What would it take? Employer perspectives on employing people with a disability

By Peter Waterhouse, Helen Kimberley, Pam Jonas, John Glover Research report 12 February 2010 ISBN 978 1 921413 75 9 print; 978 1 921413 76 6 web


One focus of the Australian Government's social inclusion agenda is to help people with a disability into work. For this to succeed, employers must be willing and able to productively employ people with a disability. The purpose of this study was to answer the question 'what would it take' to enable employers to employ people with a disability. Based on focus groups with select employers from small-to-medium enterprises, the research found that, while employers were quite positive about employing a person with a disability, they lacked confidence in dealing with disability employment issues.


About the research

One focus of the Australian Government’s social inclusion agenda is to help people with a disability into work. The government’s new National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy acknowledges that a considerable barrier to employment for people with a disability is the lack of information for employers.

It is therefore timely to examine employer views on employing people with a disability. Based on a series of focus groups with employers from small-to-medium-sized enterprises, this report describes the attitudes of employers towards hiring a person with a disability. It also sets out some strategies that would assist businesses to take on employees with a disability.

Key messages

  • The research confirmed that, even when employers are open to the idea of employing a person with a disability, they are often not confident that they have the knowledge, understanding and capability to do so.
  • Disclosure (or more often lack of disclosure) of a disability is a key concern for employers, especially in relation to mental illness. However, employers readily conceded that this issue is mitigated if there is trust between the employer and employee.
  • The role of trusted brokers and mediators emerged as a key issue. Small-to-medium-sized enterprises expressed frustration at their difficulties in accessing information relevant to their businesses.
  • Employers are not looking for formal training in ‘disability employment’. They are looking for assistance in building their capacity o support the productive employment of people with a disability.

The vocational education and training (VET) system already helps employers to employ people with disabilities (by providing group training organisation field officers, for example), but this report suggests a broader role could be developed. Inevitably, this would require financial support from governments.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

Purpose of the study

The purpose of this study was to answer the question ‘what would it take to enable employers to employ people with a disability?’ The study was premised upon two core ideas. The first is that there are people with disabilities who are ready, willing and able to work, yet who find it difficult or impossible to obtain suitable employment. The second is that the voices of employers have been lacking. This study sought to address this gap by engaging employers in conversations about employing people with disabilities. The study explores the factors which influence them to include (or exclude) people from equity groups, particularly people with disabilities, in their workforce mix.

The research method

Forty employers, of whom 33 were from small-to-medium-sized enterprises and seven from large organisations, participated in focus groups convened in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney. The Group Training Association of Victoria recruited these employers through its networks. Most had some experience of employing people with disabilities.


A review of the literature confirmed that the employer’s perspective was largely absent from the research literature and policy discourse on employment of people with disabilities. For the most part, disability employment issues have been framed from a ‘supply side’ point of view. That is to say, most studies have focused upon what people with disabilities need, or need to do, to gain employment. There has been relatively little attention given to the ‘demand side’ of the employment equation—the employer’s perspective. What employers might have to say, or what employers might need, has not been widely investigated or canvassed.

One significant exception to this finding is a recent study by the Office of Disability and Employment Policy in the United States (Domzal, Houtenville & Sharma 2008). This study, based on telephone interviews with a stratified random sample of employers across 12 different sectors of the United States economy, found that larger corporate and public enterprises are the leading employers of people with disabilities. Domzal, Houtenville and Sharma (2008) also reported significant employer anxiety about employing people with disabilities. They highlighted the need for information and support for employers, particularly smaller employers, regarding disability and employment issues.

Three key themes emerged from the analysis of the literature. First was the importance of leadership from the top of organisations. Bosses must demonstrate that they have a serious commitment to employing people with disabilities. Secondly, employers need credible and reliable sources of information in order to appreciate and understand disability and disability employment issues. These information sources are often lacking, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises. Thirdly, employers need to be connected to appropriate networks to successfully identify, access and recruit people with disabilities and then ensure that they achieve employment success.

Our interviews with employers also highlighted a further set of issues. These are:

  • mental health/illness and the impact of mental health issues in the workplace
  • disclosure (or non-disclosure) of disability and challenges posed by ‘invisible’ disabilities
  • employers lacking understanding of disabilities and related employment issues and experiencing difficulties in accessing useful information
  • the challenges of conducting the cost–benefit analysis on disability employment
  • the intricacies, accessibility and adequacy of government assistance.

The employers participating in this study reported that employment of people with disabilities would be easier (and more likely) if they, that is, the employers themselves, had a better understanding of various disabilities and disability employment issues. Most indicated they would like to do more on this front and they tended to define the problem, not so much in terms of the perceived disabilities of individuals seeking employment, but rather in terms of their own insecurities in relation to disability and disability employment.

The Australian Employers Network on Disability (2008) highlights the importance of employers having ‘disability confidence’. Although interested, many of the employers contributing to this study lacked this confidence.

What would it take?

As we explored employers’ perceptions of ‘what it would take’ to employ a person with disability, several key strategies emerged. As noted in the literature, the type and quality of organisational leadership emerged as a key factor. Leadership is enhanced when senior managers are informed, knowledgeable and confident about their stance on disability employment issues. Hence it is important to have reliable sources of information which appreciate and speak effectively to their interests and concerns as employers and small business people.

In this regard ‘trusted knowledge brokers’ and intermediaries were identified as important. In many cases the field staff from group training organisations fulfilled this important role; sometimes disability employment network providers addressed these needs; for some employers, the Australian Employers Network on Disability filled this gap. The key point here is the strategic importance of a trusted third party to provide the employer with information and assistance in relation to disability and disability employment issues.

Work experience for people with disabilities also emerged as a key strategy. Employers appreciated applicants who presented with a history of some work experience—and perceived the work experience provider/employer as a potentially reliable source of information regarding the applicant. Access to work experience was cited as particularly useful and important for people with a disability seeking employment.

The capacity to design and redesign jobs in order to productively employ people with disabilities emerged as a need. The potential to redesign other people’s jobs to maximise the productivity of a work group that might include a person with disability was also highlighted. Employers expressed a need for support with these processes. They stressed that successful employment must provide win-win-win outcomes for everyone involved: the person with a disability, the others in the work group or team, and the enterprise itself.

Finally, most of the successful strategies identified included learning for managers, supervisors and staff. As noted previously, employers adopted the view that it is not just the person with the disability who needs to learn. However, employers did not express a desire for formal or accredited training on these issues. Rather, they expressed a desire for informal but trusted sources of information which could be accessed as required. The adage, I need to know ‘just enough, just-intime, just-for-me’ is pertinent here.

Implications of the study

The first key implication of the study is that government policy aimed at employment of people with disabilities is unlikely to be realised without strategic action on the demand side of the employment equation. Employment problems cannot be solved from the supply side alone. The perceptions and needs of employers must be appreciated and addressed. Hence efforts should be targeted to:

  • raising employer awareness and sharing information on disability employment issues
  • communicating with and providing strategic and practical support for employers, particularly small-to-medium-sized enterprises
  • facilitating change and the spread of learning and best practice, particularly from larger corporate and public enterprises to small-to-medium-sized enterprises.

VET practitioners can and do make a genuine contribution towards the employment of people with disabilities. They do so through skill formation and knowledge building, particularly through work experience and employability skills development. Beyond such programs, however, there remain significant challenges, particularly on the demand side. Challenges involve working collaboratively with employers to inform and build leadership and organisational capacity but do not necessarily involve accredited training.

For employers, particularly small-to-medium-sized enterprises, this study suggests the importance and the rewards of developing disability confidence:

Disability confidence is about knowing how to make adjustments to the workplace to retain employees who acquire a disability, and how to make changes to recruitment processes to allow skilled and talented job seekers with disabilities to compete on a level playing field. Disability confidence is also about delivering accessible customer service that provides a great experience to customers who may have a disability (Australian Employers Network on Disability 2008).

Effective networks, contacts and community connections help to build this confidence and capability. There are specialist support agencies and programs available to support employers, but employers need help to locate and engage with these providers. Small-to-medium-sized enterprises in particular are less likely to be effectively networked or connected to such support services.

The research also has implications for traditional advocacy groups working with people with disabilities on the supply side of the employment equation. It suggests that, if they are not already doing so, there may be value for them in expanding their focus of attention to address the employers’ demand side issues. For some this may involve reframing their constituencies in ways to include employers. Such advocacy groups have ready access to the knowledge and experience which employers need. However, effective information exchange in this context is dependent upon establishing trust. Advocates need to be mindful that employers have genuine concerns and that it is education and information that is required to build disability confidence and increase disability employment.


2219 .pdf 1.5 MB Download
2219 .doc 568.0 KB Download
Literature review .pdf 997.4 KB Download
Literature review .doc 350.0 KB Download