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Unlocking the superpower of people with a disability

With 4.4 million Australians living with a disability – or 20% of the population – one advisory is focusing on helping organisations lean into creating inclusive workplace cultures and bolstering employment opportunities for people living with a disability.

Twenty Percent Disability Inclusion Advisory Founder and Director Emma Olivier said her experience of living with a disability inspired and motivated her to help move the dial on inclusion and diversity within the workplace.

“I was born with one hand and have lived experience with disability. Creating visibility of disability in leadership is really important. For a long time, it hasn’t been visible at all. For the first twenty years of my career, no one asked me about having one hand,” she said.

“But once I started talking about my experience and my disability, it was contagious. It encouraged other people to share their story, too. 20% of Australians are living with a disability. We are a massive minority.

“If we are 20% of the population, we are 20% of employees and customers. We are 20% of the communities that organisations and companies work within.”

Olivier said diversity and inclusion issues are broad, including gender, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQI+, culturally and linguistically diverse peoples, but there’s more work to be done to raise the profile of people living with a disability.

“When we hear about disability in the media, we are portrayed as a cost to society. We don’t hear about all the ways people with a disability can and do contribute,” she said.

“I wanted to work with companies and organisations to unlock the superpower of people living with a disability. I wanted to give people confidence in having those conversations, and thinking about what they are doing and how they can lift that capability.

“We are very good at not talking about our disabilities – for a long time, it hasn’t been welcome or accepted. It’s much easier to hide and cope by yourself. So I also wanted to give people with a disability confidence in having these conversations, too.”

Open conversations

Olivier said many organisations hold back on disability inclusion initiatives out of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, and her work as a consultant is to increase confidence in organisations to have open conversations.

“Once we start talking, companies often say: ‘well, we don’t currently employ anyone with a disability’. My answer is always: ‘yes, you do, those people with a disability just haven’t told you,” she said.

“Most disabilities are invisible. People can see I have one hand, but they can’t see that I am dyslexic. Unless I share that with people, they don’t know.

“The human condition is broad, disability is varied, and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and organisations feel it's too hard to broach and it paralyses them into doing nothing at all.”

Olivier said sharing stories is a powerful way to create safe environments in which everybody feels comfortable to communicate their lived experience.

“Sharing is about story, and being vulnerable. If people are not in an environment where they feel safe, they are not going to share something that is intimate to themselves, something they have spent a long time trying to cope with on their own,” she said.

“But if we create an environment that communicates that the company is open to reasonable adjustments, it starts a conversation and shows that we are open to doing things differently. It makes it much easier for people with a disability to say what they need to do their best at work.”

Inclusive culture

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, Olivier said diversity is about being invited to the party and inclusion is about being asked to dance – a subtle difference, but one that highlights the importance of creating space for expression and participation.

“Setting up employee networks is a great way to create a comfortable environment for people to have these conversations. Creating processes that ensure access to reasonable adjustments ahead of time is inviting, too,” she said.

“If every one-on-one with a new employee started by asking what they need to be their best at work, it would change a lot. Furthermore, disability can change over time, and the context we live in changes, too – including technology and how people are expected to perform at work.

“Creating space to have the conversation around what people need, and constantly creating space for that conversation, is very important.

“For me, it doesn't matter if people share that they are living with a disability or not – if we create a safe environment and make resources available, people will choose to share when they need those resources.”

A great example is flexible work arrangements for parents, Olivier said: “If we see people taking parental leave, or job sharing, or having flexible hours, it gives others confidence that the environment is the right place for them to stay if they are interested in starting a family”.

“Disability is no different. Most adjustments for disability are low cost. Build it and they will come. By creating the space for conversation, minority groups will be more likely to feel comfortable to stay and to tell you what needs to be added.”

Getting started

Olivier said one of the most important actions an organisation can take to make progress on inclusion and diversity is to get started, and to do so immediately.

“Don’t let perfection stand in the way of good. Get started now. Companies are often worried the work will be too expensive, or they don’t know how to start, or they think they need to set things up first before they are ready,” she said.

“People with a disability and other minority groups have already waited a long time to be included. It’s 2024. It’s time. We need to be having these conversations now.

“Doing a disability action plan is a great framework for getting started. It helps define and structure the steps that need to be taken. No-one is asking people to go from zero to 100 in one step, we need to bring everyone along on the journey and that takes time.

But having commitment at a leadership level, and moving beyond only doing things on International Day of People with a Disability, which is tokenistic, is crucial. Representation is great, but we need to move towards having it part of our workplace cultures, and not just something we acknowledge once a year.”

Olivier said creating and implementing a reasonable adjustment policy is also a great place to start, or setting up an employee reference group.

“Given the work we do in the water sector, we have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in this work,” she said.

“People with a disability are underemployed, much more than the general population. To me, that’s untapped potential.”