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Workplace diversity benefits society

Workplace diversity is generally recognised as a positive thing. Most organisations recognise the benefit of reflecting the community they serve and it's good practice that helps an organisation to function better.

Forty years ago women were shut out of many professions and it required affirmative action to turn this around.

Even today, a significant gender pay gap persists and women are under represented in many professions, especially at higher levels.

And despite efforts to close the gap with indigenous disadvantage, the disparity between employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-indigenous Australians has increased in recent years.

Employers are increasingly seeking to create employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through targeted recruitment strategies.

In the Australian public sector and in most states and territories, special measures have been adopted whereby indigenous applicants are given preference for a job vacancy.

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That's a positive step which was long overdue.

Why is it that disability employment lags so far behind in terms of priority, attention and success?

Earlier this month The Canberra Times reported the Legislative Assembly's health, ageing and community services committee has made disability employment the subject of a new inquiry.

Analysis of the figures shows that political attention is warranted.

Human Rights Commission data shows the ACT disability employment rate of 2.2 per cent [458 people] is lower than all other jurisdictions except South Australia at 1.3 per cent.  The federal public sector had 3.3 per cent of its workforce identified as disabled in 2015 and the ACT government's own target was 3.4 per cent [655 employees].

Although the percentage has been rising in the ACT it is still far below the general population of people with disability, which the ABS has estimated at 16 per cent.

Many of these will be in older age brackets, but the fact remains that people with disability are severely under represented in the workforce.

Unconscious bias is frequently stated as a barrier to the employment of particular demographic groups.

Managers like to hire people who are like themselves, and in the case of people with disabilities there is sometimes an unspoken fear the person will be difficult to manage.

Numerous studies and practical examples exist to debunk this ingrained view.

The Canberra Times has also reported success stories like autistic federal public servant Jeanette Purkis, who struggled to hold down a job washing dishes, but now makes a valuable contribution.

Some effort is required to make workplace adjustments, but the organisational rewards are great including loyalty, increased productivity and the satisfaction of helping people to achieve.

Society also benefits through giving people with disability economic self-sufficiency and more meaningful lives.

The committee's inquiry presents an opportunity for those who care deeply about the issue to have their voices heard.