Education to Employment Education to Employment

What is disability?

This section will help to boost your disability confidence with a basic explanation of the term 'disability' and a description of the many people living with disability in our community. We will also bust some widely held myths about disability and explore facts about some common disability types and their affects in the workplace. You'll also collect some essential tips on communicating well with people with disability.

Introduction to disability

1 in 5 Australians has one or more disabilities and this proportion is increasing with the ageing of the population. This means that sometime in our life we are all likely to have a disability and/or have a friend, family member, class mate and/or work mate with a disability.

A disability may be visible or hidden, may be permanent or temporary and may have a minimal or substantial impact on a person's abilities. More than 80% of disabilities are invisible. Many people may not think of themselves as having a disability; however they may be eligible for reasonable adjustments in education or employment to help them reach their potential. 

Although some people are born with disability, many people who currently have a disability may have spent much of their lives without it. For example, people who have acquired their disability through a workplace incident, car accident, illness and/or ageing.

The Disability Discrimination Act (1992) defines disability very broadly and includes points that you and many others may not have thought of as a disability.

The Disability Discrimination Act (1992) says that a disability includes, and therefore protects the rights of people who have, any:

  • total or partial loss of a person's bodily or mental functions
  • total or partial loss of a part of the body
  • presence in the body of organisms causing disease or illness
  • malfunction, malformation or disfigurement of a part of a person's body
  • disorder or malfunction that results in a person learning differently from a person without the disorder or malfunction
  • disorder, illness or disease that affects a person's thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgement, or that results in disturbed behaviour

Facts about people with disability

People with disability can be found in all parts of our community. People with disability are teachers, students, police officers, truck drivers, carers, managers, customers, children, young people, older people, indigenous and non-indigenous, from all cultural backgrounds and can be gay, lesbian, transgender or straight.

People with the same type of disability actually experience their disability in very individual ways. Knowing what type of disability a person has tells you only a little about how that person's disability affects them and their life.

The one thing that people with disability have in common is that they may be unable to do particular things the same way that people without disability do without some type of adjustment, alteration or accommodation. These adjustments are mostly relatively easy and inexpensive to make.

Disability mythbusting

Myths about people with disability have always existed throughout the centuries. Of course, we are now much more aware and respectful of people with disability, but many myths live on.

Myths about disability can affect the way we live and work with people with disability.

Have a look at these 4 myths and then the facts to check your own understanding of disability in education and employment settings.


1. People with disability don't work as professionals.73% of 2009 university graduates with a disability were working full-time.

Although not as many as graduates without disability, many were working in fields related to their professional qualifications. This included areas such as accounting, medicine, law, education and other industries. [1]
2. People with disability are costly employees and less productive.90% of employees with disability recorded productivity rates equal or higher than other workers.

86% of employees with disability had average or superior safety records. [2]
3. People with disability are more likely to have an accident or present an OH&S risk in the workplace.98% of employees with disability had average or superior safety records. [3]
4. Graduates with disability are probably not going to be the 'right fit' for our business.78% of employers who had employed a person with disability described the match between their employee with disability and the job as 'good'.

Over 90% of employers who had employed a person with disability reported that they would be happy to continue to employ people with disability.
  1.  Gradstats: Employment and Salary Outcomes of Recent Higher Education Graduates, No. 14 2009, Graduate Careers Australia
  2.  As above
  3.  Graffam, J., Shinkfield, A,. Smith, k., & Polzin, u., (2002) 'Employer Benefits and Costs of Employing a Person with Disability', Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation (17) pp 251-263

Communicating better with graduates with disability

Many people initially feel uncomfortable working with people with disabilities. This may be because people feel:

  • unsure of the 'right' wording to use
  • concerned about offending the person with disability
  • unfamiliar with talking with people with a visible disability
  • worried by a past difficult experience with a person with disability.

Check out these 10 tips for polishing your interactions with people with disability:

  • Use the recommended wording "person with disability". This puts the emphasis on the person not the limitation or disability.
  • Look at the person when addressing him or her.
  • Extend your hand to shake when meeting someone.
  • Ask the person about the best way to communicate if you are unsure.
  • Don't assume you know what the disability is because many different conditions can present in similar ways and some disabilities are 'invisible'. An 'invisible' disability is not immediately obvious when you are speaking to a person but the person may still face challenges communicating with you even though their disability is not visible to you.
  • Speak directly to the person with a disability, even if a person without a disability accompanies him or her.
  • If you know the person's name, address them by their name.
  • Offer assistance if it appears necessary, but don't assume a person with a disability will need or accept it. Wait for acceptance and instruction before proceeding. Respect people's wishes and remember there is no need to be offended if the person declines your help.
  • Ask the person to repeat themselves if you did not understand them. Don't pretend that you have understood if you haven't.
  • Treat all people in the same way you would wish a loved one to be treated or to be treated yourself.

(Adapted from the Byron Shire Council: Communicating with People with Disabilities not dated)

You'll probably feel even more confident when you know some of the "don'ts" of communicating with a person with disability. To keep the conversation flowing well, here are some things to avoid:

  • telling an individual you admire his/her courage or determination;
  • staring at or obviously avoiding looking at a visible disability;
  • expressing sympathy for the individual;
  • asking how they got their disability;
  • presuming the individual is more unhealthy, fragile or sensitive than others;
  • assuming someone with a speech or hearing impairment also has an intellectual disability;
  • feeling uncomfortable using the word 'see' when addressing a person with a vision impairment or 'hear' when addressing a person with a hearing impairment; or
  • speaking very loudly or very slowly to a person with disability.

(Adapted from Deb Whitecross Enterprises, Etiquette of Communicating with People with Disability, 2010)

Common types of disability and affects at work

Remember that employers consistently report that overall employees with all types of disability are productive, loyal and great quality contributors to the workplace!

Getting a broad understanding of common types of disability is a good start to building your own confidence about graduates with disability in the workplace. But you must keep in mind these 3 things:

  • No two people with the same disability will experience the same affects at work.
  • A person with disability is not likely to have all the listed disability features or affects at work. Most people have just a few of those listed; you'll only know by asking the person directly.
    The examples of workplace adjustments in the next section are only examples. In each case the best supports in the workplace can only be discovered through conversations between the employer, employee and, if needed, a disability specific employment specialist.

People with disability experience their disability in very individual ways. How the person's disability affects them at work (and in other areas of life) will change according to the specific situation and other factors. The best way to get to know how the person's disability affects them and what support, if any, they'll need in the workplace is to ask them directly.

For the facts on specific disability types click on the headings below: