We need fewer disabled people in the workplace. But many more with lived experience of disability (Disabled People).

By Phil Turner

Considering the role that I am in, you may think that a statement like “we need fewer disabled people in the workplace” would be a career killer, but only if you don’t understand the social model of disability. What I want is fewer people being disabled in and by their workplace, and instead more Disabled People (people with lived experience of disability) in the workplace.

We achieve this by employing more Disabled People and ensuring that our workplaces remove the barriers that disable them.

The Office of Disability Issues aptly defines disability as –

“The social model of disability specifies that individuals do not have a disability – it lies in society.”

“The experience of disability occurs when people with impairments are excluded from places and activities most of us take for granted. It happens when our infrastructure and systems do not accommodate the diverse abilities and needs of all citizens.”

It then goes on to define Disabled People as –

“People with impairments are disabled if society does not provide an environment that takes their impairments adequately into account. Consequently, they experience barriers preventing their participation in society.”

Hopefully, you can now see where I am going with this.

In my last article (When disabled and neurodiverse people truly belong, everyone benefits), I talked about why NZ workplaces should go beyond becoming more disability and neurodiversity inclusive. Instead, becoming a workplace where disabled and neurodiverse people are a part of the collective “us”. The benefits are tangible, but most importantly, it reflects one of New Zealand’s core values, fairness and equality.

But how do disabled people become a part of “us” when our workplaces are not set up for it?

This is the big question, and we all play a part. We must start by accepting that it is New Zealander’s decisions and attitudes that disable people every day. They are not disabled because of their impairment, but instead because of our collective decisions, some conscious and many unconscious. The workplace is no exception to this.

But the good news is we make decisions every day, and this means that we can start making better decisions right now. You can make decisions today that reduce the barriers that disabled people will face.


If we can remove or reduce the number of barriers faced by disabled people, we enable them to show their true potential. Which then encourages us to remove more barriers, leading to even better results.

When preparing to write this, I asked myself – how do you do justice to the many types of barriers that disabled people face in the workplace. The only conclusion I could reach was, I can’t. I could write many articles, and I may, that talk about individual types of barriers, but for this article, some categories deserve special mention.

  • Attitudinal – these are the behaviours, perceptions, and the biggest one – assumptions, that people have and make around the capability and needs of Disabled People.They are often formed with the best of intention (e.g. keeping someone safe) but generally come from a lack of knowledge and stereotypes. In the workplace, this can manifest in ways such as assuming that a disabled person will be a greater health and safety risk (rarely true, and more often actually the opposite) or that they will not be able to do the role as they can’t access the computer (also rarely true).
  • Organisational and systemic – the inclusion of disabled people in the workforce can be problematic as decisions made before they arrive exclude them. The way policies, procedures and/or practices are set up can make the workplace unsuitable, or at least more complicated, before the disabled person even arrives.
  • Architectural and physical – this is the one that most people think about when we talk about accessibility. Where is someone going to park their car? How will they get up the stairs? etc. It is all about the setup of buildings and environments so that everyone can use them.
  • Information or communications – these barriers occur when people don’t understand how to communicate with people with different communication needs. Think about those with sensory impairments, such as hearing loss, sight loss or different cognitive processing. Take some time to learn about accessible document and assistive technology. But most of all, have conversations with people and learn how they want to be communicated with.
  • Technology – when technology is implemented, are the needs of potential future staff considered? The selection of inaccessible technology solutions can lead to users of assistive technology and techniques being excluded, or at the very least being perceived as complicated to employ.

If you want to focus on anything from the outset, focus on attitudinal barriers. Resolving attitudinal barriers and removing the misinformation and assumptions about the capability of disabled people leads to their potential being understood by all. From there, people naturally start to remove the other barriers as they see and understand how they are “one of us”.

In a workplace, it is about culture. Do we have a culture of accepting and supporting a person to be who they are, and to thrive in our environment? There is no magic bullet to change the disability inclusive culture of an organisation. Instead, it requires careful and considered leadership over a period of time that reinforces the organisation’s commitment and belief in disability inclusion.

“We don’t have anyone with a disability in our workplace, so we don’t need to fix anything.”

I have two answers to this common statements like this, I always struggle to pick which one to run with first.

  1. How do you know that? 19% of working-age New Zealanders have a disability. 70% of these disabilities are hidden. Are you still so sure that you don’t have disabled people that are hiding them from you? Are you enabling your whole team to perform at their best?
  2. Nor will you if you don’t change how you approach things – missing out on the great talent and diverse perspectives of disabled people.

Disability smart is good for business and New Zealand

With the New Zealand unemployment rate at 3.9%, and with an underutilised (albeit regularly marginalised) disabled workforce available, doesn’t it make sense to start ripping down the barriers? Only then will Disabled People be able to show their true potential.

The ILO estimates the difference between countries getting this right and those doing nothing is 7% of a country’s GDP. NZ’s GDP in 2021 was $305 billion New Zealand dollars, the difference between doing nothing and getting this right is $21 billion New Zealand dollars.


As New Zealanders, we believe in fairness and equality. It is one of our core values and is at the heart of our being. So why then are the unemployment rates of capable disabled people so high? I can tell you it’s not because of a lack of potential, it’s because right throughout our society we don’t make the right decisions that empower them to realise it.

What decision are you and your organisation going to make today that starts to change that?