Machine gears and cogs in black and white

Disruption and disability

How is the shift to digital shaping workplaces, cultures and employment opportunities? Explore future ways of working that are truly inclusive of people with disability.

This discussion, moderated by Associate Professor Jennifer Smith-Merry, reflects on the flexible ways of working that have been normalised in the COVID-19 pandemic and how we can think about this in relation to disability inclusion, from business organisational frameworks, to education pathways and training. 

Professor John Buchanan from the University of Sydney Business School recently completed a research project looking at disability, employment and pathways into employment. He has ideas about what the future of work could look like for people with disability. 

Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes from the School of Education and Social Work offers insights on the online experience of work, including the increasing move and adoption of remote working. 

Penelope Pitcairn from the Workforce Development division is interested in micro aggression at work and how a digital workplace affects day-to-day interactions. 

Charles Humblet, Co- Chair, Disability at Work Network, will be sharing his insights into the power of staff networks to engage in strategic advocacy to create inclusive workplaces for people with disability.

Dr Manisha Amin, an innovation leader and CEO of the Centre for Inclusive Design, will share insights into moving away from the traditional one size fits all approach to recognising unique needs through inclusive design.

This discussion was held as part of Disability Inclusion Week at the University of Sydney, which runs from 21 – 25 September.  



Welcome everyone to this Sydney Ideas event. So, I'm going to start by giving an Acknowledgement of Country and I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, water and culture.

I'm currently on the land of the Gundungurra and Darug people up here in the sunny and very windy Blue Mountains. The University of Sydney Camperdown campus is on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

And the Wangal people are the traditional custodians of Cumberland campus where I have my office but not for very long as we'll be shutting down that campus soon. I would like to pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

And I further acknowledge the traditional owners of the country on which you are on and pay respect to their elders past, present and future.

My name is Jen Smith-Merry and I'm the Director of the Centre for Disability Research and Policy, and the Head of Discipline for Behavioural and Social Sciences in Health; in the Sydney School of Health Sciences. That's in the Faculty of Medicine and Health.

Today's event is a collaboration between the Centre for Disability Research and Policy and the Disability At Work Network, also called DAWN.

Today, we're joined by Professor John Buchanan. John is Head of Discipline in the Discipline of Business Analytics.

John recently completed a research project looking at disability employment and pathways into employment actually, that project was with me, it was a great project. He has ideas about what the future of work could look like for people with disability.

Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes is a Gamilaraay woman who lost her eyesight as a child. She's a lecturer and researcher in Aboriginal education, Indigenous Studies and methodologies; and is a disability scholar and activist.

Her work focuses on higher education’s responsibilities in achieving equity and social justice. Sheelagh uses critical race theory, cultural responsiveness and critical access studies to problematise and disrupt normalised social constructions.

Sheelagh will be offering her insights on the online experience of work including the increasing move to, and adoption of remote working and it's great to have a here today with us.

Charles Humblet is Co-chair of DAWN, and also educational designer for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Charles will be sharing his insights into the power of staff networks to engage in strategic advocacy, to create inclusive workplaces for people with disability.

We also have Dr Manisha Amin. She's CEO the Centre for Inclusive Design. Manisha is an innovation leader and a cultural and social change champion, focused on helping organisations harness the power of thinking from the edge.

The Centre for Inclusive Design is a social enterprise, which helps companies to build and design products, services and policies that are inclusive, valuable and usable for as many people as possible.

Manisha will share insights into moving away from the traditional one size fits all approach to recognising unique needs through inclusive design.

And last but not least, we have Penelope Pitcairn. She works in Workforce Development here at the University of Sydney. And she helps with DAWN and disability inclusion at the university. Penny is interested in micro-aggression at work and how a digital workplace affects day-to-day interactions.

Before I hand over to the panel, I'm just going to take a little bit more of your time as I want to introduce someone else to you.

Someone who isn't here with us but is a part of the University of Sydney and who I've worked with over the past few years.

Dr Damian Mellifont is an Honorary Associate of our research centre and has been a casual research assistant with us for many years and has contributed very valuable to the work of the Centre for Disability Research and Policy.

Damian identifies as neurodiverse and it is this neurodiversity, and the different ways that he's able to conceptualise and provide insight into the into work on disability and mental health policy and practice; which we value in the Centre.

Because Damian is neurodiverse, it means that he needs to work remotely. He also needs accommodations for interviews and other workplace interactions.

He feels that in the past, the response to his needs for accommodations and those of other people who need to work in different ways in universities, has been to simply say no, this is all too hard and not to be not able to imagine how to include Damian and his important work in the university.

But he believes that COVID-19 has shown how quickly workplaces can promote inclusion by adapting and being flexible and accommodating staff with and without disabilities.

COVID-19 has provided opportunities to rethink the normal ways in which work is conducted. Accommodations that neurodivergent staff have had to fight for, like working from home and are commonly used by people without disability in many private and public organisations. For him, this is a really positive outcome of COVID-19.

And he believes that this change needs to be embraced by the collective University body, to ensure greater opportunities for employing staff with disability. So, from Damien, I'm going to throw over to John to set the scene with a short discussion of the current context of work. Over to you, John.


Hi, Jen. And thanks for organising this event, Sydney Ideas. I'm on land of the Camaraigal people and I give my honour to the elders past, present and emerging.

I've been asked to give a short introduction about what's the current labour market context and the prospects in the short to medium term. And I'm going to give a story in three parts, a bad news story, a good news story, and then finish with a challenge.

So, the bad news story is that life was already pretty bad before COVID. And we've heard a lot of economists say Australia had 30 years of uninterrupted growth.

We, you know, we should be really happy with our achievements, but fact, if you look at this data, this shows that in the period immediately before COVID, the labour market in Australia was far from rosy.

Whilst people talked about an unemployment rate of around 5%; underemployment, that's part timers wanting more work, constituted 9% of the employed workforce. The OECD released important research in 2017, which showed on top of that there was a further 20% of people who had basically given up looking for work.

And a big lot of these people were people with health problems or with a disability. And then finally, if you were lucky enough to have a job, or in 30% of the workforce was in a casual or contract.

The other big thing to note is that employers have been walking away from being innovative. And this is data that the ABS has collected on the commitment of employers to training their workforce.

And its data on how Australians have been learning over the last 15 years. If you look at this top line, top row, it shows that in 2005, around 18% of the workforce was involved in formal learning, much of it organised by themselves.

So that's people going back to TAFE, going to uni. Non formal learning, which is essentially learning on the job has been declining.

And if you look at the proportion of employers that are committed to giving people training on the job that's fallen from 35.9% of workers in 2005, reporting they were getting some kind of training, to only 21.5% in 2016-2017.

Now, that's if you like bad news, even before COVID things were not good. And I'm an optimist; I'm a realist when it comes to research, but I'm an optimist by nature.

And I think the most important thing to keep in mind when we're looking at the future at the moment, is that there is a recognition that governments can make a huge difference.

And it's hard to think, hard to remember now. But in the early days of COVID, even the federal government was resistant to putting any kind of wage subsidies, but it changed its mind within about six weeks.

And the expenditures we've seen in the last few months are on a scale that we have actually not seen outside of wartime.

So, we're living in an era where governments are kind of learning that they can do things that they previously thought were impossible. And I think this is a very important period because I've spent all of my working life. I started working in the mid 80s; I was basically told governments couldn't do very much about improving the employment situation for people; but we've seen that Government can make a phenomenal difference.

And this is not just something that's a pragmatic thing in response to COVID. Leading international agencies like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development, have been issuing quite severe warnings to government saying, do not withdraw the support you're providing for employment because that will cause a major problem.

And they're saying this because they witnessed what happened to the world after the GFC. After the global financial crisis, there was an initial injection of funds to try and restore the economy.

But then government's move quickly to repay the debt and in moving quickly to repay the debt, prolonged the crisis, and is now recognised in senior policy circles, that that kind of dislocation has led to a world where we have countries like the UK leaving the European Union in very acrimonious circumstances; seen the rise of intolerance and political ideas that are pretty, pretty nasty because people have been feeling left out.

So, whilst the economy is pretty crook going into COVID, our key policy leaders are telling us we've got to be thinking more creatively and more adventurously. Because if we don’t, we end up in a bad place.

So that's the good news. The challenge is this. I read the questions that people have sent in, and it's really good that Sydney Ideas gets these kind of pre questions coming from people.

And I think the questions are very much about what can we learn from COVID? How can we build on the gains that we've learned about remote working and the like?

And the only caution I would say here is that on the upside, yes, we've learned great things about how we can do things differently, how we can create work that we didn't think was there before.

But what that will do is increase what's known as labour supply. It means a lot of people that previously weren't looking for work will now say that I can work.

And that's gonna put, I think that will only lead to more work if governments keep up with those ideas that the OECD and the IMF have been saying; you've got to be expansionary in the way in which you look at creating employment, because labour supply will be up, but labour demand won't necessarily be there.

So, my way of concluding here is, the future of work is an open question. If we look at what's happened for the last 30 years, we will see a continuation of prolonged unemployment and underemployment.

But I think the prospects for change now are better than they've ever been in my life as a working labour market researcher. But that is a political question.

There is nothing inevitable about the good projection we're currently on, continuing.

And the thing I've enjoyed most about working with Jen and other disability researchers is that I find the disability community raises really important questions not just about themselves, but for society at large.

And I think the disability community's got a very important leadership role to play to keep the pressure up for governments to keep working with the new lessons they've learned on how they can make a difference in giving us all a future work that we want it. Over to you, Jen.


Thanks so much for that John. And I like your realist optimist take on the situation, which might characterise you well.

So we have this opportunity to think about inclusive working and in doing that, it's important to know what people with disability want and need in our workplace of the future.

So I thought I would pose that question to you first, Sheelagh, what are your experiences of work with disability? One, first part of the question and second part; what would your ideal workplace be like?


Thank you for their and I'll acknowledge that I'm on the land of the Gadigal people. I'm actually not too far away from University of Sydney right now, and I'll pay my respects to elder's past, present and emerging.

As noted before, I've been visually impaired since I was about seven years of age when I got the measles that kick-started glaucoma.

And just to have a think about this, before I fully answer the question is when I first went for my first job, paid job back in 1989, so three years prior to the Disability Discrimination Act, I had over 150 job interviews before I was given a chance to have a job.

Unfortunately, I still know people of different disabilities who was still going through that 150 job interviews. Okay, so just saying that, I was thinking about this before, and I've just put a sentence here. So for me, I want to be seen as an asset, not a problem to be fixed, or a person that's too risky, or troublesome to bother with.

Okay, there's a lot of myths out there that employing someone with a disability is a high-risk activity. All research says quite the opposite. We won't go into that right now, but just have a think about that. The reality is, that I live in what I call a sight dependent world. Okay, that wasn't made with blindness in mind.

So it wasn't made to fit me in there in any way, shape, or form. And for much of my childhood, following losing my eyesight, I lived in an institution as many kids did, until I was 16.

But I want you to think about this; as a site dependent world, I can't do things like use a touchscreen photocopier. And I can't pick up a piece of paper and read it just in front of me. And I can't see a picture on a video screen, for example.

But think about this, I've been timed, I can read 300 words, roughly per minute using screen reader software, if the document or the website is set up with accessibility in mind, that's about twice what some other people can generally do. I can also read about 180 words per minute in Braille, much faster.

But as I said, I can't use a touchscreen photocopier to save my life. And touchscreen is taking over in this world of else. Okay. So I always talk about this idea that my ideal workplace is about this mentality of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’; it takes a village to be inclusive, and then to create this sense of belonging because I can be included till the cows come home.

But I may still feel alienated when I go into a meeting, for example. And there's a PowerPoint. And I don't know what's on that screen. And the PowerPoint hasn't been shared with me prior to that meeting

So let's think about a workplace where disability, I hate using that word. So let's call different ability is first in your mind, and not an afterthought, where it's built into what we do and not bolted on later. That would be my ideal workforce.


Thank you that that's brilliant. And I really like the it takes a village to be inclusive and create belonging. And we're going to come back to that at the end of the discussion. And now over to you, Charles, what has been your best workplace experience? And why?


Yes, thank you. I think there's been over the year’s things have improved gradually. And I've been lucky also to have some colleagues who had some empathy.

And in some case, even though I could have been fighting for myself to gain access to, for instance, social gathering, there might be a farewell or birthday or some other celebration that might take place in a place where I could not get to because even though you can only see me through this window, but if you saw me in person, you would see that I use a wheelchair, I'm dependent on wheelchair to get around.

And there are a lot of venues at the universities which are not accessible. When it comes to work events, it would be really expected that the place would be accessible. But it doesn't always happen with social events.

I've been lucky enough to have some colleagues who would actually approach the organiser, just to make sure that it is really accessible because in my case, sometimes it might be a bit awkward if I asked if the venue is going to be accessible and then I may or may not be able to turn up on the day.

And it feels awkward if I've requested the place to be accessible and I don't turn up. So it is little things like that.

Ideal workplace. I mean, also, I've been lucky enough to have managers that since a few years ago, that could understand actually one manager would really understand about the future of work and would encourage all staff to work from home at least one day a week or possibly two days.

And that's been very useful for me also because instead of me requesting a particular day from work or having to explain why I needed to work from home, this became now the norm and it's not something that other people need to be jealous of, or it just becomes, like built in, in the work culture.

Also, for instance, I had an issue with getting inside my office because the front door, I was always struggling to try and get in and get out.

And another colleague, for instance, took it upon themselves to, and it took quite a long time to try and get an automatic door installed, took a long time or so because it was considered a fire hazard and all that.

But now in the standards for all new buildings at the university, it's the norm to have automatic sliding doors. So those things which people don't think about it can be quite difficult to obtain in the first place.

The problem also with having finally an ideal workplace is that if I want to go for promotion, I want to apply for a job in another part of university, it's a bit of a worry because I feel like I might have to start all over again and try and fight for every little accessible aspect of work.

And that's an obstacle when it comes to career progression, for instance, because you then become very comfortable in your little cocoon, but the wide world out there is not like that.


It's very true. Yeah. So how can we, and by we, I mean, the University of Sydney, collectively, thinking about your role in dawn, best ensure that the needs of people with lived experience of disability are included in the workplace.

And that was a good example of needs, that we wouldn't necessarily think about needing to include but it's very important for, for career progression. People shouldn't just have a job, but they should be able to progress through their career.


So DAWN is a staff network. So this is really good work network. And it's a great place for people who have a disability or have an interest in disability, to gather and compare stories.

And it's also a great opportunity for the university to have a staff network that can help them create a more inclusive workplace. In our case, we were lucky enough to have an executive sponsor, who had responsibility of HR, ICT, Building; so a lot of our concerns.

And he could see the value of being proactive, and also of putting us in touch with a number of people around the university who are responsible for those aspects.

So that way, we can not only compare stories, but we can actually make a real difference. Because once we are put in touch with those people, we can not only be heard, but also next step is to find out what the university has done with our suggestions.

And that started to happen for instance, with a new timetabling system, the people who put things together, got back to us and really showed us how our concerns have been taken into consideration.

Because without that, that final step, the there's not much point to making us feel warm and fuzzy just because we've been asked for our opinion


Yeah, that's exactly right. You don't want to empty consultation, you want meaning meaningful consultation.

Penny, maybe I could throw over to you now. So just adding to what Charles has said, what insights Do you have from your perspective of working with the DAWN network? And what are the issues that people with disability face in relation to their work at the university?


Thanks, Jen. And I guess yes, it's a good sort of segue from the comments from Charles and I really just think I've been so lucky. It's been an absolute pleasure to be part of the DAWN network, with people like Charles and Sheelagh in terms of being able to inform the work I do.

And as Charles pointed out, we've really been able to have some influence on shaping policies, and really focusing on the programmes that we want to prioritise and the projects that we want to deliver.

So for me, it's important that they're actually informed by our staff with lived experience of disability. And to be honest, I don't think I'd be able to do my job well or deliver on those outcomes and have an impact without the support of the DAWN.

In some ways, I might have some ideas, but I'd actually be quite lost in a way that would really wouldn't have any impact or necessarily reflect where the greatest need is or the potential to actually have the biggest positive impact. So, for example, we've got the disability inclusion action plan.

I think it's the university's fourth disability inclusion action plan. It was launched last year in disability inclusion week.

Now, I was able to have some honest conversations with the DAWN about what we should be pulling into that plan when we were preparing it. And one of the things that DAWN kept asking is, why aren't there more people with disability working at the university.

So that translated into the new plan, having a focus on employment. And whilst I know, it's a tricky time, John has really highlighted it's a very tricky time in terms of employment, we are still in our own ambitious way, looking at developing a disability employment programme, so that we are able to target our recruitment processes in a more inclusive way for people with disability.

Just in terms of say, what the issues are that people with disability are facing in the workplace, just very quickly, I think that the, the negative stereotypes around people disability still, you know, abound.

So for example, and I think you might have touched on some of them Sheelagh. But workplace adjustments are going to be expensive, that there is a safety risk associated with employing a person with a disability.

And there's that whole kind of like low expectation attitude that really needs to be broken down as well. That you're not going to get some of the same skills or capabilities, yet we know universities are producing fantastic graduates who just happen to have a disability, every year.

And we have, you know, several thousand students with disability that we know of, in our own university population, and that would be reflected in universities around the country. So there's no lack of talent. That's one thing we know for sure.

And we also know from data from the Human Rights Commission; that discrimination of workplace setting is very common for people with disability.

And the problem with that is it affects all aspects of a person with disability’s interaction with the employment lifecycle. So whether it's, you know, looking like trying to put a strong case to be the best candidate when you know that you might be facing discrimination based on past experience.

As Charles was saying, having access to career progression and professional development, there's still barriers for people with disability as well.

So they’re some of the things that we know staff, saying, well, this also to when to share information about having a disability as well.

That's another dilemma, you know, do you let your manager know that you have a disability and hope that sharing that information isn't going to lead to a change in how you're perceived at work?

And really a truly inclusive workplace is one where diversity is valued. And so having a unique characteristic such as disability is actually appreciated and respected, rather than seen as something that’s a problem or something that needs to be fixed, as Sheelagh was saying.


I think that those insights actually really ring true with what John and I found in our research and is very much shared across employment situations and shared across people with disability in work, looking for work, right across society.

It's not a university problem, it is a universal problem. And so maybe, I might just think, maybe turn it to be more think about the positive changes that we can work towards in imagining a different future.

So I think I'll pass over to Manisha now, and I just want to start by asking you, what is inclusive design?


Thank you for having me on the panel to start with. And I’d just also like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, it's such a privilege to work on this land today and every day, and also to recognise and acknowledge the elders past, present and emerging and also Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are on this call with us here today, as well, we learned so much not only about exclusion, but also inclusion from our first nations.

And I think that when we think about inclusive design, there are two really key words there; design and inclusion. And I think design’s become, you know, one of those new buzzwords, but for us it it's all about intentionality.

And when do we have humans in our decision making and how do we design for that? And when we think about inclusion, and inclusive design, what we're really talking about is designing for anyone who's missing out.

So, technically, that could be men. It could be cis white men really; it could be women. It could be people with disability, people who speak different languages.

However, what we do tend to do is put two things on this one is the lens of privilege, and choice and control.

So where does choice and control sit. And the other one is, regardless of the work we do when it comes to design, we always end up at some point, with a human with a disability as part of our reference group, or someone who experiences disability, actually.

And the reason for that is, our methodology says that the best way to gain insight; is by looking at where design really fails, the best way to innovate is by looking at design failure, not for that person, but for all of us.

And when we think about people who, I think most people on this call would know about the social model of disability, but when we look at design that has been designed by society to mean that people cannot function in a space, then the people who have the best experience of that are often people who have either a superpower or a complete deficit in one of the sensory modalities.

Okay, so if I said to a group, design me the best door, often I will have people saying things like, oh, we want a door that you know, has a virtual reality screen embedded in it, or we'd like a door that is painted purple.

However, when we talk to someone who is a wheelchair user, to Charles's point, when he spoke so eloquently about the door that didn't work in his office, what we get is some really rich insight, because that door doesn't work every day.

And when we have something created like a sliding door, not only does that work for someone who might be a wheelchair user, it also works for me when I've sprained my ankle, or have a broken leg, or I'm carrying lots of boxes, etc.

So when we design for difference, we're actually designing things that work for everyone. And I think one of the things we need to think about there is also this idea of difficulty rather than disability.

So what systems make it difficult for us to work? And how do we also recognise that not everyone is the same. So you know, back in the day, when we talked about universal design, it was about, you know, when we talk about something like a ramp; ramps were formed for one group of people, but they work for all of us.

However, with inclusive design, we take this forward to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the ability of technology to allow us to work for difference. And a key example of that is a smartphone.

So when we all think about these smartphones we have, well, we all use them, we all have, well a lot of us have them. And we use them all very, very differently.

But the reason we're able to do that is because the diversity, and the insights from just from disability really, that has enabled that to happen.

So if it wasn't for technology that was made for people with carpal tunnel issues, we may not have had the gesture control influences that we have on these phones. If we didn't have voiceover, we may not have had Siri.

So it's how do we actually use the edge and I use the word edge user rather than people with disability or medical disability, because it's really people who the system is not working for who are on the edge, and we're on the edge of different times.

So as Sheelagh said, she can read faster than I can. right. That's a superpower. It's not kryptonite. But it means when we're talking about reading, she's not an edge user. But some of my staff who really struggle to read books but are very audio focused. Sometimes they are.

So it's we need to be flexible and build systems that have flexibility in them. If we want to create a workforce, and a system that works. COVID taught us this, right? Like we're far more flexible in our approaches today than we were six months ago.

But I think it's how do we bake in flexibility and kindness? Very quickly, we have this very, I love this model. It comes from the inclusive playground movement. And it is really thinking about three key things. Can I get there? Can I stay there? And can I play there?

And when we think about those from edge perspectives, how do I get to work? Can I actually work? Have the systems been set up for me? And can I play there is do I feel safe and welcome and accommodated? And do I feel like I'm treated the way everybody else is? Is a really easy way to look at any product, any system and any policy.


Following on from that, Charles and Sheelagh, do you have any thoughts is on Manisha’s comments on inclusive design?


Yeah, I've been involved in inclusive design movements since I was about 10 or 11. Being a captive in an institution, so to speak, we used to have technologies sent to us to be trialled. So we were free child labour, I guess.

So I've been in this industry now for 42 years. 44 years, something like that. I don't know how old I am. Look, inclusive design for me is more than the physical environment. Inclusive Design is your headspace. It's the digital or online space. And it's the architecture around me.

Now as a vision impaired person architecture around me needs hand railings, automatic doors, fantastic. Thank you, Charles. They are handy for people with guide dogs, we only have one hand free. I would like more of those on campus. I would also like water bowls for dogs on campus.

I say this in nearly every meeting I go to. So inclusion is those little simple things like a water bowl and a hand railing, consistent signage. But inclusion is also the digital online space.

And I have to say that once we got through some of the technical hitches that all of us went through Jason Marku, who's just a genius, as far as I'm concerned around computers and technology and accessibility.

Once we got through those, I found that this year, during COVID times, I've been more included than any other time. Okay. So I've been able to go to meetings much easier, I've not had to travel.

I've had to learn them. And I've had to memorise keystrokes, and I think we need to remember that that can be exhausting, or that memorization and that cognitive overload.

So let's remember that sometimes having a disability is exhausting. So that inclusion, what I want people to think about is two things, one, consistency and predictability.

Okay, just a simple example, if I'm using an I and I say this all the time, PDFs suck, as far as I'm concerned, they should just be banned. But they're a part of our world.

a) offer material in a Word format, for example, Rich Text Format, or a Word format, put on the accessibility mode on your computers, check it out, there's stuff there that you can do quite easily.

But if we look at PDFs, for example, just very quickly, there are three ways that I have to access a PDF. And I have to figure out every time which way that has to be, because there is no predictability and no consistency.

That's time wasting. I don't have that time. I don't have that energy. Neither does anyone else. So that's number one.

And when we think about this sort of stuff, when we talk about architecture, and we talk about stability, discrimination acts and all the universal design laws.

We wouldn't create a building these days, I hope, without ramps, without Braille signage, without accessible toilets, etc, etc. So why do we insist on creating websites and documents that do not have these ramps, or signage, or consistency or accessibility built in?

So I want you to start thinking about how you are going to put these ramps and everything into your websites and into your documents, your forms, etc, etc.

So, that would be my thing is just to say, we're all in this together, I have to do accessibility for everybody else as well. It's not just about blind people.


And I apologise for my robotic voice earlier. For some reason, Zoom gives up often in the middle of a meeting on me and I have to click on and off.


That's okay. I understood.


So maybe, Charles, do you have any comments on that?


Yes, the inclusive design is really important when it comes also with communicating. And it can be just a matter of asking what the preferred mode of communication would be, or to just offer alternatives.

In the case of dealing with students, for instance, we can move away from just the typical essay to offer different modalities, getting people to submit recording, video recording, audio recording, it's the same with when we're dealing with recruitment.

For instance, if we want to have, say somebody with autism on the autism spectrum, they might feel very uncomfortable if they suddenly placed in front of a big interview panel, and especially if it's for a job that doesn't require that kind of interaction.

So maybe the process of recruitment could be slightly different. It could be alternatives, so It's just a matter very often in communicating differently in this case, we're having live captions.

In many cases when you're offering a video, having subtitles captions can be beneficial to so many other people, not just the people with a disability. But with if you're having a video watching it in a train, you can listen to the sound.

So if you're thinking of all these different options, it becomes a richer world for everybody, like Manisha was saying, if we're focusing on the people on the edge, it helps just everybody. It's a great opportunity if you can make communication much more inclusive by design.


Yeah, I think that's very true. And so Manisha, do you want to quickly respond to that? And then I'll throw over to Penny and John, for some final comments, before we go to the questions from the audience?


Yes, absolutely. And, you know, just reflecting on what Charles and Sheelagh was saying, I think one of the things that for all of us is, actually, it's not just about the person with the disability, it's actually our own biases, that can actually get in our way of recruiting incredible people and working with incredible people.

So one of those small biases is this notion that actually, when people turn up to an interview, that they're on a level playing field, or that when people hand in a resume, they're on a level playing field.

So how many of us have the bias that if there are typos in a resume, it means the person doesn't necessarily; isn't meticulous, or isn't able to have attention to detail.

And, you know, in our team, both myself who has dyslexia, and a staff member of mine who uses a screen reader both have a problem when it comes to spelling, and especially with the screen reader, he's a sales person, he can't actually tell if a word is spelt wrong, if it's pronounced correctly.

But the inference often that people make is actually that's not a very, that person will just take that resume out because it's full of typos.

So I think one thing to think about is actually, what bias or what disadvantage, are we giving ourselves when we're looking for great clients, or great staff members?


I might jump in first, if that's alright, because I think everyone's got a few questions for John. So maybe that'll be sort of leading to opening up the Q&A.

I just guess a quick final comment for me is really around cultural change and shifting the narrative around disability.

So moving from a deficit model, to a strength-based approach, to disability inclusion and starting to appreciate, and this I think, really feeds into what the other panel members in particular, what Manisha has been saying, is to really appreciate that creativity and value that thinking and doing things differently offers.

So again, it's about really being open to that. And we know that innovation and adaptation has enabled, say, for example, the university and many other workplaces to do a rapid shift to remote working and online learning. So that we could, you know, respond to the COVID lockdown.

But we know that both remote working and online learning is something that a lot of students and staff with disability have been asking for and wanting for a long time.

So I think that's kind of, in some ways we're catching up the rest of society is catching up with where people with disability already are in terms of flexibility in terms of being adaptive, creative and innovative.


Okay, excellent. So some places require proof of disability before an adjustment will be granted. How can we encourage employers to move away from this requirement and take a universal approach to accommodating individuals in the workplace?

So maybe, Penny or Manisha, you might like to answer that question.


There are two sides to this. One is what an ideal world would look like. And one is what the actual world looks like. I think that you're right.

Often people ask for proof of a disability before an adjustment. And one of the things we talk about is dis-difficulty rather than disability. So I might say I have a difficulty in spelling, but I don't necessarily tell people why I have a difficulty in spelling.

And sometimes that's enough for an adjustment to be made. I think, especially when we talk about invisible disability, this starts to become really problematic. Because there’s this thing about do I have to disclose and what does that mean?

So I don't think there is a perfect answer here. But I also think on the flip side that often when people understand the ‘why’, they can actually understand or step into a space where they're able to work with a person in a different way.

Now, I don't think that means that everyone should have to disclose everything. But I do believe that sometimes it does make life easier for us if we can explain why something's happening. And I don't mean that in, you know, it can be anything.

So I know that if I'm struggling to sleep at night, and I say to my manager, actually, I'm going to come in a bit late because I'm struggling to sleep at night, chances are, they're going to take that a little bit better than if I say, I'm just coming in late.

And that's probably because we do have a pejorative way of looking at difference. So it's where does that baby step sit? I don't think I've answered that question very neatly. But yeah


yeah, just quickly, so we can get some of the other questions. I think it is hard when we are asking people to share information about disability, as I was saying before,

if we can kind of create an environment where people feel comfortable to share that information, where it's seen as useful information, rather than as kind of some sort of, you know, secret information that we don't really want to talk about that's sort of a bit of a cultural shift.

And we still, unfortunately, do have, and I think COVID, in some ways, has made us move back to a bit of a medical model.

If people want to continue to work from home, where we are getting a bit of pushback and saying, well, you need to give us a reason why.

And it is challenging, sometimes it's kind of the path of least resistance to provide that information.

But I have to reiterate again, what Manisha was saying, it's about maybe confirmation rather than details.

So when we ask for information, that is the kind of approach that we would like to take. And I guess, if we were really doing universal design and inclusive design, well, the instances where we'd need to ask that would be few. But obviously, we're a long way from being there.


Okay, I've got a couple of questions now for John, I might bundle them together, John. So the first one is, what are your views on employers attitudes towards hiring people with disability? And the questioner has given a couple of the policy context, type examples there?

And the second one is what are your thoughts on how to leverage from the quantum of research about employment and people with disability that we can use, I suppose, what can we use from the research to influence politicians and policymakers to make change?


Sure, they’re good questions. The first one is a bad employer attitudes. Look, most employers are pretty reasonable people. But they are operating in basically a really terrible environment at the moment. And even before the current situation, they were operating in a pretty tough environment.

And so I think you've got to be pretty direct in the way you deal with employers and they're, the best thing you can do is increase the demand for labour.

So this is why reducing unemployment and reducing underemployment is so important, because while you've got now literally millions of people looking for more hours of work, employers can just simply pick and choose who they like.

And they can pass over people with any kind of imperfection. And so given that we're not going to have in full employment for quite some time, I'm a very strong believer in strict regulation.

There's no, yes, best practice examples are nice, yes, persuading people is good. But ultimately, in a situation where you've got a massive oversupply of labour relative to demand, you need to use the law to ensure the employees do the right thing.

The second thing on the header, we use research change policy. That's kind of been the story of my life. I've been doing applied research for 30 years. And I've thought about this question a little bit having seen it come up now.

I think what we've got to do is get beyond the idea that individual research projects change policy. It's not individual projects that do it, you’ve got to have a research programme.

And I think this is where people who are working in this area have got to get together more effectively and basically campaign on the basis of information and the examples, I like to cite are in the industry policy area, there was an organisation called the Productivity Commission.

I actually don't agree with what they've done. But they basically just put out report after report over a 15-20-year period, and basically became recognised as having a very clear set of ideas on how you take ideas forward.

I think the problem with the people in the social policy domain is that the, the message is fragmented. And there's some outstanding pieces of work, but there's got to be better organisation of the researchers to get a clear message coming through.

You've seen some very good examples of this in the health area, there's the areas in smoking research, for example, have really shifted the dial.

So it's not just a matter of getting, you know, more bright people in to do it. It's actually how does the research community in this space organise and I think that's way you shift policy.


Okay, we've just got a we've got so many fantastic questions, and it's a shame to run out of time. We've only got a few minutes left, but I thought maybe we'd ask Sheelagh and Charles, the top question here: "Within my team, we're trying to make all events we produce as accessible as possible. Is there a common barrier to attending events for people with different abilities that is often overlooked by event organisers, even experienced ones?" 

You've given a couple already couple of examples already, do you have any others that you want to add to that list?


Can I just add one very – well, two very quick things that you can do. Number one, when you send out a Zoom invite, can you put a descriptive invite to it? I get Zoom invites that just says, "You are invited to a weekly catch up", and I'm going to who, to what, to where, to when?

So if you can be a bit more detailed in that, in that second line down as to what the name of that invite is, that would be appreciated by everybody, I think.

The second thing is in the body of the invitation I would be putting in there – and I've seen this a lot in other places – if you have any access needs, please let us know. So that way we know about captioning. Or I can say, if someone's going to do a PowerPoint presentation, can I have it emailed to me place? So they're just two very simple things for the online environment that can be done.


That's fantastic. Charles, do you have anything to add?


Yes, no, I think Sheelagh has really pointed that out. That's the main requirement; if you're asking people if they have any dietary requirements, for instance, and it is a must also to ask, what kind of access requirements people have.


And I need to wrap up now because we've got one minute to finalise. So I just want to really thank our guests. And I just want to remind you all about the other Disability Inclusion Week events that are taking place this week, and I want to thank the guests. I'm giving you virtual chocolates and flowers. And thank you very much for participating.

Everyone has a role to play in creating workplaces that are truly inclusive of people with disability and I want you to all take away these questions with you. What can you do as a first step in the process? And I think we've got some good examples today. How can you act as an ally to step up and be part of this journey? And how do we share the responsibility for inclusive workplaces?

So on that note, I'm going to say goodbye to you all. Thank everyone for joining us and giving such good questions, and close the event.


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Finally, we want to acknowledge that this podcast was made in Sydney which sits in the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. It is upon their ancestral lands at the University of Sydney is built.

The speakers

Manisha is an innovation leader and a cultural and social change champion, focused on helping organisations harness the power of thinking from the edge. She is CEO of the Centre for Inclusive Design, a social enterprise which helps companies to build and design products, services and policies that are inclusive, valuable and usable for as many people as possible.  Manisha will share insights into moving away from the traditional one size fits all approach to recognising unique needs through inclusive design.

John is currently a Professor in Working Life in the Discipline of Business Information Systems at the University of Sydney Business School. His key domains of expertise are wage determination, workforce development and the role of labour in economic reconstruction.  In recent years his research has examined how to overcome problems in competency based systems of vocational education by moving to more coherent, ‘capabilities’ approaches to defining expertise. This research involves, inter alia, using modern methods of data science to achieve this objective. He is currently leading a multi-disciplinary, international team of researchers preparing research report for UNESCO on the futures of work and education.

Sheelagh is a Kamilaroi woman originally from north-western NSW. She joined the Sydney School of Education and Social Work in 2017 as a Fellow in the Wingara Mura Leadership Program. In 2016, Sheelagh completed her doctorate titled: Culturally Responsive Pedagogies of Success: Improving educational outcomes for Australian Aboriginal students, at the University of South Australia. Her thesis infused Culturally Responsive Pedagogy with Critical Race Theory. She has studied in the areas of education, criminology and psychology.

Sheelagh’s experience also includes working with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Adelaide City Council Access and Inclusion Panel, and the SA Minister’s Disability Advisory Committee. She facilitated the writing of Vision Australia’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP seeking to make the organization more culturally savvy for Aboriginal peoples who are blind or have low vision. Prior to returning to university to study education, Sheelagh worked as a Senior Project Officer with the NSW Department of Corrective Services developing programs to lower the re-offending rates of Aboriginal peoples across the state. Sheelagh has had a diverse work history having been a counsellor with organisations like the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON), the Salvation Army and Oasis Youth Support Network.

Charles Humblet is Co-Chair, Disability at Work Network at the University of Sydney.

Penelope is a passionate and solutions focused diversity and inclusion manager with extensive experience in strategic and operational planning and delivery, consultation and facilitation, cultural change, diversity engagement events, and strategic communications. 

Jen is Associate Professor in qualitative health research in the Sydney School of Health Sciences. She is Director of the Centre for Disability Research and Policy and is Head of Discipline for Behavioural and Social Sciences in Health.

Prior to joining the School in 2011 she was Research Fellow in mental health policy at the University of Edinburgh and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy. She received her PhD in Social Policy from the University of Queensland in 2005.

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