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Author's Name: Eleanor Edstrom
Date: Tue 06 Oct 2020

Why the Stigma Around Disabilities in the Workplace Needs to Change

Underemployment rates  

In Australia, people with disability make up almost 20% of the population [1]. Yet, only 48% of working-age people with disability are employed, in comparison to 79% of people without disability [2]. 

According to the CREDH, people with disability are far more likely to experience job insecurity than workers without disabilities [3]. Professor Anne Kavanagh, one of the authors of this report, told Pro Bono news that disability-based discrimination in Australia is extremely prevalent in comparison to other countries, with little to no improvements in unemployment rates over the past two decades [4]. 

“Discrimination on the basis of disability is the most common reason for complaints in relation to employment discrimination. It’s higher than race based discrimination and higher than gender based discrimination,” Kavanagh says [4]. 

Job seekers with disabilities often face continual rejection from employers on unfair grounds, receiving less opportunity for paid work than typical Australians. On top of this, they are typically paid less than people without disability and, on average, work less hours than their capacity. 


The Impacts of Underemploying People with Disabilities

For people with disabilities and society at large, the impacts of unemployment can be especially harmful. 

“Employment and financial security is really important in terms of a whole range of other outcomes, like the ability to access housing and social networks. If you can’t get employment due to discrimination, you’re locked out of a whole range of opportunities,” Kavanagh says [4].

Not only is unemployment closely linked to financial instability, but it can also have damaging effects on one’s mental health and can lead to increased psychological stress. This is because employment often provides individuals with a heightened sense of purpose, independence, and liberty. Employment can also play an important part in enhancing quality of life, improving self-confidence and expanding the social networks of people experiencing disability [5].

On a broader scale, failing to employ people with disabilities can detract from the GDP of the nation, with around 3.96 million Australians who have a disability [1]. Lower labour force participation of people with disability has also been linked to increased welfare dependency. 


The Benefits of Employing People with Disabilities

Why do employers so frequently turn away job seekers with disabilities? Numerous academic studies point to employers’ pessimistic perceptions toward disability as the root cause of their low economic participation [6]. Graeme Innes, who was Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner from 2005 to 2014, similarly suggests that the answer lies in social stigmas around disability. 

“The biggest barrier to full participation in the community for people with disability is attitude. Most Australians with disability experience the soft bigotry of low expectations. If we can start to raise that expectations bar, we may be able to better address this attitude barrier,” says Innes.

The work-related abilities of people with disabilities are frequently underestimated, or worse, go unacknowledged altogether. However, studies have found that the performance levels of workers with disabilities were not identifiably lower than workers without disabilities [6]. People with disabilities are assets in the workplace and, just like all other employees, hold valuable skills that can be used to contribute to society in a positive way. 

On top of this, having a team that reflects the diversity of a community inevitably gives companies a competitive advantage. Not only are the needs, interests and perspectives of a wider cross-section of society useful in informing the decisions that a business makes, but customers and employees are also more likely to be loyal to organisations that demonstrate values of social inclusion. 

Another common misconception held by employers is that people with disabilities are more costly to employ. However, this is simply not the case. Deakin University found that employees with disabilities generally had less days off and maintained longer tenure, which has the potential to reduce costs related to frequent staff turnover [8]. It was also reported that, on average, hiring workers with disabilities did not involve extra costs than those without disabilities. This is as workplace adjustments are able to be covered by the Australian government’s Employment Assistance Fund (EAF). 

Despite the immense body of research that challenges the stereotype of employees with disabilities as burdens, little action has been taken to promote the importance of disability inclusion in the workplace. The benefits of employing people with disabilities are manifold and should not be ignored. If we are to see any significant improvement in labour force inclusivity and employment opportunities for people with disability, the stigma surrounding disability needs to change. 


[1] “National Inquiry into Employment and Disability: Issues Paper 1”. Australian Human Rights Commission, 2005, 

[2] “People with Disability in Australia”. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020, 

[3] “The impact of underemployment on people with disability”. Centre of Research Excellence in Disability and Health, 2017, 

[4] Michael, Luke. “Unemployed Australians with Disability Face High Levels of Discrimination”. Pro Bono Australia, 2017, 

[5] Lindsay S, Cagliostro E, Albarico M, Mortaji N, Karon L. “A Systematic Review of the Benefits of Hiring People with Disabilities”. J Occup Rehabil, 2018, vol 28, no. 4, pp. 634-655, doi: 10.1007/s10926-018-9756-z. PMID: 29392591.  

[6] Bonaccio, S., Connelly, C.E., Gellatly, I.R. et al. “The Participation of People with Disabilities in the Workplace Across the Employment Cycle: Employer Concerns and Research Evidence”. J Bus Psychol, 2020, vol 35, pp. 135–158, 

[7] “Breaking the attitude barrier”. Vision Australia, 2018, 

[8] “Business benefits of hiring people with disability”. Australian Network on Disability, 2020,

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