Flyer for #102: Increasing Disability and inclusion Access in Australia
Flyer for #102: Increasing Disability and inclusion Access in Australia

Guest: Suzanne Colbert          Date: April 4, 2018

Guest Title: CEO          Guest Company: Australian Network on Disability      


[Intro music]


Debra Ruh:                  Hello everyone. This is Debra Ruh and you’re watching or listening to Human Performance… Human Potential at Work even though it is about performance. I have a good friend of mine; I’ve known Suzanne for many many years and I also am good friends with Suzanne’s husband who I actually met before I met Suzanne. And I have a cute little koala bear that he brought me Suzanne when he visited the States, still because I love it.


                                    So, Suzanne Colbert, Colbert? How do I say it properly Suzanne?

Suzanne Colbert:         Either is fine.

Debra:                         How do you say it?

Suzanne:                     Col-Bert.

Debra:                         Col-bert. Okay cool. So, Suzanne is the mastermind, I’m going to use my words, of the Australian Network on Disability and I am looking forward to having this discussion. As I noted, Suzanne and I have known each other for many years because our work was very similar. We sat on committees and things like that together. But, Suzanne and I reconnected at the International Labor Organization, the Global Business Disability Network program in Geneva and Suzanne was one of the speakers and you will see why when you hear her speak because she really has… she has a lot of very wise wisdom. And so I’m very excited to tell you more about what is happening in Australia because there are some really really amazing things.


                                    So, Suzanne, before we dig too much into the Australian Network on Disability, do you mind talking about who you are?

Suzanne:                     Thank you Debra. Firstly, it’s great to be on your show, I really appreciate the opportunity. I studied psychology in special education as mature age student and I thought, “My god, no one’s ever going to give me a job.” But I started working with people with disability and my first job after university was assisting people with the substantial intellectual disability.


                                    So people with what we call mild intellectual disability; people with an IQ of 60 or under into a world wage sustainable fantastic jobs. And the first lady that I helped into a work; Robin, she had lived in an institution all of her life. And she was educated in that institution, she lived there, she went on holidays with the institution and for her to have this expanded life where she could make a decision about what she was going to wear to work every day, learn to catch the bus, go to work and get a paycheck, it really was life changing for Robin but it was also quite life changing for me. And so, when you see the opportunities that in my mind economic empowerment can bring; that’s what really makes a difference because living in poverty gives you no choices.


                                    So, if you have money; you can start to exercise choices. That choice is hard for somebody who has lived in an institutional setting for a very long time but it is very very valuable for the trajectory of that life. So Robin was able to make other choices and become more independent in her life and stay in her job. She work in a library, she made a great contribution, she made a very positive impact on the workplace morale. And so, many Robins later; I realized that the problem was not assisting people with disability getting into work. We knew how to do that, we learned how to do that in the 70s’ really through [Marc Gordon] [PH 0:04:14.6] and other outstanding special educators. Our problem was how do we help organizations create barrier free front doors to the skilled and talented people with disability that could add great value to a business.


                                    So, I transferred my effort and energy from assisting people with disability to assisting employers; the successful employers of people with disability because the thing that I realized was that in assisting people with disability on an individual bases into work that there is nothing to harvest from that. So, Robin got her job and then you move on to the next person, right? And then you move on to the next person but I realized I would have to live until I was hundred years old to impact any scalable number of people.


                                    So by focusing our attention on opening the door; what if we didn’t have to spend months and months looking for jobs for people with disability? What if our companies could open their door and see the skills, talent and abilities and welcome those people? So we could get big companies, you know, in the US, you have huge companies. Our biggest company here is a 190,000 people. So what if we could get them to open their doors so that we didn’t have to make lots of phone calls to ask for special jobs for special people? And so that was really my mission; to help businesses open their doors.

Debra:                         And Suzanne, what year was that? Because the thing that I found so interesting the first time I talked to you was you have been doing it a lot longer than we had been in the United States and, in my humble opinion; a lot more successfully. So, I was really fascinated with the model when I first heard about it.

Suzanne:                     Yes. So, essentially, we started formulating the organization in 1999; we’re incorporated in 2000. But I think one of the things that has really stood well for us and I know that you do this in the US, is that, we’re just the facilitator that can see both sides of the same coin and essentially, all the things that we do at Australian Network on Disability or AND are designed by our employers to say you know, “how can we make this easier for you? What would be helpful?”


                                    So, for example, we started to get a lot of calls from frustrated university students who said, “I have been studying. I have this great degree but I haven’t got a hope in even getting a job interview and I’m really worried about my career prospects.” So, you know we just… and a lot of them were law students so we got some firms together and we said, “What are the options? What are some of the things that we could do? I mean, it’s so unfair that these incredibly skilled and talented people who might have had a different path because of their disability are never going to be in front of you.”

Debra:                         Right.

Suzanne:                     Because the way into a job in law in Australia was through summer clerkships. And so firms will get 1500, 2000 applications for 30 summer clerkships and we all know that the process is, how do you go efficiently and effectively go from a big number to a small number in the most effective and efficient way? And so anyone who had a semester off, anyone who needed to do things differently is never going to make that cap.


                                    So, it was very much our mission to put university students while they’re still at university and they haven’t closed off their options in front of those. And you know, we started off in 2005 and I think those were seven students across four firms. And this summer, we have had about a hundred and 40 students complete paid internships and we do about the same in winter so we now run summer and winter internship program.


                                    More than a thousand students have been through that program now and I really thank those law firms who came together to find a solution for them because by designing with them in mind, it means that we’ve really been able to scale and make it more efficient and effective and just really hit the mark in very very competitive industries, in very very competitive employers. There were blue chip employers across the public and private sector and that is absolutely working in trait. And when we do retrospective review about what happened to those students because clearly they have to go back to university because they haven’t finished, right? So they have to go back to university and what we find is that more than… when we look back after they’ve left university; more than 80 percent of those students are working you know, in their career destination. And that’s an outstanding result that is actually more than students without disability because that’s about 76 percent. So, I think it’s just that power of collaboration.


                                    I’m always asking quite earnestly, “what is the problem that we’re trying to solve? Who do we need at the table to solve it? And who’s got the power to solve it and to make it work?” and so that’s been very much our approach to the way that we do things.

Debra:                         And for those of you that don’t know that much about Australia; I mean we know it’s a beautiful country but there are things about Australia that are really impacting the work that Suzanne is doing. Australia of course like the United States and other countries is a big country; it’s got a lot different dynamics and diversity. And so it’s not just about in the cities; Suzanne’s work has to handle the whole country which I think makes a challenge. I don’t know if you want to talk about that and then I have a couple of other comments for you.

Suzanne:                     Yes. Thank you. I did lost you a little bit there on the volume Debra. But essentially, we are an enormous country so it takes us four and a half hours not too similar to the US to go from one side to the other. And we have a lot of things going on the perimeter of our enormous island but nothing happening in the middle.


                                    So, recently, when we do the member survey, we do have an office in Sidney, in Melbourne and Canberra, about 12 of our members said, “Could you just open an office in every capital city?” So you could imagine that from the US how challenging that would be. But we do provide services all the way from anyone who’s been to Australia from Darwin to Hobart or Perth to Sidney and we’re very blessed with technology that makes this kind of event and also the work that we do happen and the global trend I think for corporations to do more business electronically has really supported our mission.

Debra:                         And you; like the United States and other countries, Australians are aging very quickly and…

Suzanne:                     Yes.

Debra:                         There is an aging issue in Australia just like in the US and other countries where there’s a concern that there’s not enough people working and paying taxes.

Suzanne:                     Yes.

Debra:                         And so I was wondering if you wanted to address that a little bit because that certainly impacts what you’re doing as well.

Suzanne:                     Very much so. and so, I have been recently working on an advisory group because what we’re seeing is people even in their 40s and certainly in their 50s and early 60s having a health, call it an incident if you like, maybe it’s a significant arthritis or maybe they’re diagnoses are MS or even very hard challenge diabetes but you know, primarily the… or back issues, muscular escalation problems. And so sometimes people think, “Well, I just need to leave work to go and sort out my health issues.” And so if they leave work to sort out their health issues which they will do and they’ll come to a period where they’re more stable and can go back to work; trying to get back into workforce then is incredibly difficult.

Debra:                         Right.

Suzanne:                     And so, you know, what we need people to do, what we need businesses and organizations to do is to help people to be able to stay at work and work through the issues by making workplace accommodations or workplace adjustments. And so, for many people by the organizations making the adjustment and the person realizing that in fact their best future, potential and their recovery is going to be enhanced by keeping their connection with work. And even if it means you know doing work differently for a little while; it’s going to be much more in their interest.


                                    So, what we’re saying is; if people leave work in their late 40s or mid-40s, they may still have children at school and so the risk of poverty and not being able to return to the workforce is very significant. So, we need to help people and companies can do this through really promoting the willingness and the capability of making adjustments to work through their health issues without separating from their employment so that we can continue to be economically productive while resolving our health issues because when we leave work, particularly suddenly, you know, we also lose a big part of their social network.

Debra:                         Right. And our identity of who we are as well.

Suzanne:                     Yes.

Debra:                         First thing you do when you meet somebody is, “hello, I’m Debra. What do you do for a living?”

Suzanne:                     Yes.

Debra:                         I remember I used to embarrass my kids when I would ask their friend’s parents. So just like, “oh, this is what we do.”


                                    So, Suzanne, I know that you have a really solid model that’s very supported by those private and public. And so, I want to talk about that but at the same time, I want to talk about your global efforts because once again, you’re one of the speakers highlighted in Geneva at the International Labor Organization. You are part… you have a disability network that’s part of the global business disability network; both of us are big fans of that work. Why…

Suzanne:                     Yes.

Debra:                         Why are you… and I know some of the answers but I’m going to let you answer. But tell us more about why is it important first of all for us to know what’s happening in Australia and second of all; for Australia to lead in these global conversations.

Suzanne:                     Yes. Thank you. I think, being a global citizen is incredibly important and it’s never been easier to do that with the combination of technology and travel. And I think at the heart of “why” is that let’s learn together faster. We’ve got so much to do; there’s… you know, we’ve come a long way but we need to expedite our learning journey for all of us. So, I think it is true that genuine collaboration of… I mean, I learned so much at the Geneva ILO business Disability Network meeting and walked away really enriched from that.


                                    So, I guess it’s a little bit of what can I learn that helps me better in performing my role and what is it that I’ve learned that could be helpful to others? So, we really… we need… you know, I hope we can capitalize from that global citizen piece as well. And I think, for us, one of the things in the work that we do with our member organizations is the absolute foundation pieces that come from the ILO and we’ve known for so long from my many years in special education.


                                    So, we know what’s required to do. We need to have barrier free workplaces, we need to be open minded about what are the skills and capabilities and the key requirements of jobs and to really understand that diverse talent can add an enormous benefits to organizations. But then, I think part of the making it work is helping specific organizations mold it; mold the language and mold the business processes so that it becomes part of their business as usual. And when we can help organizations mold and really craft an effective strategy in their organization; it becomes sustainable. And that’s what we’re looking for; the sustainable approach to employment and retention of people with disability and more than that, for us the Australian Network on Disability, helps businesses across all aspect of their business.


                                    And so, we have an access in inclusion index and we work with members across helping them think about their accessibility, their information communications technology. How can they influence their suppliers and partners? What innovations can they share with the rest of the employer community that have helped their business be more inclusive of people with disability? What steps are they taking and can they share around career development and retention? So that it’s  really about… you know, what we’re hoping to see is this enormous generosity of sharing things that work that can be copied and adopted… and adapted for many other organizations so that we start to see scale and sustainability.

Debra:                         Yes. It was impressive being part of the GBDN meeting in Geneva and I like that there were 20 disability groups. It was 20 national disability groups from 20 different countries. And of course; there’s 200 plus countries in the world so lots of opportunities for other national networks to join ILO GBDN and of course, as for multinational corporations as well. They’re the members and then the national disability groups like yours were there to support the members which is what you do in Australia. And speaking of multinational corporations; I know that some of your members are multinational. I know that…

Suzanne:                     Yes.

Debra:                         I know that very familiar names that we hear all through the world, the United States, Europe are your members. And so, do you mind talking a little bit about some of your corporate members that are working so hard with you to make sure they’re employing these talented people with disabilities?

Suzanne:                     Yes. Thank you for that opportunity. Recently, we were very excited when Apple came to us and said, “We noticed that you are really really good at attracting university students and we’d really like for you to put some talent in front of us as we’re making decisions for our global… for our internship program.” And Apple’s internship program is about a yearlong.


                                    In Australia, you know we’re a small country; we only have about 24 million people. They only have four opportunities and I’m sure that you wouldn’t mind me sharing the story but you can imagine how many applications they had and I’d already done their first series of short listing and essentially what they said was, “we’d like to meet some students; we don’t really think that any of them are probably going to get through but it would be good to do this.” So that’s an interpretation and we’re able to introduce them to four students. They were really blown away by how fantastic these students were and one of those students was successful in winning one of those internship on the merit. And so…

Debra:                         That’s incredible story. I love that story.

Suzanne:                     Yes. And so…

Debra:                         We love Apple.

Suzanne:                     Well, and you know, we’re working very closely with Microsoft as well who’s really at a breakthrough stage in Microsoft. It’s very exciting the work that they’re doing there and the impact that Satya Nadella, the chief executive having a son with disability has made on Microsoft will impact the world. You know, really when you think, wow, that Microsoft’s new approach to accessibility will have life changing impact for many people with disability. Their contribution will extend well beyond their products and services into…

Debra:                         I agree.

Suzanne:                     Really cascading that benefit. So, I feel that with the combination of our multinational organizations… and we’ve been working with IBM for a very long time; also just an outstanding organization that have amazing culture and just incredibly valuable caliber of people to make a contribution to the discussion which is you know, really I think encourages all of us to see the value in work when we’ve got this amazing support from these multinational companies who are humble when it comes to their inclusion of people with disability. They’re not… you know, they’re humble in this area and so, it is very much that we’re all working together.


                                    So, you know, that’s fantastic and that means that we can keep that collaborative sharing going. And it means that other not such big players can come to the table knowing that they may be competitors in so many areas but no one is a competitor when it comes to what can we do to make it better and more inclusive for people with disability and to welcome people as employees and customers.

Debra:                         I agree. And I look for a time and it’s happened… it happened with my firm Tech Access. And I used to say it because I’m a big talker until it happens but I used to say, “well, I know I’m going to be successful when some of these other big employers come and start sowing away my talented employees with disabilities.” And I was a little bit more winy about it when it actually started happening by IBM. I know IBM installed a couple and so did Microsoft but at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel proud of that. And I will say a few things about just these brands you mentioned…

Suzanne:                     Yes.

Debra:                         Apple, we got to love Apple because they have worked so hard to make their products accessible to all of us and have changed the landscape on accessibility. Microsoft is such an amazing… you know, they really care about their products being accessible and it’s always a work in progress. In employing people with disability; they’re doing cool things with people with autism. But something about Microsoft; when I go to many developing countries or countries at Turkey, I’ve been in Egypt, I’ve been in these different… almost always Microsoft is at the table. They’re at the table; they’re joining conversations. Sometimes they’re being harassed about not doing enough but I applaud Microsoft for their efforts and I…


                                    And then the third one, IBM. IBM is one of the members of the ILO Global Business Disability Network. One of the first members and very proud, sorry Suzanne, of the being a United States corporations so we’re a part of IBM but IBM has also done a lot of work. And these big brands; Apple, Microsoft, IBM, they’re not doing this just… they’re not doing… thinking of it from charity; they know this is good for business. They want all of us to have access to their products and services. So, it’s a win for everyone I believe and I know you agree with that Suzanne.

Suzanne:                     Absolutely. And I always remember hearing that IBM employed their first person with disability in 1913.

Debra:                         Right.

Suzanne:                     So, you know, that’s a… there’s some really interesting history I think there is as well. I think the other thing is that for organizations that have loud voices has been big size. It’s such great leadership to see them being generous with their time and their contribution. So, we need those leaders. One of my favorite sayings is, “you can’t have followers without leaders.”

Debra:                         Right.

Suzanne:                     And so we need those leaders at the table making progress for good business reasons for social one, ethical one and just plain old fairness. And so, when we see those organizations do that and we see the millennials and gen X value those characteristics in large complex organizations; then, it helps me feel very positive about the direction that we’re heading.

Debra:                         I agree. I agree. And also, I do want to do a shout out for I believe one of your smaller members that I actually documented in my book, Tapping Into Hidden Human Capital and that was Woolworths. And Woolworths isn’t in the US anymore but boy, we remember it so fondly. And when I talk, because I talk about them at a lot of my speeches and I’ll say, “remember Woolworths?” a lot of us do but there’s a bit of Woolworths in Australia and they’re employing people with intellectual disabilities.

Suzanne:                     So, Woolworths actually our Australia’s largest company so 185,000 employees.

Debra:                         Wow.

Suzanne:                     So it’s small by American standards. But we work very closely with Woolworths. And Kevin Figueiredo from our board who attended the Harkin summit with me the year before last, went onto  Walgreens in South Carolina and had a look there and in fact, they developed a new distribution center in Victoria, one of our state and they’re going to implement Walgreen’ model.

Debra:                         Wow. Yes.

Suzanne:                     So, that’s a lovely story that from attending one of those global events where people come together, collaborates, share information and then through generosity of time and humbleness of learning can then produce amazing results.

Debra:                         I had no idea Woolworths was that big. We miss them in the US. That’s fabulous that they’re doing so well all through Australia. I’m a big fan of Woolworths but… okay, so, I know I’ve probably kept you on longer. It is in the morning when we’re doing this instead of asking Suzanne to get up in the middle of the night. But, can you tell our audience how they can find out more about your organization?

Suzanne:                     Absolutely. So, our website is And I really encourage you to go to our website and have a look at the very diverse range of things that we do at the Australian Network on Disability. And we do those diverse range of activities because we want to ensure that we can support our large complex organizations to continue to make progress and make it as easy for them as we possibly can. So, it’s about building capability and connecting and that’s connecting to talent and connecting with each other to build that grounds well that will be the tipping point that will change the fortunes of people with disability to make far more positive and economic contributors and also share in the economic welfare of Australia and many other countries.

Debra:                         Yes. Thank you so much for your work Suzanne. And please tell your entrepreneurial husband John that we all said hello from the US and 83 other countries that are listening to the program and watching the program but, thank you both for all the contributions you’re making in the world. It’s definitely… you’re making the world a better place and we’re grateful for you. Thanks for being on the program.

Suzanne:                     Thank you very much Debra. Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity. Have a wonderful evening and thank you for your absolutely enormous global reach that helps spread the information as well.

Debra:                         Yes. Thanks Suzanne. Okay, talk to everybody later. Buh-bye.


[outro music]


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