The inclusion of people with disability in all areas of life, including employment, is a core focus of the National Disability Strategy, Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Despite these commitments and tenants, people who are blind or vision impaired have one of the highest rates of unemployment in Australia.
Addressing the disadvantage experienced by people who are blind or vision impaired in their opportunities to gain employment requires further targeted action. The strategies below focus on how the Australian Government can successfully meet their national and international obligations.
Supporting people who are blind or vision impaired to reach their potential
Support innovative approaches to enable people with disability to set up their own business
- The Australian Government should encourage and support innovative approaches to employment such as social enterprises, small businesses or initiatives to assist people with disability to establish their own business, as outlined in the National Disability Strategy.
Providing practical support to small and medium size businesses
Businesses need to know what’s involved in hiring a person who is blind or vision impaired and how to go about making it work
- Governments at all levels should provide assistance to private and small business to develop practical and sector specific workplace strategies and disability action plans to enable the meaningful employment of people who are blind or vision impaired. This should be coupled with increased practical information to employers of the benefits of employing a person with disability (including statistics) and the promotion of supports and incentives available.
Support for businesses to enable career advancement is also important
- Blind Citizens Australia also recommends that employers receive support from government in delivering professional development, training and career advancement to their employees with disability. For example, employers should be able to access workplace modifications funding to assist them to provide materials in alternative formats to print, such as Braille or audio.
Consider increasing employer wage subsidies to help people who are blind or vision impaired get a foot in the door
- The Australian Government should investigate the increase of employer wage subsidies. Employer wage subsidies can make a significant difference for job seekers to get a “foot in the door” whilst easing employer concerns about the training phase. Whilst the cost of living and salaries have increased significantly, the current DES wage subsidy has remained relatively static since its introduction.
Increase the word to employer groups and other stakeholders about how a DES can help
- The Australian Government should work to promote the availability and role of DES through employer groups, industry and professional bodies (such as the Chamber of Commerce and Business Council of Australia), unions and the public to lead to increased opportunities for jobseekers with a disability.
Ensuring that legislation enable people who are blind to get jobs and stay in jobs
Safeguard the protections afforded by the Disability Discrimination Act
- Blind Citizens Australia supports the Commonwealth and state and territory governments maintaining legislative protection in the areas of employment, and specifically for the right of employees with disability to receive professional development, training and career advancement opportunities. These protections within the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) and within state and territory laws should be preserved in any move to consolidate all rights protection legislation into a single instrument.
Extend protection – develop Disability Standards for Employment
- Discrimination in the area employment remains one of the greatest areas of complaint. The Australian Government should work to develop Federal Disability Standards for Employment which align and clarify disability discrimination in all areas relating to employment. This should be accompanied by parallel legislation which ensures that these Standards can be enforced.
Develop mandatory standards which apply to whole of government regarding accessible procurement
- The compatibility of new computer systems with software and technology used by employees with disability should be resolved by the development of whole of government requirements which embed accessibility.These requirements could be modelled on Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act. This section requires that electronic and information technology used by US Federal agencies is accessible to people with disability.
Modify workplace laws to recognise disability related leave as a genuine need
- Governments need to maintain rights protection and flexibility in workplace laws to facilitate temporary changes such as leave to grieve vision loss, time off to re-train and acquire the new skills people who are blind use in the workplace and redesign work roles to maximise the contribution someone new to vision loss can make.
Funding programs to bolster employment are critical into the future
Funding of employment assistance programs is vital
- The Australian Government must continue to fund employment assistance programs, including the Employment Assistance Fund (Workplace Modifications Scheme) and Jobs in Jeopardy programs and endeavour to expand their guidelines to enable greater enforcement of the National Disability Strategy.
Address the eligibility criteria of the Employment Assistance Fund and Job Access
- Job seekers, volunteers, casual employees (including those who work less than 13 weeks consecutively), part and full time employees, contractors, people who are self employed and individuals wanting to start their own business should be eligible for assistance under the Employment Assistance Fund (Workplace Modifications Scheme) and Job Access Schemes to access the assistive equipment they need to be work ready. Temporary work, volunteering and work experience can be useful for gaining experience within an organisation or for another role. Flexibility in program funding is needed to enable individuals to take up short term work opportunities and increase their skills. Access to funding and equipment should not be tied to a person’s residency status within Australia.
Once funded, programs, such as workplace modifications, need to be flexible to offer support where gaps are identified
- Many positions, including entry level positions, now require an employee to multitask and perform administrative functions which may be impossible for a person who is blind or vision impaired to comply with. Guidelines for the Employment Assistance Fund need to be made more flexible to allow for a wider range of support to employees to perform non-accessible components of their role, particularly where technological modifications cannot assist. The provision of some administration assistance, information in accessible formats and ongoing technological support for adaptive equipment are some examples of current gaps within funding guidelines.
Ensure that people who are blind or vision impaired can access the blindness support services they need
- Support services assist people new to vision loss to obtain the blindness skills needed to do their work in a different way. Support is also necessary for clients already in the workforce who need to maintain their disability-specific capabilities, such as use of assistive technology, orientation and mobility and self-advocacy skills.These issues must be considered as part of the design of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and in any other future reforms to disability services.
Include self determination in reform thinking
- The self-determination of employment needs as people who are blind, rather than the funding of services being paid to assist people into a limited range of employment options also requires further consideration in the development of the NDIS.
Reform of Disability Employment Service Providers
A jobseeker should be able to choose their own DES
- Jobseekers should be provided with the opportunity to independently select and approach a DES of their own choosing. Whilst referrals by Centrelink to a DES are helpful for some individuals, the requirement to complete job capacity assessments and the limited range of DES providers offered by Centrelink can inadvertently increase hurdles to employment.
Age should not be a barrier to access a DES
- The criteria to join a DES should not be arbitrarily restricted by age, with the removal of the requirement that jobseekers must be under 65 years of age. This age limit should be reviewed in light of the increase in pension age eligibility, increased financial pressures to continue working and the desire by older employees to continue to remain in the workforce. An older jobseeker can have a lot to offer a potential employer and should be able to access the support of a DES as necessary.
Support DES to support young people into work experience programs
- Young people are the future of this country. Government has a role to play to ensure that people who are blind or vision impaired, especially young people, are provided with the educational and employment skills necessary to be able to contribute economically. One step is to ensure that DES providers are supported by government to assist students and job seekers to gain relevant work experience which translates to employment.
Encourage DES’ to focus on under-employment and transition pathways
- DES providers can also play a vital role in improving the employment prospects of individuals who are underemployed. Individuals who are already in work but under-employed (both in terms of the hours worked and the skills used) and employees working at an Australian Disability Enterprise (ADE) should be entitled to access a DES service to enable their transition to well paid and/or open employment.
Develop a DES performance framework to enable continuous improvement
- The analysis of DES program performance should set out a DES’ performance in assisting jobseekers with the greatest need for assistance, particularly people with disability on income support payments, in seeking and maintaining employment. A performance framework should include key performance indicators which relate to average weekly wages and average weekly hours of work to ensure that people with disability are meaningfully employed.
Generic DES contracts should be based on evidence of past performance
- Contracts for generic disability employment services should be based on evidence of past performance, including outcome rates for individual services, success of placements and provision of ongoing support. This information should be publicly available.
Consumers need to be front and centre of decisions to reform DES in the future
- Consumer organisations, such as Blind Citizens Australia, should be consulted in the current and future re-designs of the DES system. The reform of DES should include a reference group made up of a representative sample of people with disability receiving services whose needs are not currently being met, to ensure that processes can be improved.
Targeted research will enable government to see how it is tracking and what areas need further targeted work
- The Australian Bureau of Statistics, as an independent and respected authority, should be commissioned to undertake research, and publish a regular report, which summarises the employment outcomes for people with a disability, with specific reference to people who are blind or vision impaired.
Best practice dos:
- Embed accessibility requirements in all IT procurement and design specifications and include testing in pre-release approval processes.
- Partner with blindness agencies to obtain expert technical advice on how to maximise accessibility and produce training materials specific for assistive technology users.
- Adopt flexible approaches to programs to allow gaps to be addressed and innovative approaches to be considered – this could make all the difference to the new or continued employment of a person who is blind or vision impaired
Worst practice don’ts:
- Don’t try to retrofit IT applications for accessibility – it is very hard to do. Universal design should be incorporated into the development of all new systems to ensure maximum accessibility prior to its use
- Don’t ask staff who are blind or vision impaired to use IT training materials that assume use of a screen and mouse pointer. These materials will not be accessible to many people who are blind who use screen reading software using keyboard strokes.
- Don’t think that accessibility is ‘optional’ because this will leave agencies vulnerable to litigation, adverse media coverage and trouble with their Minister. Accessible systems benefit all employees, not just those with a disability and demonstrate not only good practice but good business.
Case study: Inclusion is about more than a ramp
In April 2007, the then Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, the Australian Government agency responsible for promoting increased workforce participation by people with disability, introduced a new electronic file management system called Document Manager without first checking its accessibility with the adaptive technology used by its blind employees. Document Manager turned out to be so inaccessible with screen readers that employees who were blind could not even open documents or save their work.
Former agency head Dr Peter Boxall was so angry with his IT staff over this mistake that he ordered them to make personal apologies to affected colleagues who were blind and immediately made accessibility testing a mandatory part of future IT procurement.