Willing and able: disability in the workplace

Disability in the workplace is more common than you may think. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than one million working-age people with a disability were in paid employment in 2012 — that is, 8.8% of the total Australian workforce.

What is a disability?

Disability comes in many different forms and degrees of severity, and can include mental, intellectual and physical disability

The Disability Discrimination Act defines disability as:

  • total or partial loss of the person’s bodily or mental functions
  • total or partial loss of a part of the body
  • the presence in the body of organisms causing disease or illness
  • the malfunction, malformation or disfigurement of a part of the body
  • a disorder or malfunction that results in the person learning differently from a person without the disorder or malfunction
  • a disorder, illness or disease that affects a person’s thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgement, or that results in disturbed behaviour.

There’s a perception among employers that older employees are more prone to injury. As our workforce ages — and people are expected to work for longer — it’s important that employees are aware of their rights and employers of their responsibilities.

Rights and responsibilities

Under the Disability Discrimination Act, employers cannot discriminate against an employee, or prospective employee, on the basis of that person’s disability. These laws are intended to ensure that Australians of working age are readily able to participate in the workforce.

The federal Disability Discrimination Act (and some state laws) obliges employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to enable an employee with a disability to perform their duties.

Reasonable adjustments

An employee with a disability has the right to ask their employer for modifications to their workplace or situation. If these adjustments are considered ‘reasonable’, the employer is obligated to implement them.

For example, to provide for an employee with a disability, an employer might allow:

  • a change to duties or tasks
  • flexible working hours
  • regular breaks
  • workstation adjustments
  • modifications to work instructions or reference manuals
  • installation of ramps or other equipment.

What’s considered ‘reasonable’?

A number of factors are taken into account when determining whether or not an adjustment is ‘reasonable’. They include:

  • the employee’s circumstances, including the nature of their disability
  • the nature of the employee’s role or the role being offered
  • the nature of the required adjustment
  • the financial circumstances of the employer
  • the size and nature of the workplace and the employer’s business
  • the effect of making the adjustment, including financial, on the employer
  • the number of people who would benefit from or be disadvantaged by making the adjustment
  • the impact on efficiency and productivity
  • the consequences for the employer of making the adjustment
  • the consequences for the employee of not making the adjustment.

Be aware

When it comes to disability in the workplace, employers are often aware of the Fair Work Act’s stipulation that an employee must be able to perform the inherent requirements of the job. This is true, but not the whole story. Employers also need to be aware of the Disability Discrimination Act (and some state laws), which sets out their positive obligation to make reasonable adjustments as outlined above.

Anti-discrimination laws apply regardless of whether or not an employee’s disability was the result of a work-related injury. Employers need to be aware of this if they receive a request for an adjustment.

Avoid complaints

If an employer fails to provide for an employee with a disability in accordance with anti-discrimination laws, a complaint may be brought against them. Most discrimination complaints are resolved through the conciliation process of the Australian Human Rights Commission, or the relevant state equal opportunity commission, but some do end up running in court.

Complaints can result in the employer being ordered to make the reasonable adjustments and/or pay compensation. Being familiar with your responsibilities and obligations as an employer will greatly reduce this risk.

A better workplace

According to the National Disability Strategy, work is essential to a person’s economic security and is important to achieving social inclusion. Employment contributes to physical and mental health, personal wellbeing and a sense of identity. Income from employment increases financial independence and raises living standards, and enables people with disabilities to purchase goods, use services and access information just as people without disabilities do.

A productive workplace is one that’s supportive, diverse and inclusive. The number of Australians with disabilities will continue to increase as our population ages — it’s important that the participation of these employees is accommodated and supported accordingly so no-one is locked out of the workforce.

Workplace disability rights


Share this article on:

Kamal Farouque

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne

Kamal Farouque is a Principal Lawyer in Maurice Blackburn's Employment practice with extensive experience in employment, discrimination and workplace law.

Kamal is well recognised as an effective employment lawyer. He was one of the select few Melbourne employment lawyers recommended by Doyle’s Guide as a preeminent lawyer in his field in 2019 as well as being part of the only first tier law firm for employee & trade union representation in Victoria in 2018. He …

Read more

See all contributors