Peter Bacon: Unlocking potential

Peter Bacon, CEO at Disability Employment Australia, champions employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities and their remarkable talents by lobbying for better government support, and assisting companies in creating a more inclusive workforce

Can you tell us about Disability Employment Australia (DEA) and its main mission?
We aim to increase the participation of people who have disabilities in job markets. Our major objective is to lower their unemployment rate to a minimum and to make sure they have everything they need to succeed. Everyone has the right to work and participate economically, and we are focused on making sure they actually have that opportunity.

Could you share some stats about workers in Australia who would classify themselves as disabled?
It is hard to get very accurate statistics because of the way they are recorded centrally, but the headline is that the disability unemployment rate is double compared to people without disabilities. That means that if you have a disability, you are twice as likely to be unemployed. As a total number, it ranges from 500,000 to one million people.

That is frustrating when you see that unemployment in Australia is more or less at a record low at under four per cent. And because of that, you hear about labour market shortages and employers saying, oh, we can’t find anyone to do the job. But actually, there is this huge reserve of people with disabilities who just need to be given the opportunity and the right support to succeed. How can we shift the dial on that, is the big question for us.

That sounds like a huge mission. Why do you think the gap is so big?
That is a complicated answer. From an Australian perspective, we have some big assets and some challenges. We are funded by some 60 organisations including the National Disability Insurance Scheme, representing one billion Australian dollars. These are some of the biggest investments in the world when it comes to people with disabilities.

However, when it comes to employment, it takes two to tango. You need employer participation. And if you compare Australian policy globally, other countries have stronger mechanisms to encourage employers to employ people with disabilities.

Another problem is that there are low expectations for disabled people to work. Australians are fair-minded people and want to give people a fair go. But even for teenagers with disabilities, there are little or no conversations about career pathways. While it may be true that the barriers can be too high for some, the majority of disabled people can and will contribute if they are given the right opportunity.

You came into the CEO role in February. With a background in strategy development, how are you now tackling these issues?
Probably the biggest strategic pivot is that before, we were very focused just on the disability employment service, which is that billion-dollar contract I mentioned. While that is a really important part, we need to start from the first principle question of what we need to do as a country?

If it is to get more people with disabilities to get work, stay and flourish there, that will not be addressed by just improving the disability employment service. So, we are expanding our view of strategic implications to the kinds of things we engage with.

For example, we now have a stronger stance on what employers should or shouldn’t be doing. Beyond that, I think we have done a good job of advocating to the government and supporting senior stakeholders within our industry. Where I think we have not done as good a job, is in building links at all levels within the industry, right down to practitioner level. So, we are looking at providing training to perhaps some different communities of practice.

What are some of the biggest myths currently existing around disability employment for employers?
There are loads. But one of the biggest ones I always see, even from organisations who are disability service providers, is the belief that if they are going to employ someone with a disability, they will need to put some ramps in their office.

That would work for disabled people in wheelchairs but the trouble is, only four per cent of people with disability are in wheelchairs. In fact, most people you employ with a disability will not even need any workplace modifications or even if they do, they are very minor ones. You may also find employers are probably already employing quite a few people with disabilities anyway, whether they are disclosing their disability or not.

It is funny, because my brother runs a space engineering company, and I asked him to go ahead and find out how many people in his employment had disabilities. And when he found out there were quite a few, he was able to tailor services better. It is about speaking to people and asking them what they need. What can I do as an employer? The irony is that it is not just about becoming a better employer for those with disability needs but that is what you do to support all your staff so they can work at their best.

You have been tasked to host the next World Association for Assisted Employment conference in 2027. What is the significance for Australia in hosting this event for the first time?
It is a great opportunity that we are excited about. This will be the third iteration of the conference after Belfast and then Vancouver last year. We look forward to learning about the best practices from all over the world to achieve a stronger disability employment sector, and to heighten awareness and get disability employment issues in front of people’s minds. There is also an obvious opportunity for employers, organisations, and other stakeholders to participate and work together towards a better future for people living with disabilities.

Are there unique challenges that come with organising a global conference for more than 500 delegates in the disability employment sector?
Not so much in terms of accessible considerations as we have been organising national conferences regularly. But going from organising a logistically predictable national conference to an international one where we are less practised involves some risk. We are asking questions like, should we add on study tours, or how can we create a programme that feels more global rather than being parochial in nature?

How can we make sure that we do not expose ourselves too much to financial risk when numbers are unpredictable? And then perhaps also, how do we make sure that we are taking advantage of some of the international exposure that hosting brings us? For example, I am weighing up whether it would be good to do something in Queensland because the Olympics will be hosted there, or whether delegates would be more attracted to Sydney because of the harbour. There is more to think about.

Finally, what would you say is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about disability and employment so far?
This is going to sound really geeky but I have been surprised by the absence of accurate and current statistics on the employment of impaired people. We do not even have universal definitions for disability and we cannot make better decisions until we do, because we cannot compare one thing against another.

There is a pretty good United Nations definition but it has been applied it in different ways. It is the same problem in Australia, where we have an Australian Bureau of Statistics definition but we apply it differently across the country. I think this is a significant problem.

Is that one of your priorities to tackle?
There is only so much I can do. I need the government to play ball, but I’m certainly lobbying the government on those matters.