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Disability in the Workplace

Published October 6, 2017 (last updated on June 12, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Copywriter and Content Creator

According to the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Disability Act), employers have an obligation to accommodate for the needs of disabled employees and provide a safe environment in the workplace.

Despite 1 in 5 New Zealand workers having a disability, disability in the workplace is still perceived in a negative light and considered a detriment to overall productivity. This attitude leads to less working opportunities for disabled employees, and may result in a less welcoming and diverse workplace.

Disability Benefits

Whether you are temporarily or permanently disabled, disabled people in New Zealand have access to a number of Government-funded disability benefits and assistance programs.

These allowances provide financial for disabled employees in a number of ways including:

• Covering medical expenses
• Financial aid for time off work due to personal illness, injury or other impairment
• Allowance for caregivers who need to take time off work to care for a relative or significant other.
• Veteran’s Pension for war veterans
• Financial aid for organ donors

Definitions of Disability under the Disability Act

The term ‘disability’ can be used to refer to a number of impairments and factors that contribute to a person’s inability to participate in certain roles or activities. These impairments range considerably from physical to mental, sensory, intellectual, psychiatric and neurological.

When approaching the subject of disability, it’s important to understand what defines a disability for an employee and the impact that different impairments may have:

• Not all disabilities are clearly visible or easy to spot purely based on observation, particularly mental, sensory and psychiatric impairments.
• Disabilities come from a range of sources such as personal accidents, illnesses, disorders and family genes.
• Disabilities can be permanent or temporary, with a major or minor impact on a person’s day-to-day living.
• Disability at work can make it difficult for people to perform certain tasks, communicate with others, and learn new skills, ideas or techniques.

Recruiting Disabled Employees

It’s vital that employers avoid discrimination against disabled employees in the workplace and during the recruitment process.

During an interview, be careful when it comes to asking questions about a candidate’s health. If the candidate has stated they have an illness or disability in the interview and they’re unsuccessful, they may claim they were discriminated against based on their condition.

If you fail to follow the guidelines of the Disability Act, you could be liable and face serious fines.

How to Provide Reasonable Accommodation Measures

When an employer is made aware of a disability at work, they need to make reasonable accommodations to support the specific needs of that employee.

Talking directly with an employee is the most effective way to establish a working arrangement that maximises their productivity, while improving and maintaining job satisfaction.

In the eyes of the law, this is called reasonable accommodation and can involve one or more of the following:

• Making modifications or changes that allow the employee to receive equal opportunities in the workplace.
• Implementing physical changes to the workplace (eg. Providing easy access to the building).
• Modifying how the job is done (eg. Giving part of the task to someone else or providing facilities to make the job easier).
• Any changes that do not unreasonably disrupt the activities of the employer.

Keep in mind, while these changes should be an effective means to help the employee – they should not come at the expense of disrupting the workplace or causing unreasonable financial distress to the business.

Embracing Disabled Employees

The wellbeing of any organisation depends on the people who work there. A positive workforce encapsulates people with a diverse range of skills and experience who come from a variety of different backgrounds.

By looking at disability in the workplace as an opportunity for growth, not a ‘problem’ to be dealt with, organisations can expand the diversity of their team and encourage a positive and welcoming image for their business.

For advice on how to manage employees with a disability in the workplace, contact Peninsula on 0800 568 012.

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