Government as an Employer: What can all sectors of government do to improve the employment of people who are blind or vision impaired?
People with disability remain significantly underrepresented in the Australian Public Service and in the workforces of State and Territory governments and Local Governments. People who are blind or vision impaired have one of the highest levels of unemployment and under-employment (58%), even when compared to other disability groups. Governments, at all levels, need to lead from the front. Direct action on the part of government in employing people who are blind or vision impaired will also help to change the mentality of businesses across the country that hiring people who are blind or vision impaired can be an asset, not a liability.
The strategies below are intended to support governments and its staff around Australia to successfully recruit, hire and include a person who is blind or vision impaired within the workplace.
The successful employment of people with disability, in particular people who are blind or vision impaired, is reliant on accessibility across the workplace – a lift or ramp is not enough
- Commonwealth, state and territory and local governments should ensure that the leasing or purchase of office space, its fit-out and equipment (including software) are accessible to all employees. Accessibility considerations extend beyond just physical access – signage should be accessible to all employees, hardware used by staff such as photocopiers and phone systems must be able to be used by a person who is blind or vision impaired and internal software programs, such as databases, need to be compatible with screen reading software. Access to information in a range of accessible formats is also crucial.
Implement the National Disability Strategy, with a focus on improving recruitment and retention at all levels of government, including in senior management
- The Australian Government should, as a priority, work to improve the employment, recruitment and retention of people with disability, in particular people who are blind or vision impaired, in all levels of public sector employment and in funded organisations, as outlined in the National Disability Strategy.The rollout of this Strategy should be accompanied by measurable outcomes and include a higher rate of employment of people who are blind or vision impaired at all levels, including senior management and in decision making positions, according to the person’s qualifications, training and work experience.
Create a dedicated program to increase the employment of people with disability, in particular people who are blind or vision impaired
- As is the practice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander jobseekers, governments should investigate the development of a centralised dedicated program to address the recruitment and employment of people with disability, in particular people who are blind or vision impaired. This program should include disability specific resources, including the development of a central register of jobseekers with disability. The Australian Public Service Commission’s ‘As One: Australian Public Service Disability Employment Strategy’ should be used as a model by State and Territory and Local Governments, with the Australian Government to implement the recommendations of this Strategy across the APS.
Create disability specific resources
- Creating disability specific resources to help managers of a branch or team to understand what is involved. This might include an employment and capability strategy for job seekers with a disability, an employment strategy kit to assist agencies, specialised development programs and a liaison who can provide advice to agencies and job seekers with a disability on the framework and resources to support the employment of people with disability, in particular people who are blind or vision impaired.
Target under-performing departments
- Departments which have low levels of employment of people with disability should be specifically targeted to increase employment participation and other opportunities for people who are blind or vision impaired which can lead to work.
Improve access to formal programs which provide job seekers with experience
- Commonwealth, State and Territory and Local governments should lead by example in the development and availability of formal programs including vocation, traineeships, cadetships, work experience and graduate programs and in the development of mentoring programs.
Have a clear communication strategy to ensure that staff are aware of these opportunities
- These opportunities, and procedures for their implementation, should be well communicated within all levels of government to ensure that individual departments, agencies and staff are aware of the programs on offer, particularly when approached by Disability Employment Service (DES) providers and individuals.
Ensure work experience programs are flexible and are open to people of different ages and experience
- Work experience programs, graduate programs and internships offered by all levels of government need to be flexible – some students who are blind or vision impaired will not be able to complete their studies in the same timeframe as students without disabilities. Programs should also be open to students who study part time, students who are mature age and students who may have completed their studies more than twelve months prior. Graduate programs developed specifically for people with disability should provide graduates with the skills and knowledge to prepare them for the world of work, including effective communication, presentation, behaviour and expectations in the workplace.
- Dedicated government employment initiatives should be expanded and open to applicants with disability of all ages, similar to the affirmative action approach adopted by the APS for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander candidates.
Investigate the development of short internships for high school or post high school students
- All levels of government should investigate the development of short internships for students who are blind in their final year of high school or post secondary studies. These programs can provide students with the networks and resumes to compete for graduate program places and provide the job search and advocacy skills to obtain and keep meaningful employment.
Investigate tailored career advancement programs
- The APS, state and territory public services and local government should introduce tailored career advancement programs to develop talented staff with disability, in particular people who are blind or vision impaired. There is a strong business case for this investment as in the long term it will assist departments to become more disability literate and better meet the needs of the people they are working to serve, which include people with disability. Existing programs designed to develop talented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff provide a useful model, such as the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Executive Leadership Fellowship.
Contracts with external recruitment agencies need to clearly include the active recruitment of people with disability
- Government agencies which outsource recruitment should ensure that contracts with procurement agencies explicitly require the active encouragement of expressions of interest and applications from people with disability. Targets for the participation of people with disability within the recruitment process should also be documented in contracts.
Government communications should promote the skills and aptitude of people who are blind or vision impaired
- The Australian Government, through its communications, should actively demonstrate that people who are blind or vision impaired who have the right skills and access to adaptive technology and adjustments are capable, effective and efficient employees whose achievements need not be restricted to only limited areas of employment.
Be transparent and accountable about the employment of people with disability, including people who are blind or vision impaired
- All levels of government should be required to report the level of employment of people with disability, including people who are blind or vision impaired, in each department’s annual report and publications.
Best practice dos:
- Make a point of establishing a good rapport with the applicant or employee so that you can discuss any possible work related issues that may arise freely and frankly with each other. Issues are best dealt with sooner rather than later as a delay can often exacerbate problems that could have been easily solved.
- * In the event that you have any concerns about an employee’s work performance, make sure you discuss these concerns with the employee at an early stage, like you would with any other employee. Discussion is likely to lead to workable solutions, which might include re-arranging the person’s work system or environment or providing necessary extra resources, such as a piece of adaptive equipment.
- Professional growth and career development is important for all employees. As a manager of a work group or team which includes a person who is blind or vision impaired, ensure that that the employee has full and timely access to information about internal and external training and upcoming job vacancies. One strategy is to ensure that the employee has access to copies of government Gazettes in a format they can access.
Worst practice don’ts:
- As a manager of an employee who is blind or vision impaired, it is important not to prejudge or make assumptions. For example, do not limit your view of the person’s work capabilities in terms of other types of job you have heard that people who are blind can do. Rather, see the person as an individual, who can and should be judged and evaluated entirely on their own merits. Take the time and trouble to explore these merits in the context of their actual work performance.
- Don’t treat an employee who is blind or vision impaired any more differently than his or her colleagues than is necessary. Just as it is important to ensure that the employee does not experience unfair discrimination, it is equally important that the employee is not given any sort of “arm-chair ride” or preferential treatment on account of their disability. Not only is this unfair to others but it may cause feelings of resentment in fellow workers. The point to remember is to treat all employees equally and fairly and to ensure that all employees, irrespective of their abilities or inabilities, are given every reasonable chance to succeed and work in an environment which is free of discrimination.
Case study: Using teamwork to deliver admin support to colleagues who are blind
Encouraging teamwork and flexibility in the workplace can be one way to provide employees who are blind with the administrative support we sometimes need. It can also deliver unexpected benefits.
Sean is a senior policy analyst with a government department in Canberra. He is also vision impaired to the extent he cannot see text or icons on a computer monitor. He uses a screen reader, which reads aloud text with a synthetic voice. Sean uses this technology to produce written advice on social policy issues for government Ministers.
Sean likes to ask his sighted colleagues to proofread his work before submission to make sure that the visual presentation is spot on. He never has any trouble getting this administrative assistance, in no small measure because his junior colleagues see it as an opportunity to learn about the sensitive and confidential work that is usually not shared with them.
Sean also recognises that asking his less experienced peers to give his work a visual once-over is a way he can develop their policy skills, confidence and knowledge about current priorities.
It is a win-win for all involved and a creative way to deliver staff development and staff succession planning.
Sean’s senior managers noticed that his habit of asking colleagues to proofread all his work improved the quality of product coming up the line to them. They have asked all staff to follow his lead and share draft work with someone else before submitting it for clearance to Ministers. What started as a request for administrative support by an employee who is blind had the unintended outcome of becoming an opportunity for a team to find a better way of doing business.
Everyone in the workplace has strengths and weaknesses, and often weaknesses can be much more severe than the challenges employees who are blind encounter with visual presentation of written work. In smart workplaces people use teamwork to cover each other’s areas of weakness, to their mutual benefit and the advantage of their employer.