The Search for the Invisible Workers: Enhancing Employment Opportunities for Older People With Disabilities

Written by Patricia Woodcroft-Lee. Copyright 1999.

“While population ageing is inevitable, there is the ability for the Government to intervene and change part of the equation by introducing policies that encourage people to work to a greater age and thereby add to the tax base.” (The Hon Bronwyn Bishop MP, Minister for Aged Care 1999)

“Our community and our economy are weaker when we lose the valuable contribution these older people can make. At the same time, these people face the prospect of increasingly long years of fit and healthy older age. So, it is not good enough to put them on the scrap heap,….. The income support system for older people below age pension age needs to ensure the right incentives are there for them to remain in the workforce.” (Senator the Hon Jocelyn Newman, Minister for Family and Community Services 1999).

Although it is frequently noted that more people are living longer and are more active in their later years, very little information appears to be available on the needs and lifestyles of older people who are working or who are seeking paid work. Older workers in general appear to be paid very little attention in the literature and older workers with disabilities are almost invisible.

This paper has two aims; one is to attempt to draw together the available data on older workers with disabilities and to make some suggestions as to how we may be able to compile statistical data on this group, the second aim is to identify the types of support that older workers with disabilities may require to continue working and contributing to society for as long as they choose, while still enjoying a reasonable quality of life.

Data on Older Workers and Their Lifestyles

Unfortunately, until very recently, discussions of the life choices of older people with disabilities have too often been informed by negative stereotypes of ageing superimposed on negative stereotypes of disability.

As Betty Freidan (1993) demonstrated in The Fountain of Age, popular culture depicts older people as economically dependent, constantly in poor health and simply boring. People with disabilities were thought to have these characteristics, whatever their age.

A search of the literature on ageing issues reveals that very little attention is paid to the employment status or aspirations of older Australians, even those without disabilities. This seems to be due, in part to the acceptance even among older people themselves, that old age and paid work do not go together. The report of the consultations held in 1998 by the Conference of Older Australians in preparation for the International Year of Older Persons, a comprehensive sample of the view of older Australians, pays only cursory attention to this subject. It stresses the need to value the skills and experience of older people, but stops short of recommending that they be paid for using these skills.

It is also perhaps symptomatic of the disconnection in the public mind between older people and paid work, that almost all the events to mark the International Year are held on weekdays in work time. A recent issue of the National Seniors Association journal 50 Something (1999) urged the Government to employ more mature aged staff in Centrelink, because their experience and empathy with older customers would be valuable. However my local branch of that association does not hold meetings or other functions outside of working hours. All this has the effect of excluding the working aged from some interesting events, such as concerts and outdoor activities and the opportunity to socialise with people of their own age.

This perception does not appear to be held only by members of the general public. An otherwise excellent collection of essays and case studies in the fields of health care and gerontology, published in 1998, Successful Ageing, scarcely mentions paid work as an activity engaged in by older people. The target group is seen rather as consumers of services who need to be empowered in order to ensure their quality of life. The fact that many of this group are still actively involved in the workforce and are contributing to the funding of those services, appears to be ignored.

Despite this lack of visibility of the older worker, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS 1999) tells us in its compilation of employment statistics, Labour Force, that, in August 1999, 592,300 Australians aged 55 and over were in full time employment, while a further 287,400 were employed part time. Furthermore, another ABS publication Labour Force Projections (ABS 1999) indicates that by 2004 there will be 1,153,100 employed persons 55 and over and that by 2016 there will be 1,613,600 people over 55 working, of whom 228,500 will be over 65. It appears that public perceptions of older people are lagging behind the situation in the real world.

There is no data on the number of people with disabilities in the older age groups of employed persons, but it is fair to assume that given the steady increase in the number of Australians identifying as having a disability, (up from 13.2% in 1981 to 19% in 1999) (ABS 1998, 1993, 1998) and the greater longevity and participation in community life of people with disabilities, they would be there and in increasing numbers.

In 1993, the ABS Disability Ageing and Carer Survey estimated that there were 133,400 persons with disabilities, between the ages of 55 and 64 classed as employed, while another almost 20,000 identified themselves as ‘unemployed,’ (as against ‘not in the labour force’). In other words they wanted to work.

The 1998 edition of the Disability Ageing and Carer Survey did not disaggregate employment status of people with disabilities by age, so there is no way for a member of the public to directly establish whether the numbers in the older age groups had increased. It is however reasonable to assume that, other things being equal, the increase in the number of person having a disability from 3.1 million (18% of the population) in 1993 to 3.6 million (19%) in 1998, together with the general trend of population ageing, that there would be an increase in the numbers of people working, or wanting to work, in the older age groups.

The lack of comparability between the Labour Force data and that provided in the Disability, Ageing and Carer Surveys (the cohorts are different and the cut off point of the Survey data is 64 years of age), makes it difficult to estimate the percentage of older workers who have a disability, even using 1993 data.

We thus have a group of people in the older population, with a growing potential for workforce participation, about whose characteristics we know very little. This is not due to any conspiracy, but probably to the fact that, in previous generations, many people with disabilities simply did not survive into old age.

Those who did would have had very different life patterns, including perhaps periods in institutions or being cared for by relatives at home. Some people would probably have spent much of their working life in sheltered employment.

The concept of a group of people with disabilities wishing to enter or continue to be employed in the open labour market would not have existed. Statistical procedures have not yet been designed to take account of this new phenomenon.

The identification of an interface between policy issues relating to ageing and disability is also very new. The fact that it is now receiving a good deal of attention from policy makers is probably a function of the increase in the number of older Australians and of people with disabilities and the realisation by governments that both groups could make large demands on the public purse.

The first timid steps toward an integration of ageing and disability policies and services were couched in terms of coordinated planning for aged and disability service provision, for example the Meares Oration, reprinted in Australian Disability Review, (Zola 1988) which focussed on the need for joint planning between aged care and disability services because of the ageing of the population and the high incidence of disabilities in older people.

Similarly, a forum on “Disability and Ageing”, hosted by ACROD in May 1996 in Canberra emphasised the need for residential services and for day services for older people with disabilities which have leisure as a primary objective (ACROD 1996). Also in 1996, a consultancy commissioned by the Spastic Society of Victoria, the Greater Expectations Project, stressed the need for careful planning to ensure a smooth transition from specialist disability services to generic aged care services (Johnson 1996).

Research carried out in 1995 as part of the evaluation of the Commonwealth /State Disability Agreement (CSDA) and published in 6 Supporting Papers along with the Interim Report in January 1996, recorded the first interest in issues related to disability and ageing at the national level (Yeatman 1996). The Linkages Study (Supporting Paper 3 noted problematic linkages and transition points for people with disabilities, among them the move from employment to retirement, and between disability services and aged care services (p.24).

It also flagged the potential transfer of costs to State governments given the ageing profile of people with disabilities as State funded accommodation support services and day activity programs were needed to provide day-time supports for an increasing number of retirees. (The Department of Family and Community Services is currently undertaking a study of issues associated with retirement for people with disabilities. Consultations have been held with various stakeholders and a report is expected shortly).

Again the focus in the Linkages Study was on services for people with disabilities who were not likely to be in the workforce. Support for people who were still in the workforce and wished to remain there was not an issue at this stage. This perspective has changed gradually over the last three years and there has been a more realistic approach to the variety of experience of older people with disabilities. Government policy, at least is swinging gradually toward greater opportunities for workforce participation of older people with disabilities (see for example speech by Minister for Family & Community Services September 1999). But information about actual work force status and aspirations of this group is still difficult to find.

There are, however a couple of data collections which give some insight into the work patterns of older people with disabilities. They relate to the data collected on consumers using open employment placement services for people with disabilities.

In 1993, the then Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health, conducted a census of consumers of disability employment services funded under its Disability Services Program. Of the 771 services sampled, 708 responded, providing a reasonably good picture of consumer participation (Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health 1993).

The census shows that there were 181 consumers aged between 50 and 64 were registered for open employment with the services, while there were eight consumers aged 65 and over. Another 104 consumers over 50 and 2 over 65 were registered for supported employment. The majority of older workers with disabilities were still in supported employment. The majority of consumers 2,906 (52%) of consumers of open employment services were in the 16-24 age group.

A report on Open Employment For People With Disabilities 1995 (Anderson & Wisner 1997) estimated that there were 673 consumers between the ages of 45 and 59, 19 between 60 and 64 and 4 over 65 who had had a job during 1995. This publication notes that the 19 workers over 60 spent, on average, 93% of their time with the service in work, had a much higher hourly rate of pay than average and took a very short time to get a job.

The 1997-98 Report in this series is more ambiguous. It states that “compared with 1996-97 the percentage of clients in work increased for all age groups except 60-64.” It continues:

On average, clients in the 15-19 year age group took longer to get a job and spent a lower proportion of their time in work, compared with clients aged 20-64. The small number of workers aged 65-69 had the lowest proportion of time in work during the support period (61%).

The 15-19 age group had by far the lowest hourly and weekly wage rates. The hourly wage rates increased steadily across the ages groups from 20-59 and then fell slightly for the workforce over 60 years of age. This pattern was not repeated in the weekly wage rates due to the interplay between the hourly wage rates and mean hours of work. For instance workers in the 45-59 age group earned the highest wage, they earned only the third highest weekly income, due to relatively low hours per work week.

What lies behind these figures? Do older workers work fewer hours from choice, because they want more leisure time, or have they acquired additional disabilities as they age? Or were they encountering age discrimination from employers? Surely there is a case for further research here.

These Reports are based on the series begun in 1995, by the (then) Department of Human Services and Health, together with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the employment service providers, to collect data on open employment placement services for people with disabilities and consumers using these services. The data is generated by the National Information Management System and is commonly referred to as the NIMS data.

A quarterly Data Briefing for Open Employment Services, based on the NIMS data has been published since 1995. These publications show a steady increase in numbers of workers over 45 registering with employment services.

A table to illustrate the steady increase in numbers of workers over 45 registering with employment services

The December 1998 Briefing shows that there is a slight increase in the 45-59 age group and a slight decrease in the 20-24 age group. This would seem to indicate that older clients will gradually become a larger proportion of people with disabilities seeking work.

Although the numbers are very small, this data clearly indicates that there are older people with disabilities who want to work and are prepared to actively seek out opportunities to do so by registering with specialist employment agencies. In addition, when given the opportunity to work, these people were quite capable of obtaining and holding down jobs for quite high rates of pay.

There are problems with the data. The difference in the age groupings used means that they are not comparable with the ABS figures, at least for general reader, and the group registered with agencies constitutes only a small proportion of all the people with disabilities in these age groups. Regrettably too, the NIMS series is soon to be discontinued, although a hybrid publication, combining features of both the Reports and the Data Briefings is foreshadowed.

Another tiny window on the activities of older workers with disabilities can be found in a 1997 study Factors Assisting the Employment of People With Disabilities commissioned by the former Department of Social Security (1997). This study analyses issues facing disability support pension (DSP) recipients seeking employment. The survey utilised a stratified random sample of 335,000 DSP recipients, identified as not being employed, at March 1994. The questionnaire was sent to 6,346 of these people in July 1996.

A smaller survey called the Survey of Needs utilised a random sample of 35,000 people of whom 5,500 were sent a survey. Those people who were identified as having earnings in March 1996 were asked whether they wanted to work additional hours and about their unmet need for assistance to find employment. About one third of this group responded. Although these surveys are limited to specific groups of people with disabilities there are a couple of insights with respect to older DSP recipients which are worth noting.

A majority of the sample population in the initial survey were in the higher age brackets, reflecting, it is assumed, the increasing rate of disability in older age groups; 35% were aged between 50 and 59 and 22.7% were aged between 60 and 64 years of age. However, only 1.5% of people in the 50-59 age group, 0.9% aged 60-64 and 0.7% aged 65+ were in employment (p.53). The increasing levels of disability in the older population is again cited as a key factor affecting these figures.

The survey attempts to estimate the 8 top factors that stop DSP recipients finding and staying in paid work. The factors have been summarised in order of importance. The proportions given in this table are expressed as a percentage of the total number of people who indicated that they were not working as much as their disability(ies) allowed. Lack of suitable employment was rated as most important 27.7% (25,955 of the weighted survey population, followed by “age discrimination ” 26.4% (24,716 people) (p.36).

The study also attempts to analyse the motivation of the DSP Recipients seeking employment. It concludes that people under 50 are more likely to seek more work than they currently have (p.80). However the difference in motivation is not as great as might be supposed, 48.8% of people under 50 compared with 43.4% for people over 50. The difference is not surprising, given the high number of recipients who, rightly or wrongly, perceive age discrimination as a significant barrier to their access to employment.

The Study of Needs survey indicates that unmet demand for employment support services is highest among very young DSP recipients (16-19) 28.8% declining with age to 11.2% for age 50-59. However we do not have a smooth curve here. There is a kink in the tail. The percentages turn up, not down, with 14.1% of 60-64 year olds and 19.8% of the 65+ group recording an unmet demand for employment assistance.

The study does not attempt to analyse the reasons underlying these figures, it merely records that declining figures for older respondents are probably due to increasing levels of disability and demotivation because of labour market disadvantage (p.88). While it is undoubtedly true that access to employment generally declines with age, there is the unexplained fact that a small group of people with disabilities over the age of 60 are not only working, but are seeking more work and are asking for additional support programs to help them to achieve this goal.

What are the characteristics of these workers who are almost invisible, except when they show up in the statistics? Is it possible that, having survived the disadvantage faced by workers with disabilities throughout a long life, they have acquired skills and experience which they wish to use and a degree of perseverance that enables them to disregard the generally accepted view that people with disabilities are likely to age faster and retire earlier than the non-disabled population.

There is no way of knowing whether these workers have lived with their disability for most of their lives and adjusted to it, or whether they have a late onset disability which occurred after they had acquired education and work experience which enabled them to secure employment, despite the double disadvantage. Also is the motivation to work the result of economic necessity or does it arise from a desire for intellectual stimulation and job satisfaction?

As well as a lack of statistical data, there is also a lack of qualitative data on the lives of older people with disabilities in the paid workforce. Do those who have remained in the workforce have reasonably well paid and satisfying jobs or have they simply grown old in the low level dead end jobs they struggled to obtain many years ago. In the case of the workers who have obtained employment late in life, are their skills and experience being rewarded or are they settling for low paid, low status jobs, simply because anything is better than living on welfare.

For much of the past two decades promotional material for the employment of people with disabilities has tended to focus primarily on the younger person seeking entrance to the labour market, or recently employed in a very junior position. Strategies have largely been directed towards getting people jobs, rather than at career development, which would enable workers with disabilities to escape the trap of being disabled, ageing and still in very low level jobs. For example, the publication by the then Commonwealth Sept of Industrial Relations, Working Lives of People with Disabilities (1993) features only one worker over the age of 50 and the promotional film I Start on Friday (1989) features three young people with disabilities seeking employment. It is, of course, necessary to focus on the needs of young people with disabilities, but there is also a case for occasionally focussing on the older worker as well.

Although a need for further research is indicated to identify the characteristics of this population of older workers it does not appear to have a high priority on current research agendas. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has recently announced a program of work on ageing and disability (AIHW 1999). However, it appears this research will concentrate mainly on ageing trends of people with disabilities and the types of services required at various ages. It will also look at the interface between disability and aged care services and trends in informal care, the population factors which affect this and the need for future support services. There does not appear to be any intention to collect data on the work patterns or economic status of older people with disabilities.

A more promising line of research is currently being undertaken at Deakin University on employer outcomes when employing a person with a disability (Deakin University 1999). It is possible that some information on employment of older people with disabilities could come out of this study.

A possible methodology for a research project on employment patterns of older people with disabilities might be to survey the specialist employment agencies, which have successfully placed older people with disabilities in the labour market, to discover what factors help or hinder their placement. It could include details of the types of jobs obtained by the older workers and the hours worked and pay rates.

This would still provide only a limited sample of all older workers with disabilities, but it would provide detailed information, which could then be extrapolated to the community as a whole. This would provide a basis for developing policy options to assist older people with disabilities moving into and staying in the labour market, if they so wish. Research institutions could make a significant contribution to making this group visible both to policy makers and the general community with well targeted quantitative and qualitative studies.

Support for Older Workers with Disabilities

Another issue that needs to be placed on the public agenda, is the question of support services which may benefit this group. Although it appears that a number of older people with disabilities are quite capable of entering and staying in the workforce by their own effort when allowed to do so, this does not mean that they could not benefit from some support from the disability movement, service providers and the wider community.

I would like to conclude with some suggested steps that could be taken to assist older workers with disabilities to obtain and keep paid employment for as long as they wish to work and to ensure that they obtain the maximum satisfaction in their working lives:

Disability service providers, disability and older peoples’ consumer groups, human resource managers and the wider community can all contribute to presenting a more positive image of older people with disabilities making positive contributions to the community, including working and paying taxes, rather than being constantly portrayed as the recipients of care;

Government agencies and academic institutions could dissaggregate and analyse data, such as that included in the ABS Survey and the NIMS data, to determine whether older workers who have always had a disability and those who acquired a disability later in life face different issues. Another question that might be investigated is why there is a difference in workforce participation between males and female in later life. Males appear to be working longer, although females appear to live longer. It would also be useful to know whether people now working were employed in supported or open employment for the whole of their working lives. Answers to these questions would allow support services to these workers to be better targeted to individual needs;

Human resource managers can assist older workers with disabilities, by: using the skills of these workers when developing training courses; helping to educate co-workers on disability issues; providing older workers with opportunities to develop new skills through training, job rotation, flexible working arrangements, etc. If management is committed to the implementation of policies which are designed to value the contribution of all staff, supervisors and co-workers will be less inclined to regard the older worker as “set in their ways” technologically illiterate and about to take early retirement;

Management and unions could help by encouraging older workers with disabilities to form networks where they can meet to exchange views and support each other through problems encountered in their working life;

The disability consumer movement could help by valuing the knowledge and experience of its older members. The struggle of many workers with a disability to establish themselves in the workforce has often helped them to acquire a wealth of experience in dealing with selection interviews, supervisors and personnel managers. Some of them will have been through grievance processes relating to discrimination, others will have had to cope with being the only person with a disability in their particular workplace.

A number of older workers have been disappointed to find an almost total indifference by younger people with disabilities to the work experiences of their elders. Older workers could act as mentors to younger people with disabilities entering the workforce, but often the younger person has no interest in discussing their career aspirations with an older person with a disability. This may be due in part to the generally lower level of jobs that the previous generation of people with disabilities were able to obtain. The young graduate may not see a 55 year old file clerk, who has been in much the same position for the last fifteen years, as an appropriate role model.

Nevertheless, older workers could impart a great deal of collective wisdom that could stand those coming after them in good stead, should they encounter hard times. A knowledge of the experiences of the older generation would also help to bring the members of the disability movement closer together through a shared history;

Organisations which represent older people could help by being more accepting of diversity. Many older people appear to still cling to outmoded ideas about people with disabilities, namely that they are either to be objects of charity or to be avoided altogether. Even though some members of organisations for older Australians have themselves experienced late onset disabilities, they still see a great divide between themselves and the “disabled”. Support from people of their own age group would be a great morale booster for older people with disabilities.

The desire to distance oneself from people with disabilities is especially true of older women’s groups. I recall a woman who was giving a presentation at a conference I attended a few years ago, stating that she did not want older women and women with disabilities to give a joint presentation, because she wanted to present a “positive image” of older women (from which the women with disabilities would presumably detract). It seems the “beauty myth” is still operating even among older people who one would have expected to become wiser with age;

Service providers can assist older workers by presenting positive images of them in promotional material and by providing services which fit in with their lifestyle. For example, transport is often a problem for people with disabilities who are working. Assistance with transport could be a vital link in helping people with disabilities to stay in the occupation of their choice. Assistance with minor home maintenance could also help maintain people with disabilities to stay in their homes and in the workforce;

Finally the whole community can help to change attitudes so that the participation in the workforce will be a more attractive option for older people with a disability. A simple example could be the willingness of community groups to consider organising some functions in the early evening, to take account of older people who are working, instead of assuming everyone over 50 is automatically free in the middle of the day.

As the Ministerial speeches quoted above indicate, the Government is at last looking seriously at the issues of employment for older Australians. This is a very welcome innovation in social policy, even though it is no doubt influenced by the vision of an expensive, dependent ageing population. For it to be successful however, it must also be matched by a shift in community attitudes towards the older worker, especially the older worker with a disability. An inclusive attitude to older workers, with and without disabilities will not only result in an addition to the tax base, but in a more productive, diverse and vibrant society.


The Hon Bronwyn Bishop MP Minister for Aged Care, Launch of the Strategy for an Ageing Australia, 8 June 1999.

Senator the Hon Jocelyn Newman , Minister for Family and Community Services, Speech to the National Press Club, 29 September 1999.

Freidan, Betty: The Fountain of Age London, Jonathan Cape, 1993.

Conference for Older Australians: Interim Report AusInfo, 1998

50 Something,: National Seniors Magazine, October/November 1999 p.7.

Bevan C. & Jeeawody B. (Eds) Successful Ageing Sydney, Moseby, 1998

ABS, Publication No. 6202.0 Labour Force August 1999

ABS: Labour Force Projections August 1999

ABS: Disability Ageing and Carers Surveys 1988, 1993, 1998 Canberra, AusInfo

ABS will provide customised data on request. However this is expensive and, generally, beyond the reach of individuals and small community groups.

Irving Kenneth Zola “Ageing and Disability : Towards a Unifying Agenda” 1988 Meares Oration Australian Disability Review, No 3-88

Reported in ACROD Newsletter, May-June 1996

Johnson, Val (V.J. Consulting) The Greater Expectations Report: Final Evaluation Caulfield Vic, May 1996

Yeatman, Anna Getting Real: Interim Report of the Evaluation of the Commonwealth /State Disability Agreement, Supporting Paper No 3, The Linkages Study, Canberra, AGPS, 1996.

See for example the speech by Minister for Family and Community Services, 29 September 1999.

Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health, Service Consumer Profile Report, Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service 1993.

Anderson P, Wisener K, Open Employment For People With Disabilities Canberra, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 1997

Factors Assisting the Employment of People With Disabilities, Department of Social Security Canberra 1997.

Access, Newsletter of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), N0 2, 1999, p.3.

Deakin University, Institute of Disability Studies Making a Difference-Research and Consultancy April 1999.