'Time for an honest discussion': Disability a perceived barrier to career opportunities, research shows

The Disability Rights Commissioner is calling for an "honest discussion" after new research showed disabled people believe disability perceptions to be limiting their career opportunities.

"The 47 percent employment gap between disabled people and non-disabled people does not result from chance," Paula Tesoriero MNZM told Newshub.

Ms Tesoriero said the main thing employers need to do is to "open the door and provide the opportunity for disabled people to demonstrate skills and experience".

"In addition to technical expertise, disabled employees are also often creative problem-solvers and innovative."

The research from Hays Recruitment surveyed 1000 working professionals in New Zealand and Australia, and found that gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability and socio-economic background were all factors perceived to hold employees back.

A graphic showing  that 83 percent of disabled employees feel their career progression has been limited based on disability.
83 percent of disabled employees feel their career progression has been limited. Photo credit: Newshub

The findings, published in the 2018/19 Diversity and Inclusion Report, showed disabled people felt they faced the most significant gaps in opportunity.

A total of 83 percent of disabled employees feel their career progression has been limited based on disability.

The same percentage of disabled employees said there was an occasion where they felt they had a lower chance of being accepted for a job, compared to 56 percent of overall respondents.

Chris Ford says he would fit into both of those categories.

The wheelchair-user works as Senior Kaituitui or community Connector for advocacy organisation Disabled Persons Assembly, and said he's taken the advocacy role now precisely because of these frustrations.

"I think that employers need to become more responsive to the needs of disabled people in seeing them as an untapped talent pool, particularly in this time of low unemployment," he told Newshub.

"There are a considerable number of disabled people looking to either increase their hours or find a suitable job which enables them to do so."

Stats NZ figures from June 2018 show the unemployment rate for disabled people to be 10.6 percent - more than double that of the non-disabled population.

Ms Tesoriero says employers need to understand exactly which factors are limiting the opportunities for disabled people.

"We know that if employers have not had contact with disabled people, they may have inaccurate ideas about disabled employees," she explained.

"Are disabled people being encouraged to apply for roles? What biases are preventing disabled people from applying or progressing?"

Half of the 1000 Hays survey respondents believed their leaders have a bias towards people who look, think and act like them, and the figure rises to two-thirds for people with a disclosed disability.

Grant Cleland, CEO of New Zealand's largest employment support agency working with disabled people, says that employers need to realise that disabled university graduates have potential but may not have had any work experience yet.

"They may not have had the same opportunities to do barista training, or work at a pub or whatever."

Mr Cleland says targeting disabled people for internships is helpful, especially those transitioning from higher education.

"We need employers to employ people much more on the basis of their potential, not just their experience."

He says employers should also be proactive in facilitating conversations about workplace support.

"People often have personal information about their disability or health condition that relates to the workplace support they require," said Mr Cleland.

"Employers can help to make sure the environments they are going into are safe to disclose information so they get the right support."

Adam Shapley, managing director of Hays Recruitment, said in a statement there are a range of strategies employers can use to increase career progression opportunities for under-represented groups generally.

"It starts with sourcing talent from the widest possible pool, acting to mitigate bias throughout the talent selection process by involving a range of diverse stakeholders when reviewing and selecting CVs, and includes diversifying your interview panel."

He said it's important to create an environment where employees can speak up if they believe they are not being given equal chances.

"Employees should feel confident to express this sentiment, and there should be a process in place for any feedback to be responded to and acted upon where appropriate."