Teach managers to engage and advocate

December 2023

Matt* is a solicitor in a legal team in a NSW Government department. He has been in his current role for almost a year. Matt has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair.

Matt says he joined the public sector, like many other people, because it prides itself on flexibility and inclusion. But he says in his experience, in practice there’s plenty of room for improvement.

In his first role as a graduate, Matt had an easy-going manager who said, “come and tell me if you need anything.” Matt has come to learn that this isn’t necessarily as positive as it sounds. It puts the onus totally on the person with disability to always start the conversation, and to understand the systems to have the best chance of getting what they need.

Matt says it takes him at least 2.5 hours to get ready in the morning if he needs to travel to the office. This time and energy is often overlooked in conversations about reasonable adjustments, as conversations with managers are largely limited to physical access issues, such as door widths or desk heights.

As soon as an employer hears Matt is in a wheelchair, the first thing they want to do is an ergonomic assessment. Matt says that his body sits differently to an able-bodied person and assessors have limited knowledge of his disability. Consequently, the assessments are a waste of time as they are based on a strict checklist which attempts to replicate standard able-bodied metrics.

Matt says he’s now more confident and more likely to ask for things he needs. He stresses the importance of self-advocacy due to his needs being minimised in the past. Earlier in his career, for example, he did not object to being placed on a delivery roster. Matt was concerned that he might be seen as not being a team player. But, as it involved delivering documents to courts and barristers around the city, this soon proved physically impossible when buildings were not accessible, or the delivery involved heavy and bulky boxes.

Matt believes there needs to be closer collaboration between HR teams and business unit managers, so that local and individual needs balance the tendency for HR policies to be “very prescriptive and procedural”. For example, while a workplace adjustment might involve flexible work hours, he says HR requires set flexible hours to be committed to – for example, starting at 11am. This defeats the purpose of flexibility for someone with a disability for whom every day can be different, in terms of pain and energy.

Matt says induction materials on disability awareness are very high level and seem to “skip over the why”. They don’t give managers, nor the person with disability the tools to know what to do. He says it would be good if they were more like mental health materials. For example, R U OK? Day messaging in recent years focuses on empowering people to know what to do if the answer is “no”, not just asking the question R U OK?

A lot comes down to “pure luck” in getting a good manager and director. For example, Matt’s current director is happy for him to continue to work from home most of the time and come into the office once a month, instead of weekly. Matt says that it is unfortunate that his current director is unique in their desire to understand all of the daily impacts caused by his disability. While his current manager advocates for him, Matt stresses that managers should be equipped with the tools to promote the flexibility and values of the public service rather than relying on overly-prescriptive able-bodied expectations.

Matt says ongoing conversations are needed, not just one. He hopes organisations can teach managers to be more engaged, and to advocate for their direct reports so that skilled and dedicated staff can get on with the job.

*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual 

Information alert

For more workplace adjustment information, NSW Government managers and employees can visit the Public Service Commission website or contact their Diversity & Inclusion, Work, Health & Safety or HR teams. You may also wish to reach out to your Disability Employee Network (DEN).

If you have trouble accessing workplace adjustments or experience disability discrimination at work, please contact Anti-Discrimination NSW on 1800 670 812.

Last updated:

01 Dec 2023

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