ADVICE: There is no excuse for not hiring people with a disability

As the global pandemic has forced many businesses to re-assess how they build and foster inclusive workplace environments, this interview with Karen Knight, Vision Australia General Manager Client Services, covers how businesses can be more inclusive for people with disabilities and the value of looking past stereotypes and misconceptions around working with disabilities to develop truly diverse workplaces.

  • Historically, what have been the biggest barriers to employers hiring and retaining talent with disabilities? 

There’s no doubt that in the past workplaces were more inaccessible than they are now, particularly when it comes to technology.

But given the wide range of assistive technology that is available today, along with government funding to help individuals and organisations access it, there is no reason this can continue to be used as an excuse for not hiring people with disability, let alone putting them in positions of leadership.

  • What have been the biggest barriers for talent with disabilities in finding work and growing in the workplace? 

We know that people with a disability are underrepresented in the workforce. In terms of the blind and low vision community, just 24% of people who are blind or have low vision in Australia are in full time employment.

More than 60% of people who are blind or have low vision believe employer attitudes are one of the main barriers to full-time employment and around 50% believe they have not been hired due to living with blindness or low vision.

Workplace accessibility, whether it be the physical work environment or systems and technologies used, is also a major barrier. 43% of people who are blind or have low vision believe workplace inaccessibility impacts their ability to find work.

  • What are the discrepancies between these perspectives? How can we overcome them?

There needs to be a shift in employer attitudes around hiring people with disability.

Bringing people with disability into your workplace doesn’t have to require large changes and employers need to be proactive in terms of understanding what is available to support them doing this.

Vision Australia can provide advice and support around making their workplaces accessible and inviting for people who are blind or have low vision, and government funding schemes like Job Access can fund equipment and workplace modifications that may be needed.

A true commitment to diversity will strengthen a workplace and there is exceptional value in an organisation having their workforce demographics reflect the differences in the community.

  • How has COVID-19 changed this landscape and the workplace for people with disabilities? 

Many workplaces have had to quickly adapt to most, if not all of their staff, working remotely. At Vision Australia, we effectively moved our entire work force of around 800 people to remote working in a matter of days.

Remote working can open up opportunities for people who are blind or have low vision, or live with any other disability, but COVID-19 has also shown that organisations have the ability to adapt to different circumstances.

We would hope that employers recognise this and understand that making changes to foster the employment of people with disability is not prohibitive.

  • Considering the way the workplace is changing, what can businesses can be doing now to ensure their workplaces are welcoming and accessible for people with disabilities, particularly those with vision impairment?

Many organisations will claim to have disability employment targets or similar, but these are relatively tokenistic unless there is an actual plan in place to achieve them.

At Vision Australia, one of our organisational targets is to have 15% of our workforce made up of people who are blind or have low vision and we have a number of structures in place to achieve this.

This impacts our recruiting process, the technology and systems we use at work, the training we provide and education we provide to our sighted employees.

All of this creates a workplace where people who are blind or have low vision are valued and able to work independently and collaboratively alongside their sighted colleagues. Importantly, it also creates a workplace where people who are blind or have low vision want to work.   

About the expert

Karen Knight is the general manager of client services at Vision Australia, where she has provided leadership for the past 13 years. 

Karen has been blind since birth. She is a registered psychologist with previous experience in mental health, youth suicide prevention and mental health promotion. She has worked largely in the health sector and for prominent community organisations.

For the past twenty years Karen has been involved in advocacy in the blind community including twelve years as a Director of Blind Citizens Australia, the peak advocacy body for blind and vision impaired people. She has also been involved in a range of disability sector committees and served on the Board of Vision Australia.

Karen is a specialist on My Aged Care, psychological support for people who are blind or have low vision, and delivering services that support the blindness and low vision community.

Image description: Photo of Karen in a patterned blouse and black jacket in front of a white wall. She is smiling and looking to the side. She has short blonde hair.