The Big Issue : Edition 435
“It makes no sense morally or economically to disenfranchise 20 percent of the population.” to disenfranchise 20 percent of the population.” Sound Bites In conversation with Jenny Boulton ADVERTISEMENT Can any of us foresee a time when businesses fight each other to employ people with disability? A time when every workplace is welcoming and accessible for everyone. It would be a radical step if this happened, far more than any decision to employ people along gender, racial or religious lines, because it would require every workplace to be compliant with the needs of people with disability. It would mean adherence to standards like accessible bathrooms, corridors and doorways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, benches and tables at prescriptive heights, lifts and equipment capable of being used by people who are hearing or vision impaired or have a cognitive impairment. Clearly, it would come at an economic cost that many smaller employers would baulk at. Some employer groups may attack the idea as being driven by an ideology too far removed from the economic reality of doing business in the present environment. And yet the statistics show that these fears are largely unfounded. In fact, if the speakers who addressed the Australian Network on Disability conference in Sydney last month are on the money, it makes good commercial sense to employ people with disability. There is also a benefit to society. This was borne out by a Deloitte Access Economics report in 2011 on ‘The economic benefits of increasing employment for people with disability’, which argued that the economic modelling suggests that closing the gap between labour market participation rates and unemployment rates for people with and without disability by one-third would result in a cumulative $43 billion increased in Australia’s GDP over the next decade in real dollar terms. I could go on, chapter and verse, and quote many of the speakers who addressed the conference to show that employing people with disability would be in Australia’s long-term interest as it faces a seismic demographic shift towards an ageing population and the need for more people to be working to contribute to the tax base. It is certainly enough to say that it makes sense on every front for people with disability to share equally Australia’s employment opportunities and the good life that comes with having a paid job. What I do want to see is a constructive national conversation about making every workplace capable of being accessed by people with disability, whether they are employees, clients or suppliers. Just as the idea that people of a different colour should be forced to sit at the back of a bus or drink from a different tap is totally abhorrent, so too is the idea that people with disability are disadvantaged in the workforce because of economics. I also want that conversation to canvas the cost of compliance and who will bear it. When you plumb the issue down to its practical level, it’s unrealistic for small companies and businesses – many of whom are struggling to survive – to invest in compliance. These businesses don’t have the profile of the larger employers but cumulatively represent the largest employer group in Australia. I doubt if many of them could close their doors for more than a few days while renovations are taking place. This is obviously about generational change. There is no quick fix and there will be agitated opinion on all sides of the debate if and when we begin this conversation. We are limited by our imaginations so let us imagine boldly! Jenny Boulton is General Manager, Lifestyle Support and Choice, Specialist Services, with Yooralla. She is one of Australia’s most experienced administrators in the disability field and a highly-regarded advocate for change.