Despite the benefits of employing those with a disability, retail employers don’t have the practical knowledge to make workplaces more accessible
When was the last time you were assisted in a shop by someone in a wheelchair?
According to Suzanne Colbert, chief executive of the Australian Network on Disability, there is no reason why a sales role where deep product knowledge is required, whether that be selling phones or tools, couldn’t be filled by someone in a wheelchair.
And yet, says Colbert, “I can’t think of a single retail experience I have had where I have been assisted by a consultant in a wheelchair.”
People with mobility-related disabilities are proportionally under-represented amongst the more than one million Australians working in sales roles.
There are two major barriers to employment: the accessibility of premises, and reluctance on the part of many employers to consider people that use wheelchairs for customer-facing retail roles.
Bonnie Millen, president of People with Disability, says the organisation often gets complaints from people with disability about discrimination in workplaces including retail.
“People with disability want to work, but have found that attitudes towards them can be the biggest obstacle,” Millen says.
“People with disability can find that retail premises, like other workplaces, are not accessible which can be a barrier to employment in this area of the economy.”
However, when a retail business does employ someone with a disability, it shows a level of knowledge and understanding that can be an advantage in reaching new and diverse customers, Millen says.
“Making shops and other retails premises accessible for workers and customers alike is simply good business practice. Why would you want to exclude any potential customers from your store?
“Everyone has the right to be part of the community and this includes the retail space – people with disability shop, just like everybody else does. A business that is open to people with disability, both as employees and as customers, can only improve their bottom line.”
Robyn Ryan is a wheelchair user and peer support officer for ParaQuad NSW. She says physical barriers are the main problem she sees both for customers and potential staff. As a shopper, she can “tell at a glance if it’s doable or not” to patronise a store. “If it’s not, I don’t go in.”
Seeing others that use wheelchairs working in stores would be “a good illustration of true integration in the workplace,” she says. “It’s just a matter of employers needing to open their minds.”
Bunnings is one retailer that has taken on the inclusion message: “We have a really diverse workforce, with team members from all sorts of backgrounds such as nationality, age, race, gender and those with mobility impairments or disabilities,” Bianca Starcevich, Bunnings general manager human resources, says.
“This is an important part of our culture. We employ people that are the right fit for the job. We want to ensure all customers have a positive experience and receive the best service every time they shop with us and the same goes for our team.”
Darren Hooper, chief operating officer of Max Employment, a specialist disability employment service says, “employing people with disability makes good business sense”.
“There are some great business benefits when employing someone with disability. Benefits beyond just filling a job.” These include research findings that people with disability take fewer days off, take less sick leave and have a higher retention rate than other workers. Recruitment, insurance cover and compensation costs are also lower.
“An organisation’s greatest asset is their people. People with disability build strong relationships with customers and boost staff morale, helping to create an inclusive and diverse workforce,” Hooper says.
“Our experience is that people with disability are more likely to be unemployed not because employers discriminate against them, but because employers don’t have practical knowledge of how to make workplace adjustments. This can result in a lack of confidence among a lot of employers with knowing how to accommodate people with disability.”
Bernie Smith, NSW secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Services union says employers can make “generic policy decisions about job descriptions and task analysis which results in inflexible and discriminatory outcomes. Such discrimination impacts not only on [the person’s] working life, but all aspects of life including family, financial, physical and mental.”
Another reason retailers should be employing more wheelchair users is our ageing population, which is seeing more people with health conditions that affect their mobility forced into early, health-related retirement.
Colbert says research by Global Access Partners & the NSW Ministerial Advisory Committee on Ageing, the GAP Taskforce on Productive Ageing, showed that in 2014, there were 660,000 people in the 45-64 age cohort out of the workforce due to health conditions.
“The  Intergenerational Report showed this is our fastest growing workforce demographic, because we are running out of young people”, Colbert says.
Back issues that restrict mobility was the number one reason for health-related early retirement, second to arthritis. “If workplaces were more accommodating, they could be back in the workforce,” she says. “There’s a real gap in understanding the roles people can undertake.”
Colbert says for many retailers the requirement to maximise the return on floorspace can be seen as a barrier to making shopfloors accessible for either customers or staff that use wheelchairs. However, a cluttered shopfloor doesn’t just exclude wheelchair users, it can also exclude people on crutches, those pushing double prams, or users of walking frames.
But, she says, “If we get it right for people with disability we get it right for all sorts of people in the community.”