A fear of the unknown is deterring Australian employers from hiring more people with disabilities, according to the chief executive of one of Australia's largest companies.
Luke Sayers, chief executive of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, has challenged corporate Australia to increase opportunities for people with disabilities.
About 5 per cent of the PwC 5500-strong workforce has a disability, and Mr Sayers would like to increase the proportion to between 15 to 20 per cent. He believes more employers could do the same.
"It's clearly the right thing to do," he said.
However, he believes businesses are constrained by negative perceptions.
"It's a combination of factors – fast-pace and immediacy of our world of economic rationalism; fear of the unknown," he said. "Sadly, this means employers often won't commit the time to support and release the talent within these individuals."
Half the 2.2 million Australians with disabilities of working age are unemployed, according to a report commissioned by the Australian Network on Disability.
The report, by Deloitte Access Economics, found that increasing workforce participation rates for people with disabilities by one-third would generate $43 billion in gross domestic product over the next decade.
The report also found that increased employment participation would help cover the costs for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, to be introduced to Federal Parliament this month.
Australian Network on Disability chief executive Suzanne Colbert said Australian businesses ranked poorly on a global scale, with only 17 per cent of companies focusing on including people with disability. Australia is ranked 21st out of 29 in OECD countries in employing people with disability.
With the US government looking at introducing a quota system to compel more employers to hire people with disability, Ms Colbert said Australian governments could consider the same.
"We may indeed need some more carrots and sticks to help Australian businesses be inclusive," she said.
The NSW government introduced a $4000 payroll tax relief incentive at the beginning of the year to encourage employers to hire people with a disability, but NSW Minister for Disability Services Andrew Constance said few companies had pursued it.
"I'm afraid to say businesses have been very slow to take that up," he said.
Improving employment opportunities for people with disability is the focus of this year's "Don't DIS my ABILITY" campaign, which Mr Constance said endeavoured to change employers' attitudes.
Dr Nikki Wedgwood, who is conducting a study on young people with disabilities for the University of Sydney's Centre for Disability Research and Policy, said discrimination was still rife despite equal opportunity legislation.
"It's disablism," she said. "When employers look at a person with a disability they see the disability – not the ability. They think of all the things they can't do, rather than what they can."
Hayley Bellamy, 23, combines her university studies with with work for Anglicare and Lifeline. The Penrith woman uses a wheelchair due to the genetic disorder muscular spinal dystrophy, but says most employers have been supportive.
"Obviously, there are some things I can't do, but I have plenty of other skills to offer, so I don't think using a wheelchair has hindered me at all," she said.
"The way I see it is, I just have a different way of getting around."