A fulfilling career delivers many benefits. Apart from financial security, it can provide a sense of purpose and achievement and help improve your self-confidence, while also creating opportunities to make new social connections and contribute to the community. 

However, research shows that many people with disability feel they are not given adequate development opportunities within the workplace. According to the People Matter 2012 NSW Public Sector Employee Survey, only 40 per cent are satisfied with the opportunities available for career development.

As leader of the JobAccess Employer Engagement team (NDRC), Karla Fernee works with employers to build their disability confidence and instil inclusive workplace practices. Drawing on these interactions, she shares her advice on how people with disability can engage with their employers with a more active approach to career development, and reap the rewards that a fulfilling career has to offer.

Share your career goals and agree a plan with your manager

Perhaps you’re keen to broaden your skillset, gain experience in a different area, or take on more responsibility; but are unsure about how to make this happen or are facing workplace barriers. The best place to start is by having a conversation your manager.

Arrange a time to meet and discuss your career goals, and to identify any new skills that you need to learn or develop in order to achieve those goals. These may include technical or job-specific skills, such as using particular computer software or operating certain machinery. You may also identify general skills that apply in any workplace, such as communication or leadership skills.

Together with your manager, create a plan for how you will develop these skills. Make sure the plan is realistic, specific, and includes set dates to reach particular goals. You should also schedule regular catch ups to review your plan, check the progress you have made, and help you stay on track.

Have a structured plan. Here’s why:

Employees with disabilities report strengths such as persistence, discipline, and willingness to commit, but feel employers often don’t see this potential. Among the 75% of employees with disabilities who say they have market-worthy ideas, 48% say their ideas went ignored by people with the power to act on them, and 57% feel stalled in their careers1.

A structured plan to achieve career development goals can play an important role in addressing any misconceptions about an employee with disability’s performance or professional aspirations.

Identify ‘on the job’ opportunities to develop your skills

In many cases, you will be able to build skills through ‘on the job’ opportunities and support from your manager and colleagues. There are a number of strategies you may wish to consider as part of a career development plan:

  • Secondment: an opportunity for an employee to temporarily work in a different department and, in some instances, a different business within the same organisation. This allows the employee to gain exposure to a range of roles and further develop their skills, which can also then benefit their original team or department.
  • Job shadowing: this generally occurs over a shorter period of time than a secondment, and involves an employee closely observing and interacting with an experienced staff member as they undertake their daily work activities.
  • Mentoring: a professional relationship where a mentor (who may or may not be the employee’s manager or supervisor) provides advice and guidance on professional issues that may be impacting the mentee and shares new ideas and ways of thinking.
  • Networking: connecting with colleagues and attending special events can help develop a range of skills, keep you up-to-date with the latest industry trends, and allow you to meet prospective mentors, partners, and clients.

Of particular interest may be internal groups that allow employees with disability to have the time, space and support to discuss their challenges, needs and experiences. These are often referred to as Disability Employee Networks (DENs), and enable employees with disability to communicate their views and opinions to relevant internal stakeholders. They can also act as a reference group to provide input into policies and procedures as appropriate, allowing diverse voices to be heard and represented within the organisation.

  • Team building: both formal and informal team building opportunities give employees chances to solve problems and develop solid working relationships with co-workers. Be sure to share any access requirements you may have with the organisers ahead of these events, so they can ensure accessibility for all.

Consider education and training courses

Completing a course or formal training program is another way of developing new skills. This could include professional courses such as a public speaking course, while others may opt for vocational training relevant to their area of work. Have a discussion with your manager about what may be available within your organisation.

You may also consider using the myskills website, the Australian Government’s national directory of vocational education and training providers. The website enables you to search for training courses near where you live or work and in certain industries.

Contrary to common perception, disability representation in the boardroom is not out of the ordinary. According to the 2018 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC), 33% of people with disability were working as managers or professionals. A more recent survey titled ‘Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings’ indicated there has been an increase in people with disability completing vocational, tertiary and other professional qualifications.

Financial assistance may be available for workplace modifications and support

As part of a career development plan, you and your employer may identify changes that will allow you to do your job better. This could include:

  • physical changes to a work environment, such as building modifications to improve accessibility
  • additional equipment or support, for example screen reading software if you have vision impairment or Auslan interpreting if you are deaf or have hearing loss
  • changes to the way you approach your job or how you are supervised, for example introducing flexible working hours, modifying the duties involved in the job, or providing written task lists, prompts or reminders if you have memory problems or intellectual disability.

If you and your employer agree to make changes to help you do the job, you can tell your employer about the Employment Assistance Fund (EAF).  The EAF provides financial help to eligible people with disability and mental health conditions and employers to buy work-related modifications, equipment, Auslan services, workplace assistance and support services.

A free workplace assessment through the EAF is available to help work out what modifications or equipment will best meet your needs and help you do your job. Applications can be made online, or you can speak with a JobAccess Adviser on 1800 464 800.

All the best for taking the next step in your career! Remember, you don’t have to go it alone. JobAccess is here to help.

[1] Sherbin L, Taylor Kennedy J and Jain-Link P, 2017, Disabilities and Inclusion US Findings, Centre for Talent Innovation 2017, viewed July 2020 <https://www.talentinnovation.org/_private/assets/DisabilitiesInclusion_KeyFindings-CTI.pdf>

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