7 facts about disability in the workplace

Workplace rights for people with a disability, such as discrimination, can be confusing. We've taken a look at the key facts you need to know.

It’s not always easy for people with a disability to be part of the workforce – but, thankfully, things are improving.

Having a disability shouldn’t stop anyone from finding a job (and neither should discrimination!).

However, the rights of people with a disability in the workplace can be quite confusing to understand. So we’ve taken a look at a few key facts that you may need to know.

Fact #1: In the workplace ‘disability’ is a pretty broad term

Often when people think ‘disability’ their minds jump to people with physical disabilities such as those who use wheelchairs. But in the workplace, disability can refer to physical, intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, neurological, and learning disabilities. Even people with Hepatitis C or HIV are counted as having a disability.

Why is this worth noting? Well, basically it means that the laws don’t just protect people with a physical disability – they’re here for everyone who may be discriminated against due to a disability.

Fact #2: Discrimination isn’t ok. In fact, it’s illegal

Just to recap, disability discrimination refers to people being treated unfairly (and missing out on job opportunities) just because they have a disability.

The good news? In Australia, the law protects employees with a disability from discrimination at all stages of employment – from the initial interview right through to leaving the company.

The sad truth? Some employers do still discriminate against applicants with a disability.

Sometimes this discrimination is more obvious, such as telling someone flat out that they won’t be considered for the job because they assume they’ll be ‘too slow’. Other times, discrimination is more indirect – like when businesses don’t provide access for people who use wheelchairs.

Whatever form it takes, it’s not OK.

Fact #3: Sometimes an employer can refuse you a job because of your disability

Sometimes it can be legal for a company to refuse someone a job because of their disability. This can be the case if you can’t perform the ‘inherent requirements’ of the position. In other words, you must be able to carry out the duties of the job.

These ‘inherent requirements’ will depend on the job – for instance, a person with low vision may not meet the requirements to be a delivery driver.

But, if your disability won’t affect your performance, you deserve a fair shot – and employers aren’t allowed to turn you down just because of your disability.

That’s why the laws exist – to ensure there’s an even playing field for everyone.

Fact #4: Sometimes, workplaces must make changes to suit your needs

Sometimes, a workplace might need a few adjustments to make it accessible and safe for an employee with a disability.

Employers must make what are called ‘reasonable adjustments’ for a person with a disability who is offered a job, or to an existing employee, to make sure they can do the requirements of the job.

Perhaps a ramp needs to be installed, doorways widened to allow wheelchair access, or a bigger computer screen is necessary. If such an adjustment can be made, it’s the employer’s responsibility to make it happen.

In some cases, employers do not have to make these changes if they can show that it would be very difficult to do so, or be very high cost.

On the upside, employers don’t always have to carry to cost of these alterations. The Australian Government’s Workplace Modifications Scheme can assist where there are costs in modifying the workplace or purchasing equipment for eligible employees with disability.

Fact #5: You can decide if you tell your boss about your disability

You only need to tell your employer about your disability if it has the potential to endanger yourself or your co-workers, or, if it could affect your ability to do the job.

For example, if you have epilepsy and your job involves operating heavy machinery, you need to tell your employer.

It’s also good to keep in mind that if you do not let your employer know about any illness, disability, or injury – you may not be covered by Workers Compensation if the condition recurs or gets worse on the job.

Otherwise it’s completely up to you whether you tell anyone or not – some people prefer to keep things private, while others are comfortable sharing. The only thing worth noting is that, if you discuss your disability with your boss, he or she may be able to make changes to your workplace to make things a little easier.

Fact #6: Your boss can’t tell anyone about your disability, unless you say so

That’s right: by law (the Privacy Act), your employer must keep details of your disability confidential unless you give consent.

It is up to you whether you want to tell your colleagues about your disability.

Fact #7: You can take action against discrimination

If you experience discrimination don’t feel ashamed, and know you’re well within your rights to take action.

As a first step, you might choose to raise the issue directly with the people involved, or with a manager, supervisor, or the Human Resources department.

Or, if you’re not comfortable with this, you can make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission (or have a solicitor or advocate do this on your behalf).

Your complaint to the Commission will need to be in writing, and describe when, where, what happened, and who was involved. There is a complaint form that you can fill in and post or fax back, or you can do it online. If you are not able to put your complaint in writing, the Commission can help you with this.

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*Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels