Technology provides an opportunity for the workforce to interact without being face to face and, for people with disability, working remotely can often be easier than working in an office.
Activ Chief Executive Officer Michael Heath said often, during the hiring process, people with disability were largely overlooked, which contributed to a higher unemployment rate for those with disability.
“Tragically, in Australia, people with disability are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without disability,” he said.
“That’s around a 10 per cent unemployment rate – a figure which is backed up by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
“This is clearly unacceptable and something that we are determined to change by advocating for equal opportunity for people with disability and providing support and training for employers to employ people with disability.
“Every person with a disability has unique capabilities, experiences and aspirations. Not everyone will seek or be suitable for open employment, preferring to work in a more supported environment.
“For those who are pursuing a career in open employment, there can still be significant barriers to entry.”
Mr Heath said working remotely created flexibility and opened up the workforce.
“So many people began to work from home during COVID-19 and the logistical issues that can sometimes come with creating an environment suitable for people with disability were largely overcome,” he said.
Creating a world of opportunity
Mr Heath said remote working provided the opportunity to overcome barriers that might exist within traditional work environments for many people with disability.
“The removal of transportation barriers and the ability to minimise sensory overload and other stressors allows people with disability to access work with employers that they may otherwise be blocked from accessing,” he said.
“Remote work allows people with disability to have greater control over their workplace environment, which can help improve accessibility and facilitate an environment that enables them to participate in meaningful work.
“For example, a home-based digital setup linked to the office through the internet and collaboration software can allow many people with disability to log in and work remotely whether living alone or in supported accommodation.”
A comfortable work environment
Curtin University Occupational Therapy Professor and Curtin Autism Research Group Director Sonya Girdler said when people with disability were working from home there were less distractions.
“Working from home can be beneficial, particularly for autistic people or those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, because of their sensory sensitivity in office,” she said.
“There’s noise and they might frequently be approached by colleagues, which can be quite stressful for them.
“When they are working from home, they find they can concentrate more because there’s no disturbance.”
Dr Girdler said another clear issue, which was overcome by remote working, was mobility considerations and access to specialised equipment some people might require.
“Working from home allows people to have the equipment – their setup and what they need – to function properly,” she said.
Transcending the downsides
Working from home provided plenty of opportunities but, for some people with disability, traditional employment can offer a social connection that is harder to achieve when working remotely.
Mr Heath said employers should work to maintain social connections amongst staff.
“It’s vital that employers, who have encouraged remote working, put strategies in place to increase participation in the workplace community,” he said.
“This is especially important for people with disability, who experience greater social isolation in general.”
Mr Heath said he had seen a strong demand for greater social interaction at work from both people with disability and people without disability.
“This is a key factor that needs to be carefully considered when managing a remote workforce,” he said.
Mr Heath suggested companies schedule department wide virtual team meetings that would allow employees to connect.
“Employers and employees alike can use video conferencing tools and phone calls to communicate regularly,” he said.
“If you would walk up to an employee to have a conversation in the workspace, and they now work remotely, consider calling them instead of sending an email.”
Another way to address social isolation, according to Mr Heath, is by encouraging visits to the office or a common location for the shared team, as well as showing a genuine interest in the lives of those working for you.
How will employers benefit?
Not only does remote working benefit some people with disability, it also provides opportunities for employers to create a more diverse workplace.
“Remote working gives employers the opportunity to recruit people from a range of diverse backgrounds, levels of ability and geographic locations without the need for heavy modification of their office or workplace environments,” Mr Heath said.
“You don’t have to look far to see how remote working has helped organisations increase diversity."
“Just a month ago, one of the world’s largest employers, Meta, announced that thanks to remote working they had exceeded their diversity targets, showing significant increases in the percentage of employees with disability and of diverse and/or disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Creating a diverse environment can also lead to more innovative thinking within the workplace.
Dr Girdler said employers had an ability to tap into the thinking of people who were neurodivergent and think outside the box.
“It’s about focusing on untapped talent,” she said. “Particularly in areas like technology and innovation – the diversity that neurodivergent individuals bring to that think tank could be amazing.”
COVID-19 has also highlighted a skills shortage, which has left a lot of employers with empty roles that need to be filled.
“With the current skills shortage, people are investing a lot of money in upskilling people and in training, and then they’re being poached by the next great firm,” Dr Girdler said.
Dr Girdler’s research paper highlighted that the cost of hiring people with autism didn’t differ much from other employees.
“Autistic individuals tend to move less between jobs and smart employers would look at the long term,” she said.
A path worthy of consideration
Although working from home has shown that it is here to stay in several industries, Mr Heath said remote working opportunities had majorly focused on white collar roles and roles that might not meet the needs of all people with disability.
“Sadly, as it stands, people with disability are much more likely to be employed in positions with a lower potential for home-based work,” he said.
“This means that a gap still exists between the opportunities for all people with disability to access remote working arrangements.
“We are always searching for partners across the business community to work with Activ to provide opportunities for more people with disability to access a range of different employment opportunities.
“As a business leader, I really am putting out the call to my colleagues here in Western Australia to reach out and talk to us about how we can help them employ people with disability.
“Activ can provide expertise and support for employers to employ people with disability regardless of their working location or which organisation they are working with.
"We can better help many WA businesses employ people with disability than ever before and ensure their business reaps the significant benefits of a more inclusive and diverse workplace.
“Remote working is one method to increase diversity, but it is vital that organisations work to promote inclusivity if they want to create a culture where people from all backgrounds are encouraged to feel a true sense of belonging.”