Pub­li­ca­tions

Dis­abled Employees


In Brief

Peo­ple often judge a book by its cov­er and this still applies when it comes to the judg­ments we make about each oth­er. In light of the pro­posed anti dis­crim­i­na­tion leg­is­la­tion, this arti­cle out­lines what dis­abil­i­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion is, the excep­tions which allow dis­crim­i­na­tion and how the sup­port­ed wage sys­tem assists with the employ­ment of dis­abled persons.


What is a disability?

The Fed­er­al Dis­abil­i­ty Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act 1992 (Cth) 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 pres­ence in the body of organ­isms capa­ble of caus­ing dis­ease or illness;
  • the mal­func­tion, mal­for­ma­tion or dis­fig­ure­ment of a part of the person’s body;
  • a dis­or­der or mal­func­tion that results in the per­son learn­ing dif­fer­ent­ly from a per­son with­out the dis­or­der or mal­func­tion; or
  • a dis­or­der, ill­ness or dis­ease that affects a person’s thought process­es, per­cep­tion of real­i­ty, emo­tions or judg­ment or that results in dis­turbed behaviour.

As is seen above the spec­trum of what con­sti­tutes a dis­abil­i­ty is quite broad, prob­a­bly broad­er than many realise and includes phys­i­cal and men­tal con­di­tions. To have a dis­abil­i­ty can mean some­thing the per­son cur­rent­ly has, used to have, may have in the future or is attrib­uted to them.

What is dis­abil­i­ty discrimination?

Dis­abil­i­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion in employ­ment is unlaw­ful under state and fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion. This means it is unlaw­ful to dis­crim­i­nate against someone:

  • in arrange­ments made to decide who should be offered employ­ment;
  • in decid­ing who should be offered employ­ment;
  • in con­di­tions on which employ­ment is offered;
  • in con­di­tions of employ­ment giv­en to the employee;
  • by deny­ing the employ­ee access (or lim­it­ing the employee’s access) to oppor­tu­ni­ties for pro­mo­tion, trans­fer, train­ing, or oth­er benefits;
  • by dis­miss­ing the employ­ee; or
  • by sub­ject­ing the employ­ee to any oth­er detriment.

In the above areas of employ­ment it is unlaw­ful to treat a per­son less favourably than anoth­er per­son, in the same or sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances because of their dis­abil­i­ty. It is also unlaw­ful to have an appar­ent­ly neu­tral pol­i­cy, rule or prac­tice which has a neg­a­tive impact on a sub­stan­tial­ly high­er pro­por­tion of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ty and the pol­i­cy or prac­tice is unrea­son­able in the circumstances.

Under the Fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion it is impor­tant to note that it is dis­crim­i­na­to­ry if an employ­er does not make rea­son­able adjust­ments for the dis­abled per­son and in not mak­ing those adjust­ments treat that per­son less favourably. 

It is also vital to under­stand that it is not nec­es­sary that the person’s dis­abil­i­ty be the dom­i­nant rea­son or a sub­stan­tial rea­son for the treat­ment. That is, dis­abil­i­ty can be one of the rea­sons and need not be the main reason.

Excep­tions: when is dis­abil­i­ty dis­crim­i­na­tion lawful?

There are two excep­tions which allow dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of dis­abil­i­ty.

Unjus­ti­fi­able Hardship
It is law­ful for an employ­er to dis­crim­i­nate against some­one on the basis of their dis­abil­i­ty if avoid­ing the dis­crim­i­na­tion would cause an unjus­ti­fi­able hard­ship on the employ­er. The fac­tors tak­en into account in deter­min­ing whether the employ­er would suf­fer unjus­ti­fi­able hard­ship include:

  • the nature of the ben­e­fit or detri­ment like­ly to accrue to, or to be suf­fered by, any per­son concerned;
  • the effect of the dis­abil­i­ty of any per­son concerned;
  • the finan­cial cir­cum­stances, and the esti­mat­ed amount of expen­di­ture required to be made, by the first person;
  • the avail­abil­i­ty of finan­cial and oth­er assis­tance to the first per­son; and
  • any action plans pro­duced by the Aus­tralia Human Rights Commission.


Inher­ent Requirements
If the employ­ee or prospec­tive employ­ee would be unable to per­form the inher­ent require­ments of the job even if the employ­er made rea­son­able adjust­ments to assist them then it is law­ful to dis­crim­i­nate against that per­son. In con­sid­er­ing whether some­thing is a rea­son­able adjust­ment a Court will exam­ine whether the adjust­ment would impose unjus­ti­fi­able hard­ship on the employer.

What is the sup­port­ed wage system?

Indus­tri­al awards have spe­cif­ic pro­vi­sions which pro­vide that employ­ees with a dis­abil­i­ty receive wages on a slid­ing scale accord­ing to their abil­i­ty to per­form the work. Indi­vid­u­als whose pro­duc­tive work capac­i­ty is reduced by rea­son of dis­abil­i­ty can be paid a pro­duc­tiv­i­ty wage.

The sup­port­ed wage sys­tem is a sys­tem which through a Nation­al Pan­el of Asses­sors ass­es the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of employ­ees with dis­abil­i­ties. An assess­ment is then used to cal­cu­late a cor­re­spond­ing wage.

To be eli­gi­ble for the sup­port­ed wage system:

  • the employee’s work must be cov­ered by an indus­tri­al award or enter­prise agree­ment which includes a pro­vi­sion for the sup­port­ed wage system;
  • the employ­ee is an Aus­tralia cit­i­zen or a per­ma­nent resident;
  • the employ­ee is 15 years or over;
  • the employ­ee has no out­stand­ing work­ers com­pen­sa­tion claim against the employer;
  • the employ­ee meets the impair­ment cri­te­ria for the Dis­abil­i­ty Sup­port Pen­sion; and
  • the job is for 8 hours or more per week.

It is impor­tant to note that sup­port­ed wage can only be paid if an assess­ment is car­ried out by the Nation­al Pan­el. The assess­ment process does not cost the employ­er, it is Gov­ern­ment fund­ed.

Exam­ple: If the employ­er makes an appli­ca­tion for an assess­ment and the employee’s pro­duc­tiv­i­ty is assessed at 70 per cent com­pared with their peers then the employ­er can legal­ly pay the employ­ee 70 per cent of award wages.

The sup­port­ed wage sys­tem enables peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties to com­pete in the mar­ket place and encour­ages employ­ers to con­sid­er employ­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. There are a num­ber of employ­ment agen­cies which spe­cialise in dis­abil­i­ty employment.

What to take away
  • peo­ple with a dis­abil­i­ty are pro­tect­ed from dis­crim­i­na­tion in the workplace
  • employ­ers need to be aware of their oblig­a­tions under dis­crim­i­na­tion legislation
  • hir­ing dis­abled employ­ees with lim­it­ed capac­i­ty is finan­cial­ly viable under the sup­port­ed wage system