Disability in the Workplace and Persistent Stigma


Published: 30 November 2022

Did you know that over 2,000,000 people of working age in Australia are living with disability (AND 2022)?

Despite this, only 45% of employers in the healthcare, social and education services sectors believe their organisation would be equipped to employ someone living with disability (Choahan 2018).

What Does ‘Disability’ Cover?

Disability can include (but is not limited) to the following:

  • A physical, psychological or neurological condition
  • Temporary or permanent illness
  • Injury.

(VEOHRC n.d.)

It’s vital that your workplace allows a person living with disability to work just as someone without disability would be able to.

Many of the restrictions faced by people with disability arise because of society’s outdated and narrow ways of thinking about disability. A refined model of thinking could conceive of disability as the result of an interaction between a non-inclusive society and its individuals (PWDA 2022).

disability in the workplace

Inclusive Language

Language is powerful. Historically, the terms we have used to talk about disability have ranged anywhere from insensitive to outright insulting.

The following provides examples of inclusive language:

  • Often, people with disability have a strong preference for either person-first (e.g. ‘person with cerebral palsy’) or identify-first language (e.g. ‘autistic person’). It’s important to respect each individual’s preferences about the language used about them.
  • Use ‘person without disability’ - don’t use ‘able-bodied’ or ‘normal’.
  • People are not ‘bound’ by wheelchairs - the term wheelchair-bound should be avoided as it may cause offence. ‘Person who uses a wheelchair’ is preferred.
  • Avoid terms such as ‘suffering’ and ‘inflicted by/with’ to describe someone living with disability. Make an effort to remove emotion from the description. For example, ‘Sam has epilepsy’.

(PWDA 2019)

For more information and more examples of inclusive language, see People with Disability Australia’s guide to language about disability and Ausmed’s Article on Communicating Effectively With People With Disability.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, It is a breach of Australian law to discriminate against someone in the workplace based on their disability (AHRC 2014).

In July 2008, Australia signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The aim of this Convention is to:

'Promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.'

(AHRC 2015)

Employees living with disability are protected from discrimination in all stages of employment, for example, in the case of:

  • Recruitment: advertising, interviewing and other selection processes.
  • Workplace terms and conditions: rates of pay, working hours and leave entitlements.
  • Dismissal: including demotion and retrenchment.

(VEOHRC n.d.; AHRC 2014)

disability in the workplace
It is a breach of Australian law to discriminate against someone in the workplace based on their disability.

Direct and Indirect Discrimination

Discrimination in the workplace against people with a disability can occur in a way that is overt or subtle.

Direct Disability Discrimination

Direct discrimination is the situation in which a person is acted toward less favourably, or not given the same opportunities as others solely because of their disability (AHRC 2014).

Indirect Disability Discrimination

Indirect discrimination is less obvious. It occurs when employers enact conditions, practices or requirements that might seem as though they treat everyone in the same way but, in fact, disadvantage people living with disability (AHRC 2014).

An example of this would be requesting that a person who is deaf attend meetings in which no Auslan interpreter is provided. By not being able to understand what is being said during the meeting they are clearly being disadvantaged.

Disability Employment in the Healthcare Industry

A report highlighted that Australian employers have room for improvement when it comes to hiring people living with disability. It revealed that more than half of Australian businesses in healthcare, social and education services sectors overlook applicants living with disability (Choahan 2018).

The report is based on findings from the Australian Department of Social Services looking into employer attitudes towards hiring people living with disability. They discovered that only 58% of employers are currently employing someone living with disability (Choahan 2018).

Alarmingly, 38% of employers in the healthcare, social and education services industry who were surveyed consider employing someone living with disability to be ‘a step in the unknown’ (Choahan 2018).

The healthcare industry should be leading this movement, given that it is an industry that interacts with this community so closely (Chair of RACGP’s Disability Specific Interests Network, Bob Davis, quoted by Choahan 2018).

Accessibility In the Workplace

Reflect on whether your work environment is open, inclusive and accessible to people living with disability. Is there anything that could potentially impede a person living with disability?

It is reasonable to request that your workplace improves accessibility in the following areas:

  • Access to the workplace (design, architecture and equipment)
  • IT and software
  • Providing disability training for every worker (online or face-to-face)
  • Engaging with accessibility suppliers
  • Documents, websites and email messages
  • Communications, media and events.

(Queensland Government 2022; Australian Human Rights Commission 2014)

Recommendations from the Australian Network on Disability outline that your workplace should:

  • Express a clear commitment to improved access and inclusion
  • Be able to demonstrate a strategic plan to address access and inclusion
  • Engage with people living with disability to find out what kind of adjustments they may require to perform their roles
  • Have in place a clear and effective process for recording and implementing workplace adjustments
  • Ensure that all staff, including people living with disability, are able to access opportunity and career development equal to those without disability
  • Training and events in the workplace should be completely accessible to people living with disability
  • Always use inclusive language
  • Have physically accessible premises
  • Provide information in accessible formats such as braille, large text or audio
  • Have an accessible website, intranet and other digital assets
  • Have recruitment and selection processes that are inclusive of people living with disability
  • Have policies to ensure that their suppliers and partners are accessible to people living with disability
  • Have measures to prevent workplace discrimination in alignment with the Disability Discrimination Act 1992
  • Have programs or initiatives in place to increase the confidence of, and actively encourage, people living with disability
  • Have fair and effective policies in place for sharing and monitoring information about disabilities.

(Australian Network on Disability n.d.)

disabilty in the workplace
Training and events in the workplace should be completely accessible to people living with disability.


While these adjustments may assist someone living with disability, it is worth noting that 88% of people living with disability have reported that they do not require additional support from their employer to be able to work (AIHW 2022).

This suggests that the primary reason for underemployment is persistent stigma at a society-level, rather than any actual difficulties or restrictions to employing people living with disability.

A range of resources and supports are available to employers through the JobAccess website to assist them in the process of hiring a person living with disability.

The benefits of hiring people living with disability are numerous. Beyond the well-known benefits of a diverse workforce, workers living with disability have been shown to have, on average, higher job retention, better attendance, comparable levels of productivity and fewer work health and safety incidents (AHRC 2009).


Test Your Knowledge

Question 1 of 3

True or false: More than half of employers in the healthcare, social and education services sectors believe their organisation would not be equipped to employ someone living with disability.


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