Speech by The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Bill Shorten Parliamentary speech – Disability Employment

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

I rise tonight to bring to the attention of the House a business case for employing people with disabilities in Australia and my belief about what makes businesses successful. Successful companies monitor and meet shifts in societal expectations. Successful companies control risks, anticipate market opportunities and compete efficiently. These successful companies mobilise the expertise of their people to play an active role in business and society; therefore, tonight, I would like to put the case for positioning disability as a strategic business priority.

Managing a diverse workforce is increasingly recognised as a key factor in improving efficiency and productivity in business overall. A highly significant element of the diversity debate, too long overlooked in Australia, is disability. There are 3.6 million Australians who record with the census some impairment, making up a large and growing group of employees, existing and potential customers, stakeholders and, indeed, shareholders. The business case for employing people with disabilities is compelling. The performance and contribution of employees with disabilities far outweighs the commonly held misconception of cost and that government funded adjustments are often necessary to workplaces. Knowledge of the needs and expectations of a growing sector of the market, combined with enhanced morale and people management systems, are tangible benefits for companies which are good employers of people with disabilities.

A small number of leading Australian companies such as IBM and ANZ are already demonstrating the business benefits of employing people with disabilities. I believe the business case for employing people with disability has suffered from poor presentation. Many businesses, indeed, even the government and the not-for-profit sector, remain unconvinced that employing people with disabilities can enhance their overall business performance. It is important to understand why people are unconvinced about the benefits of employing people with disabilities.

The champions of the disabled are sometimes seen to be out of touch with the needs of business. The business case usually presented to companies is little more than a cost-benefit analysis, which, in turn, is little more than the argument, ‘It probably won’t cost too much to do good,’ rather than what I think is the better argument, which is that it is positively good for our businesses to engage with the disabled. The business case that is usually presented simply misses the point that the exclusion of people with disability is in fact rooted in fear and stereotyping in our society. Like it or not, many people not experienced or unfamiliar with disability feel uncomfortable and fearful. Some people believe that having a disability means that a person is less intelligent than others, which is clearly wrong.

Employers who have actually taken the step and employed people with disability have consistently found that they are as productive and as reliable as any group of employees. They tend to have better attendance records. They tend to remain longer with their employers. They tend to have fewer injuries at work. In fact, most people with disability do not require adjustments at work at all. Organisations that are accessible to disabled customers and employees are more accessible and more appealing to all consumers and stakeholders.

People with disabilities are a large group with spending power. We know that it is most unusual for profitable opportunities to be passed up by the business community, but I have to say that, in the last 120 days, I have been amazed at the opportunities in this area that have been neglected. I fear that people with disabilities will continue to be regarded as ‘naturally’ excluded as long as there is a lack of direct contact between business leaders and people with disabilities, because this allows fears and stereotypes to be perpetuated.

I believe that it is time for the government and the private sector to shift our mindset towards embracing diversity as a means of enhancing business performance. I predict businesses that embrace people with disability will be able to access untapped reserves of talent, open new markets, improve their operational efficiency through reduced costs, lower labour turnover, increase improvements in service delivery and minimise litigation. This will also be the source of new ideas and will enhance reputation and loyalty internally and externally from stakeholders and customers.

Trust and commitment between businesses and their stakeholders is what underpins tomorrow’s successful companies. Intangible assets make up a high and growing proportion of a company’s market value. Fundamentally, these assets include reputation and the capacity of management to compete and navigate complex environments. I suggest that managing diversity is a key factor in determining efficiency, productivity and overall business success. Globalisation is accelerating the significance of diversity, and I do believe that the time is now right for government to work with business to encourage business to ensure that more people with disabilities are employed.