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Employees with disability

People with disability are underrepresented in the Australian workforce, despite 15% of the working age population reporting disability.6 Research on the employment experience of people with disability highlights the many barriers they face in seeking, obtaining and retaining employment. In most cases this is due to lack of opportunity, rather than lack

of ability.7

The Australian Government National Disability Strategy aims to improve the workforce participation of people with disability across Australia. To ensure the APS approach to disability employment is consistent with the National Disability Strategy, the As One—APS Disability Employment Strategy 2012–14 (As One) was launched by the Commission in 2012. A number of As One initiatives have been successfully implemented, including a pilot recruitment pathway for people with disability, establishment of an APS Disability Employment Working Group and the launch of the My Career, My APS online career tool for people with disability.

Given that the APS workforce continues to age and disability prevalence increases with age,

the development and promotion of better disability employment outcomes will continue to be a priority for the APS. The ongoing implementation of As One represents a targeted set of actions to address this priority.

The proportion of people with disability in the APS in 2012–13 was 2.9% of all ongoing employees. This was unchanged from last year. In absolute terms, the number of ongoing employees with disability fell from 4,570 in 2011–12 to 4,450 in 2012–13, continuing a trend of steady decline since the mid-1990s.

The results of the employee census indicated that 6.8% of respondents identified as having some form of disability, a similar result to the 6.9% of respondents who reported the same in 2012.

Employees with disability are, on average, older than employees without disability (the median age was 48 years of age compared with 43 years). Similarly, employees with disability have a higher median length of service compared with employees reporting no disability, with a median length of service of 14 years compared with nine years.

Engagements and job attraction

The decline in representation of employees with disability over the long term is due to a combination of low engagements and high separations. On average, over the past 20 years, separations of employees with disability outweighed engagements by more than double.

This indicates that an approach encompassing both recruitment and retention is required to reverse this trend. Figure 5.4 shows employees with disability represented 2.1% of engagements in 2012–13, an increase from 1.4% in 2011–12.

Figure 5.4 Engagements and separations—employees with disability, 2004 to 2013

Source: APSED

The employee census shows the factors that attracted employees with disability to their current job were broadly comparable to the broader APS. The most commonly cited attraction factor for employees with disability was type of work (71% indicated this factor was important in attracting them to their current position compared with 77% without disability). Employees with disability placed less importance on career progression than other employees (41% compared with 49%). Despite this, employees with disability were less satisfied with opportunities for career progression in their agency, compared with employees without disability (26% compared with 36%).

RecruitAbility—Department of Defence

On 3 June 2013, the Department of Defence (Defence) joined 14 other agencies to pilot RecruitAbility, and was the first agency to advertise positions under the scheme. Defence advertised 189 vacancies in the initial three months of the pilot and 129 applicants chose to participate in the scheme. In 2014, the Defence Graduate Office will include RecruitAbility to assist in the selection of the Department's graduates.


Comcare, a medium sized APS agency, committed early to piloting the RecruitAbility scheme, aiming to increase its attraction and employment of people with a disability. Comcare has advertised all job vacancies under the scheme since the start of the pilot in June 2013, with roles varying from APS 3 to EL 2 classifications. Comcare's 2014 graduate positions were also advertised under RecruitAbility and attracted nine applicants with a disability; a significant increase from the previous year.

The employment experience

The employment experience of people with disability in the APS varies to that of employees without disability. Figure 5.5 shows that engagement levels for employees with disability continue to be lower than employees without disability, although, all four components of engagement improved from 2012 to 2013 for employees with disability.

Figure 5.5 Employee engagement—employees with disability, 2012 and 2013

Source: Employee census

Employees with disability were nearly twice as likely to report they felt they had been bullied or harassed in the past 12 months than employees without disability (29% compared with 15% in 2013).These findings are consistent with last year's results (31% compared with 16%). Previous work undertaken by the Commission has demonstrated there is a relationship between the perceived experience of bullying or harassment and employee engagement scores, which may provide some insight into the comparatively low engagement levels of people with disability.

Employees with disability who felt they had been bullied or harassed in the past 12 months were slightly more likely to indicate they had reported the behaviour (47% compared with 43%). Similar to the wider APS, most employees who identified as having a disability indicated they did not think any action would be taken in response to their complaint (55% compared with 52%). However, the majority of employees who did not report the bullying or harassment took some other informal action, such as seeking support from a colleague. This suggests there is a role for peer support systems within agency strategies in managing perceived incidences of bullying and harassment. Perceptions of bullying and harassment in the APS are discussed in more detail in Chapter 4.

In expressing other perceptions of the workplace, employees with disability were:

  • slightly less likely to agree they had a good immediate supervisor (73% compared with 79%)
  • less satisfied with their opportunities for career progression in their agency (26% compared with 36%)
  • less satisfied with their opportunity to use their skills (62% compared with 72%)
  • less satisfied with their current work-life balance (61% compared with 71%).

Reasonable adjustment enables many people with disability to participate in employment on an equal basis with their colleagues and compete on a level playing field for positions and promotions. Employee census data shows that almost two-thirds (65%) of employees with disability reported requiring some form of reasonable adjustment in the workplace, with the most common type of adjustment being office furniture (50%) and arrangements relating to work hours (41%).

In 2012, the Diversity Council conducted research into agencies' reasonable adjustment policies and practices. The research found that while most reasonable adjustments are, in reality, inexpensive and easy to implement, there is a persistent misconception that they are costly and burdensome. Research from the United States shows that about half of all adjustments cost little or nothing and around 90% of accommodations cost less than US$500.8 While there is no directly comparable APS data on costs of reasonable adjustment, feedback provided to the Diversity Council by agencies is consistent with the United States' finding.

The Diversity Council endorsed these best practice principles related to reasonable adjustments:

  • any equipment or adaptive technology provided to an employee as a reasonable adjustment should remain with the employee if they move between agencies
  • within agencies a centralised funding model for reasonable adjustments should be considered
  • a senior decision maker on reasonable adjustments should be appointed to ensure consistency and fairness
  • use of the JobAccess Employment Assistance Fund should be promoted and encouraged

    by agencies.

Intention to leave and separations

In 2012–13, 5.1% of separations of ongoing APS employees were employees with disability. The overall separation rate for employees with disability was 10.8%, compared with 6.3% for the broader APS. Almost 40% of separations of employees with disability were by retrenchment (6.6% of all retrenchments), followed by age retirement (26.6%). This is consistent with last year's results.

There were minor variations in intention to leave between employees with disability and those without disability. Results from the employee census demonstrate that employees with disability were more likely to report they intended to leave their agency in the next 12 months or as soon as possible (23% compared with 19%). However, employees with disability were less likely to cite a desire for a career change (21% compared with 32%) as a reason to leave their agency and were more than twice as likely to report bulling, harassment or discrimination (24% compared with 11%) as a factor influencing their intention to leave.


6 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Social Trends: Disability and Work, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2009), http://www.abs.gov.au/.

7 Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Shut out: The Experience of People with Disabilities and their Families in Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2009).

8 ML Lengnick-Hall, PM Gaunt and M Kulkarni, ‘Overlooked and Underutilized: People with Disabilities are an Untapped Human Resource’, Human Resource Management, (2008), vol. 47, no. 2, pp. 255–273.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018