are other ways to embrace the diversity existing in your own neighbourhood, bearing in mind that this is your client base. McClain Nhlapo said it is by forming those relationships and learning from people personally, that true access can be nurtured and social inclusion can occur.
Finally as she pointed out, “Exclusion limits opportunities and the real trigger of economic growth is inclusion.”