Date posted: 27/11/2023 8 min read

Open-door policy

Employing people with disability shouldn’t be a nice-to-have but rather a need-to-have, with a raft of reports revealing the wide-ranging benefits of an inclusive workplace.

Quick take

  • The percentage of people with disability in the workplace is 53.4% in Australia and 44.1% in New Zealand.
  • More workplace diversity can lead to better engagement and productivity, workplace morale and problem solving.
  • Funding for workplace adjustments is available through JobAccess in Australia and the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand.

By John Burfitt

When it comes to discussing disability in the workplace, the one statistic that is possibly the most revealing is the number of people who have disability in the population. In Australia, it’s estimated at one in five, while in New Zealand it is close to one in four.

Lesley Slade of New Zealand’s accessibility organisation Be. Lab says, “When the reality is one in four people are disabled, who in their right mind would intentionally exclude a quarter of their potential  pool from employment?”

Many in the disability sector believe improvements are still needed, but agree the corporate sector is leading the way. However, getting the message through to everyone is taking time.

Slade says there’s still a preconception that employing people with disability will be difficult and costly, while research reveals more than 70% of people living with disability need no further assistance in the workplace. “And yet, we are blinkered by attitudes that don’t serve us well.”

Fiona Demark is a Melbourne resilience coach who works as an advocate for people with disability in the workplace. Denmark is a person who is legally blind.

“What these figures reveal to employers is it’s highly likely they already have people with disabilities within their own business and don’t know it,” she says. “Maybe some have what we call ‘hidden disabilities’ or they haven’t disclosed and they just get on with the job. There may be times when they need additional support but they don’t ask for it due to the stigma that surrounds disabilities.”

Tackling the myths

According to New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development (MSD), the most common myths regarding employing people with disability include the expense of making workplace adjustments, that such employees will have a higher absentee rate and that they are limited in the work they can complete.

The reality, Demark says, shatters such misconceptions. “All the studies reveal people with disabilities tend to be more productive, have fewer sick days and make fewer WorkCover claims because they manage their health well,” she says.

A report by the Australian Government’s disability employment hub JobAccess shows employers save A$40 for every dollar invested in workplace adjustments to support staff with disability; and disability-inclusive businesses increase profits more than four times faster than their peers.

JobAccess also offers the Employment Assistance Fund, providing financial assistance to companies for the cost of modifications to the work environment, and the purchase of equipment and workplace support services. The MSD offers similar financial support.

Inclusive work environment

The workplace audit

Agencies like Be. Lab, Employment New Zealand, Jigsaw, People with Disability Australia (PWDA) and the Australian Network on Disability offer consulting services that audit a workplace and offer recommendations on how to create accessible workplaces. This might be improving access to a building, modifying the way a job is done, or making policies or practices more inclusive.

“We have to be authentic when we talk about diversity and inclusion, and make sure we are not just ticking boxes that make us feel good, but that actually make no difference to the potentially diverse talent pool we could engage with,” Slade says.

“The biggest area of change required is in our attitudes and shifting the understanding from accessibility being seen as a problem to solve, to instead seeing accessibility as a competitive advantage.”

Jessie Moore, strategic account manager at disability service organisation Jigsaw, says more organisations are making contact for assessments.

“We get a lot of requests from organisations that have a general goal of inclusion and diversity but don’t know where to start,” she says. “What we do is provide education, awareness training and knowledge about accommodating people with disabilities within the job.

“Physical accessibility is an important factor in terms of how a person can cope within the workspace. Another big one is communication accessibility and how that operates, with considerations like emails, recordings, visual aids, as well as phone and in-person communication. These are often not big things, but they can make a huge difference to inclusivity.”

Workplace adjustments are something Nicole Lee, president of PWDA, speaks about with authority and awareness. Lee is a person who uses a wheelchair.

“It can be the things that are not so obvious, like can a person in a wheelchair reach the paper from the printer, or reach the kitchen bench to make a coffee,” Lee says. “We just want to feel autonomous as we make our way around an office.”

There’s also the matter of flexible conditions, including working from home and job-sharing arrangements.

“Working from home allows the employee to get the job done from the ease of their own place, which is usually well set up,” Lee says. “Job-sharing arrangements can also be very effective, as not everyone with a disability can work full-time hours. Job sharing can mean you get two committed people applying their talents to the one job.”

Neurodiversity at work

In recent times, there’s been greater awareness of neurodiversity, often used to refer to the autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and other conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Neurodiverse workers tend to be impacted by aspects of their environment like noise, lighting and smells, which might necessitate those people being allowed to relocate to quieter areas at times, or to wear headphones to block out noise.

Discussion about neurodiverse workers has seen the narrative shift from it being considered a disability to those team members instead being valued for their skills of sharp focus and attention to detail.

Moore recalls the case of placing neurodiverse clients in underwriting roles with an insurance company, only to receive feedback weeks later.

“Their manager called to say our clients had completed most accurately, very complicated work within two days, yet management had allocated three weeks.”

A flexible approach

In May 2023, Deloitte Australia launched its Designing Deloitte for Everyone initiative, after consulting the Australian Network on Disability’s Access and Inclusion Index – a directive that gives organisations practical insights on their journey to be accessible and inclusive of people with disability. The comprehensive three-year plan offers design guidelines for gold-standard office spaces, equity and career development, and accessibility inclusion.

The action plan includes extensive training, with a focus on the talent acquisition team so that an inclusive approach is offered from the recruitment phase onwards.

“This allows conversations to commence early, so a candidate knows they will be coming into a workplace that cares about their experience and that there is support in place to ensure they are able to perform and feel their best,” says Tina McCreery, Deloitte’s chief human resources officer. “We are also offering internships, as well as a mentoring program to support people with disabilities throughout their careers with us.”

The Deloitte Flex policy offers 12 models of flexible working and has proven to be particularly effective with one neurodiverse worker.

“She flexes her work hours in the morning, takes time out in the middle of the day and then comes back later in the day, and her output is great as a result,” McCreery says. “People who are neurodivergent often have specialist skills with data and technology, and we want talents like that on the team.”

Into the future

The Deloitte program is indeed a move in the right direction and highlights the value of an inclusive workplace.

“In the past 12 months, more than 10,000 people who were receiving JobSeeker, [with a] health condition or disability, cancelled their benefit because they found work,” says Dwina Dickson, group general manager of system performance and improvement with MSD. “We know most people want to work and with the right support, they can.”

A more inclusive work environment results in a significant impact on the company culture, not to mention enhancing the company’s brand for its broad talent pool and commitment to social responsibility.

“The more we’re seen and included, and the more we’re working alongside our peers, the more we’re going to be seen as just regular colleagues,” Lee says. “We break down a lot of stigmas when we increase inclusion, as others are exposed to who we are and how we live.”

Diversity in the profession

The 2023 CA ANZ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Report revealed that 23% of CA ANZ members are living with a disability, impairment or medical condition.

The CA ANZ membership was also above the globally benchmarked inclusion index norm, with 93% of respondents recording an absence of discrimination in the workplace in terms of equity, inclusion and their personal characteristics.

Also, 77% of the respondents living with a disability stated they believed their unique attributes, skills and experience are valued by their organisation.

The CA ANZ report will be available later this year.

Disability employment in Australia and New Zealand


  • 53.4% of Australians with disability are in the labour force, compared with
  • 84.1% of people without disability
  • 53% are employed full-time
  • 36.7% are employed part-time
  • 10.3% are currently unemployed, but willing to work.

Sources: Disability and the Labour Force (2020), Australian Bureau of Statistics

New Zealand

  • 44.1% of New Zealanders with disability are in the labour force, compared with
  • 84.7% of people without disability
  • 67.6% are employed full-time
  • 32.4% are employed part-time.

Sources: Labour Market Statistics (Disability) (2023), Stats NZ

Hidden disabilities and HR responsibilities

Hidden disabilities are more common than visible ones, and may include intellectual disability, mental-health conditions like anxiety and depression, and chronic physical conditions.

Effective human resources policies to support such individuals are essential for creating an inclusive and accommodating workplace, says People with Disability Australia president Nicole Lee.

“People often don’t want to disclose for fear of discrimination, so that’s why having policies that are actively promoted and put into play can be vital for people feeling comfortable to discuss their issues without fear of stigma,” Lee says. Deloitte’s HR chief Tina McCleary adds this is when open discussions and effective storytelling in the workplace can play a crucial role.

“If there are HR policies in place that enable these topics to be spoken about openly, the support to be explained and role models who tell their own stories, then it goes a long way to allowing team members to feel their workplace is an environment where they can safely disclose and get the support they might need.”

Take away

"Disability Friendly: How to Move From Clueless to Inclusive" by John D Kemp, offers ways for businesses to realise the opportunities presented by employing people with disabilities.

Read more