Debate over including people with disabilities in workplace legislation

May 25, 2018

Debate over including people with disabilities in workplace legislation

Disability advocate, Gabrielle Hogg, is an active member of the community and frequently sees stigmas and stereotypes applied to individuals with disabilities. Photo: Supplied.

A prominent disabilities advocate wants changes to health and safety at work laws to support people with disabilities, but not everyone agrees with such a specific focus.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is seeking submissions on its Draft Health and Safety at Work Strategy to develop a new plan of goals and priorities to strengthen safety for Kiwis in the workplace.

Currently, the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 doesn’t include provisions for people with disabilities, something Gabrielle Hogg, a disabilities advocate and co-director of Autistic Advocacy Network New Zealand, would like changed.

“[The legislation] should provide a specific focus on disabled people, including those with mental health needs,” said Ms Hogg, who herself has autism.

She said changes are necessary as people with disabilities often find workplaces inaccessible with high stress levels, lack of support systems and employers who don’t understand their needs.

A spokesperson for MBIE said the plan would focus on “achieving outcomes for all workers in New Zealand [and] workers with disabilities is one of the areas we would be really interested in submissions on, including current barriers and opportunities for action.”

However, Workbridge, an employment agency for people with disabilities, said “workers with a disability are not at greater risk of harm,” with their safety rate being 99.78 per cent in New Zealand.

“Disabled people live and manage their disability daily, as a result often they are more conscious of environmental changes and how to eliminate or minimise potential hazards,” said Workbridge.

Workbridge believes a specific focus on individuals with disabilities in the legislation would “perpetuate misinformation that they are at greater risk than other workers.”

But Ms Hogg said it wasn’t just physical threats she was concerned with, but how people with mental or social impairments, like autism and asperger’s, were supported in times they felt unsafe or vulnerable.

Ms Hogg wants updated legislation to require workplaces to have adequate support staff or for the employer to be trained in recognising signs someone with a disability feels unsafe, including “how to support [them] through a meltdown.”

She said it was important workplace culture towards people with disabilities was improved, ensuring employers had the right information and management plans to find value in all their workers.

“What I would like to see changed is the stigma and stereotypes of disabled individuals broken down. This may make employers less afraid to hire those that may have behaviours different to others” said Ms Hogg.

Workbridge said a positive workplace culture was one that was accessible and solution-based, “rather than just seeing a problem that needs fixing.”

MBIE are seeking submissions until 8 June, with a plan to be developed later in 2018.

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