Tertiary to Work - EmployAbility Panel Discussion

Inclusive Employment for Graduates With Disability - Opportunities, Challenges and Best Practice
8 April 2020

As part of the 2020 Tertiary to Work Careers Fair on 12 March 2020, a panel of employers and experts discussed inclusive employment for graduates with disability, including opportunities, challenges and best practice.


Tracy Hetherton, National Disability Coordination Officer (NDCO), Riverina and ACT


Take away:

Many employers are actively pursuing ways to achieve greater diversity and increased inclusion of people with disability in the workplace. Organisations, such as AND and Specialisterne, are working with a range of employers to support them to become more disability confident and aware, and to connect business with talented jobseekers with disability. Employers who are serious about working towards greater inclusion have a range of tools and measures in place to facilitate and progress change, such as Disability Action Plans, affirmative measures programs to increase diversity in their workforce, training and resources for managers and staff to drive inclusion from within the organisation, and diversity networks that give voice to employees with lived experience. Universities and national programs such as the NDCO program play an important role in supporting and preparing students with disability for the world of work. Whilst studying, it is beneficial for students to engage in experiences that can assist them to articulate what their strengths are, how and if they wish to share disability information with prospective employers and what workplace adjustments they might need.

The following is a summary of the questions that were discussed during the panel session. 

Questions from the Moderator

What are the current priorities as it relates to inclusive employment for people with disability?

Nickolaos: The NSW Public Sector is working towards increasing the representation of employees with disability from currently 2.5% to 5.6%. The NSW PSC has a range of affirmative measures programs in place across NSW Government and are accredited as a Disability Confident Recruiter through the Australian Network on Disability. The Disability Confident Recruiter status includes the NSW Public Service Graduate Program.

Cameron: Over the last five years, AGD has placed strong focus on diversity. AGD has five different diversity networks: Indigenous, CALD, Pride, Women's network, and Celebrating Ability Network. A key focus for Department is the implementation of the Disability and Mental Health Action Plan and through this, addressing barriers to inclusion. AGD is supporting the Disability Royal Commission which has contributed to increasing learning and best practice within AGD. HR and the diversity networks work in partnership, recognising that it's everyone's responsibility to contribute to a more inclusive workplace culture.

David E.: We find ourselves in historically unique situation - advocates and practitioners, including the NDCO program have been preparing the way for so long. There is a real opportunity now to draw together champions from universities and industry to work towards greater inclusion.

What are the current barriers experienced by individuals with disability getting into a career that aligns with their interests and qualifications? What do we know from existing research, and what are the biggest challenges for employers?

Philip: One of the biggest barriers for students is a lack of confidence to ask for adjustments. It's important to know what best works for you before you complete your studies. You can get support to have this conversation from your university careers service or disability service about how to best communicate the adjustments you might need. For employers, the biggest barrier is not having enough disability awareness and confidence, and assumptions around what people with disability can/cannot do.

David E: Imposed notions of disability can be a very powerful disabler. Practitioners can support students to help change their perspective so they can understand the value they bring to the world of work, to learn to focus on their ability and not to self-impose notions of disability. Employers are increasingly inclusive and welcoming but still need more support. It's a work in progress - inclusion is not a box you tick. Inclusion is something that always will be developing which means there will always be room for improvement.

What are the factors that lead to greater inclusion of neurodivergent jobseekers, and what advantages and benefits does this bring, both for the job seeker and the employer?

David S.: Jobseekers with a neurodivergent condition can experience great difficulty in getting employment. The disabler here is the recruitment process. Most employers use interviews which measure people's social and communication skills. A key factor here is unconscious bias - managers tend to pick people who are like them, which can diminish diversity. Specialisterne works with a range of employers, such as NSW PSC using an assessment centre model where the person can demonstrate their skills on the job using a strengths based approach. Therefore the shift is towards placing a highly capable individual into a role that they are good at. It is important to communicate to organisations the benefits of hiring people with disability - people who think differently bring different perspectives. There is a need for managers to overcome the perception that it's harder to hire someone with a disability or that this will create more work. The reality is that most reasonable adjustments are just that: reasonable. It's important to consider the whole working environment - lighting, sound, smell, not just whether the chair is the right height. Some adjustments might include part-time work, or a late start - it's about reasonable and flexible working arrangements to allow a person to thrive.

What are, from your own experience, the enabling factors that lead to a more inclusive environment for all?

Nickolaos: It's important to understand that diversity and inclusion is not something that is just bolted onto a strategy at the end. Rather, it needs to be part of our thought-process from the beginning. It is crucial to have tools and processes in place that puts inclusion at the centre of everything that we do. The NSW Government have senior executive sponsors to ensure support from a very high level. Tools and training materials are in place to give staff access to information on inclusion so it can be embedded in their everyday work.

Cameron: At AGD a focus is managerial capability, as the manager is a critical touchpoint for anyone. Therefore, it's important to ensure that managers are trained in disability confidence to ensure they are supportive of reasonable adjustments. This is being done to get cultural inclusion right.

What is your advice with regard to sharing disability information? What considerations are there for the person with disability, and also for the employer?

Philip: People with disability are not legally obliged to share any information, they are protected under the Disability Discrimination Act. People with disability are also protected under the law to receive adjustments so they can perform the inherent requirements of the role. Students are encouraged to think about what the practical changes are that they could benefit from. For employers, it's important to ask the right questions, maintain open communication and recognise that everyone needs some sort of adjustments.

The AccessAbility Careers Hub at Swinburne has supported students in the area of employability and careers over the past two years. What have you learnt about how disability inclusion can be progressed?

David E.: It is important to continue to reach out to each other, and collaboration is key. We all want to do the same kind of thing, but sometimes we speak different languages. For instance, "disclosure" can be an anxiety laden term. Shifting the language to "sharing disability information" puts the conversation on a different footing. This can help createthe right kind of mindset, because it's more of a business as usual approach, i.e. the kinds of adjustments that anyone can ask for. This allows for a shift of focus from disability to the work, and therefore a more strength-based approach. It is also important for universities to share their learning with other higher education providers to change the landscape sector wide.

What words of advice do you have for neurodivergent jobseekers who are seeking to launch their careers?

David S.: My advice for jobseekers is that there are a lot of good things happening. Target your effort towards supportive workplaces that understand and embrace neurodiversity - a place that gets you. Several federal and state/territory governments, as well as some private sector companies have programs for neurodivergent jobseekers. Also, persevere. Keep going, and look for a partner, e.g. a Disability Employment Service that can work with you. Under the NDIS a key goal is to gain employment, however we need sufficient opportunities, so more is needed to be done.

What advice do you have for students with disability who are not sure where to get information or support to successfully navigate their career journey? How can students identify employers with an inclusive culture?

Philip: Touch base with your university careers service to access support. Do your research and look at company websites: for instance, a diversity statement is a good sign that they are working towards being more inclusive.

Cameron: Talk to our people! Speak with colleagues at AGD at career events. Our people are very approachable.

Nickolaos: If an organisation is truly committed to attracting people with disability then that means that they have meaningful connections with organisations that are committed to inclusion. Speak with NDCO and university careers/disability teams to find out who the employers are that are actively connecting with these organisations.

David E: University disability services are not your only place of support. Careers services have trained careers practitioners, so students are encouraged to talk with them. Ask yourself: which organisation do I want to join? What profession do I want to join? Consider linking with professional associations and engage with their events and communications to get insight into different organisations. Consider asking other staff what it is really like to work for this organisations as a person with disability.


Questions from the floor:

As a recruiter, how can I encourage candidates to share disability information so they can be accommodated throughout the recruitment process?

David E.: Sharing disability information is up to the prospective employee - you have to make it safe for them to do so. Make it clear why you are asking certain questions and what you are going to do with the information. Don't make it a tickbox. Consider providing context, such as mentioning that you have an enabling network which can give a good reason to introduce the topic.

Philip: To attract candidates with disability, make the job advertisement accessible and give alternative options throughout the application process.

You mentioned that many government agencies are inclusive - what options are there for international students?

David S.: It's true that in the ACT many opportunities require citizenship or permeant residency. However in other capital cities, such as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, many companies and sectors have neurodiversity hiring programs: mining, banking, insurance, technology. There are some opportunities in Canberra, for example Seeing Machines inclusive hiring program.

Philip: The Stepping Into Internship Program accepts international students for some of their positions. Talk to AND about internship positions don't require citizenship.

David E.: Talk to organisations at careers fairs and other university employer events.

As a jobseeker, how can I best demonstrate my strengths?

David S.: It can be challenging to work out what your strength are. I worked student who had a degree in bio science but his strength was actually attention to detail, so now he is working in a data science job. It is important to have an open mind. This can be challenging for autistic job seekers if they have their mind set on a specific field or job. An assessment based program as opposed to an interview process can help candidates help work out what their strengths are and discover something new about themselves. It's a journey.

Philip: Joining a mentoring program and working with a mentor can also help identify your strengths.

David E.: Think about why an employer would be interested in your skills and how you can align this with the organisation's mission and value statement. Talk to you careers service about what you would like to achieve in your work, what you would like your career to mean. Making a short-, medium or long-term plan that will help you make a strategic move into the work force. Research employers and develop ways of aligning your professional interest with the employers' need.


About the Speakers

David Eckstein is a university careers practitioner and recently established Swinburne University's AccessAbility Careers Hub - a specialist initiative for students with disability that received the 2019 NAGCAS best practice award. His interests include student notions of professional self, employability in the curriculum, industry partnerships that generate disability confidence, discrimination and harassment, alternative dispute resolution, and the use of narrative methods to help people develop and implement meaningful workforce participation plans. As 2020 Equity Fellow at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, his research into the provision of targeted careers support for students with disability in Australian universities will result in open-access tools and guidelines for all universities to use.

Cameron Gifford leads the Families and Legal System Division within the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department.  In this role, Cameron has responsibility for family law policy and programs; federal courts and tribunals; and policy and programs to counter family violence and elder abuse.  The work of the Families and Legal System Division is focused on improving the legal system's ability to assist families resolve their disputes as quickly and effectively as possible.  Cameron is presently the Disability Co-Champion for AGD, working to promote inclusive work practices within the department.  Prior to his present role, Cameron has worked in a variety of roles within the Department and the Attorney-General's portfolio since 2003.

Nickolaos Nousis is a Senior Advisor at the NSW Public Service Commission. He joined the NSW Government from the Commonwealth Public Service in 2015. Nickolaos manages whole of government, candidate centric talent acquisition programs with a particular focus on using inclusive recruitment practices, in order to attract and retain a diverse range of candidates.  Nickolaos has been involved with the NSW Government Graduate Program since 2016 and has recently managed the launch of the NSW Government's first ever virtual internship program, which aims to increase the pipeline of early talent into NSW Government.

David Smith is the Managing Director of Employ for Ability Pty Ltd and is a neurodiversity employment specialist and advocate. David is showing organisations that people with an ASD diagnosis are not disabled but different (as all people are different) and provide organisations with a competitive advantage. David is a member of the ACT Chief Ministers Inclusion council. In 2019, David was awarded an Outstanding Alumnus Award from Oxford University for his work on Neurodiversity employment. David has post graduate qualifications in Autism and Organisational Development and is currently a research candidate at Griffith University completing a Thesis on "An exploration of mental well-being in school leavers with Autism Spectrum Disorder who wish to join the workforce." David is married to Anne and has 3 teenage children, his youngest is Neurodiverse.

Philip Zamora joined the Australian Network on Disability as the Program Coordinator for Disability Programs in 2017, assisting talented University Students and Jobseekers in finding suitable long-term employment and also, to help businesses across Australia to build disability awareness and confidence. Philip has extensive experience working for non-profit organisations and social Enterprise, in roles spanning from retail, recruitment, mentoring, and hospitality management. Philip has completed a Bachelor of Business, with a major in Accounting at Macquarie University, as well as a Diploma in Community Services.


This event was organised by the EmployAbility Hub in collaboration with Tertiary to Work. We would like to thank the panelists for particiapting in this discussion.

To learn about similar events, employability initiatives, events and opportunities for students and graduates with disability, please sign up to join the EmployAbility Hub mailing list.

If you have questions or comments, please contact Ms Friederike Gadow, Senior Project Officer AccessAbility and Employability at friederike.gadow@anu.edu.au