What the Paralympics are teaching employers about inclusion and accessibility

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

It started as a small shindig tacked onto the back of the Olympic Games for military veterans that use wheelchairs.

Today, it’s the biggest international stage for people with disability.

The Tokyo Paralympics captured the hearts and minds of Australians across the country. We all cheered when Dylan Alcott roared with victory and embraced his opponent in the quad singles. We shrieked in disbelief when Vanessa Low smashed three long jump world records in a little over an hour. We cried with Ellie Cole when she swam her way to the podium again and again to became Australia’s most decorated female Paralympian with 17 medals.

This representation and visibility is rapidly changing the way our communities and workplaces interact with disability. For two weeks every four years, barriers are removed, inclusion is embraced, and elite athletes with disability are awarded the right to equitably participate, compete, live, and work to their full potential.

But what about the remaining 206 weeks in between?

Not everyone is an elite athlete and once the Paralympians return home, many return to communities and workplaces where all these barriers are once again reinstated.

That Paralympic vision of a society full of opportunity for everyone should not be extinguished with the Paralympic flame.

Elite athletes, but not elite working professionals

It’s widely reported people with disability are almost two times less likely to be employed than people without disability. When it comes to management and leadership positions, the number of people with disability plummets.

At the Paralympics we see people with disability competing at elite levels, achieving physical feats 99% of the population without disability could never dream of reaching. Yet when it comes to the boardroom, why are people with disability never ‘elite’ enough?

It all boils down to accessibility, how the world values people with disability, and some much-needed change.

Over the years, there have been a lot of Paralympic ‘firsts’: first time athletes without wheelchairs competed, first time the games were hosted at the same venues as the Olympics, first time broadcasted on national television. Just this year, Australia successfully, as Paralympian Ellie Cole put it, “bullied” the Australian Government into awarding Paralympic medallists the same financial prizes as Olympians for the first time.

There are many more ‘firsts’ to come for the Paralympics, and the cultural shifts they’re pushing are invaluable—Sydney came out of the 2000 Paralympic Games with more accessible bus fleets, venues, and signage. But more importantly than ever, we need to see some of these firsts extended elsewhere and within other industries; to our communities, workplaces, and the recruitment of people with disability.

Three lessons employers can learn from the Paralympics

There are so many lessons employers can learn from the Paralympics. Everyone has a respective role to play in removing barriers. The Paralympics are showing us how our employers can achieve these equitable standards and make inclusion and accessibility the norm for employees with disability.

Accessibility changes everything—and it’s neither difficult nor expensive

At the Paralympics, we see people with disability competing in many of the exact same events as people without disability—and smashing it. Accessibility and reasonable adjustments are what make this possible.

In the pool, for example, Isabella Vincent starts the race in the water instead of from the blocks. Ahmed Kelly, who was born with double arm and leg deficiencies, swims butterfly and backstroke with a modified breaststroke kick, and Grant ‘Scooter’ Patterson, who has a form of dwarfism, touches the wall with his head instead of arms.

All of these athletes are in the same pool, racing to reach the same wall—they just each use different modifications to help them get there.

The same premise works in the workplace.

Reasonable adjustments in the workplace differ from person to person. Think standing desks, voice recognition software, noise-cancelling headphones, communication devices, ergonomic wrist supports, flexible hours, and much more.

A woman stands in a workplace that has been fitted with a standing desk reasonable adjustment.
Workplace modifications, such as standing desks, can help people with disability perform to their best ability.

Often, these are small changes that have a big impact. Through workplace modifications, people with disability are given the power and equal footing to reach their full potential—just like athletes at the Paralympics.

There’s a common misconception that workplace modifications are expensive and difficult to implement. A survey of business leaders found 78% are apprehensive or very apprehensive to hire people with disability, particularly for senior job roles. Their main concern? It would be too costly to make the necessary adjustments and cater to their needs.

This is not the case. In Australia, employers can access support, assessments, and funding through Job Access’ Employment Assistance Fund. If your workplace is connected with a Disability Employment Service provider, such as EPIC Assist, it’s even easier—we handle all the logistics and liaise with Job Access for you.

People with disability are not just a ‘diversity hire’

Hiring people with disability is not just ‘the right thing to do’. People with disability aren’t token hires to make your organisational statistics look better or fulfil your corporate social responsibility expectations. They’re capable, accomplished talent, just like any other hire, and they bring serious skills to businesses.

Despite completing the exact same sets as her fellow Olympians, for many years Ellie Cole was always viewed as lesser by the general population. She was even labelled a ‘diversity hire’ by one past job.

“I train alongside Cate and Bronte Campbell. I’ve done exactly the same training programs as them but when I step up onto the blocks, I was never valued the same way,” said Ellie.

There are many people with disability who do the exact same training, have the exact same qualifications and experience as someone without a disability, but, like Ellie Cole, when they walk into an interview room they’re viewed as less capable because of their disability.

Many employers worry employees with disability will be absent more often, perform at lower levels, need expensive adjustments, and then will just simply quit.

Research shows none of these assumptions are true. In fact, people with disability have higher retention rates, are absent less often, and many perform in their specialised field at the same if not higher levels as people without disability.

Disability is diverse

Having a disability is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. If the Paralympics prove anything, it’s that disability looks different for every person.

Each Paralympic sport has a multitude of classifications. In Track and Field, we see athletes from all walks of life, each assigned a classification number ranging from 11 to 64 depending on their disability. Even within the same classification, you will see athletes with completely different disabilities. While many are visible, there are also countless invisible disabilities.


What does this mean for employers?

Firstly, not everyone with a disability uses a wheelchair.

In Australia, there are over 4.4 million people with a disability. Only 4.4% use a wheelchair.

By limiting our view of disability to this one, narrow experience, workplaces are ignoring the experiences and skillsets of 95% of the population and limiting their ability to establish inclusion, accessibility, and diversity.

But more importantly, it means that disability does not define where a person can work.

Everyone is an individual, and someone’s job options should not be limited simply because they have a disability. People with disability can be amazing sportspeople, teachers, writers, artists, lawyers, tradespeople, chefs, paramedics, and doctors.

Kyle, Bevan, and Kevin stand in a workshop behind a wooden chair they made.
Kyle has an intellectual disability and works as a woodworker for Dundowran Engineering.

Want to remove barriers in your workplace, but don’t know where to start?

It can be difficult to know where to start when hiring someone with a disability for the first time. But removing barriers in your workplace doesn’t have to be laborious, expensive, or time-consuming.

Here at EPIC Assist, we’ve been helping businesses hire quality staff with disability for over 30 years. If you are an employer looking to open more diverse and inclusive opportunities in your business, we can connect you with job-ready candidates with disability and break down barriers to hiring people with disability.

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