Kerriene Minjoot never felt like her blindness was a barrier to her succeeding at work, until she joined the very government agency tasked with improving the lives of Australians with disabilities.
- In the past five years, the NDIA has faced at least six claims of disability discrimination from employees
- The Community and Public Sector Union says NDIA staff experiencing disability discrimination regularly come to it for help
- However, the NDIA rejects claims it has a widespread problem with disability discrimination
“I did not expect to go into working at the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and ending up feeling more disabled than I ever have before,” she said.
“I’m a very strong person. But now I feel worthless.”
And she is not alone.
ABC Investigations has spoken to more than a dozen current and former NDIA staff who say they have faced disability discrimination while working at the agency.
At least six workers have sued the NDIA for alleged disability discrimination in the past five years.
Some staff with disabilities say the agency has failed to provide them with the assistive technology and physical adjustments to their workspaces to enable them to do their jobs properly.
Others point to basic accessibility failures, like photocopiers and even toilet rolls in office bathrooms installed out of reach of staff in wheelchairs.
In those cases that have made it to court, the agency has settled with the worker and required them to sign a non-disclosure agreement in return for financial compensation – so they cannot speak publicly about their experiences.
But Ms Minjoot is risking her job by speaking out about what she says is a pattern of discrimination that has forced her to go on sick leave and lodge a workers compensation claim for emotional distress.
“I don’t want sympathy. I just want understanding, so I can do my job,” she said.
The NDIA declined to do an interview but in a statement rejected claims it had a widespread problem with disability discrimination.
“We regret that a very small number of NDIA staff with disability feel they have not had a positive experience while working with the agency,” it said.
The NDIA describes itself as an “employer of choice” for people with disabilities and says this is highlighted by the fact that 19 per cent of its employees identify as having a disability – well above its target of 15 per cent.
But Ms Minjoot said that claim is challenged by her experiences – and those of her colleagues with disabilities.
“I’ve been there since the doors opened … and that’s nearly eight years in June,” she said.
“And honestly, it’s getting worse.”
The NDIA has been keen to highlight Ms Minjoot’s success in the past, featuring her photograph and an interview with her in its 2015 annual report.
But she said she began experiencing discrimination on her second day on the job in Perth in 2014, when the training for her role was delivered via a PowerPoint presentation that she could not read.
“I couldn’t see the screens. They had two big TVs on the wall,” she said.
“I was … crying because I felt I wasn’t included. I was the only one there with a vision impairment. I felt really singled out like an idiot, I felt stupid. And I’m not stupid.”
She said that although she repeatedly asked for more accessible training, whenever she started a new role at the agency, she would arrive at a training session only to be presented with material she could not read.
“Everything is going smoothly and then they would move me to another team, and we start all over again because they have no idea,” she said.
Ms Minjoot said over the past eight years, she has only been able to meet her performance targets by teaching herself how to use the agency’s systems or relying on help from colleagues.
She said the discrimination did not end with inaccessible training.
Ms Minjoot said that at one point in 2016 she and the other four staff in her office with disabilities were put together in the one team without explanation.
“Like we were in the too-hard basket, that’s how it felt,” she said.
“We were isolated from the rest of the office.”
The NDIA did not respond directly to questions about Ms Minjoot’s experience working at the agency.
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) said it regularly receives requests for help from NDIA staff experiencing disability discrimination.
“The National Disability Insurance Agency has an appalling record when it comes to the treatment of people with a disability,” CPSU deputy secretary Beth Vincent-Pietsch said.
“And it’s so disappointing because these are the employees who have lived experience of disability, so they are able to provide such great insights for this agency and they should be so highly valued.
“But instead, so many people have come to the union talking about the fact that they are not getting the support that they need.”
Adam Cooper started working at the NDIA in 2019 when he was brought on to help improve the agency’s assistive technology for staff and participants with disabilities.
“I thought it was a fantastic opportunity for someone with a visual impairment who has been working in the digital accessibility space for more than a decade,” he said.
But Mr Cooper, who has a vision impairment called retinitis pigmentosa, said he became frustrated after a few months in the job about the agency’s unwillingness to fix accessibility problems with its internal IT systems.
“I was stunned at the level of ignorance in the organisation,” he said.
“For a while there I would say that the ‘I’ in NDIA actually stood for ‘ignorance’.”
One of Mr Cooper’s main frustrations – shared with other staff with vision impairments – was that parts of the agency’s main participant records system were incompatible with the screen-reading software program, Job Access With Speech (JAWS).
He said that meant many vision-impaired staff would be unable to complete simple tasks quickly – or at all.
“People with certain types of disabilities were really struggling to actually get their jobs done,” he said.
“People were on reduced KPIs because the systems they use were not suitable for them. They were having to pass whole chunks of their role over to other people, because they simply can’t do them.”
Mr Cooper said the agency was in the process of updating its systems to be compatible with screen-reading software, but progress stalled.
“It just became much like any other government department with digital accessibility, that you would encounter the same kinds of roadblocks,” he said.
“It’s too expensive, or it’s too hard or it’s not such a priority.”
He said some of the agency’s practices required staff with disabilities to perform tasks that were simply unworkable for them.
“You’d have these ridiculous business processes that require blind people to print out a letter, sign it and then put it in an envelope and send it to a participant,” he said.
“That’s just nonsensical.”
Mr Cooper quit the agency in frustration in July last year and is now speaking publicly in the hope the NDIA will make its systems more accessible.
In its statement, the NDIA said the “vast majority” of its customer management system is compatible with the screen-reading program.
“Where issues are identified, we work with Services Australia who manage our Customer Records System, to resolve them,” it said.
The agency said it was currently developing a new customer record system that aimed to be compliant with international accessibility guidelines.
The CPSU said the lack of support for some staff with disabilities has been compounded by broader problems with heavy workloads at the agency.
In August last year, the union complained to the Commonwealth public service workplace safety regulator, Comcare, about the psychological impact of work intensification on NDIA staff.
Comcare launched an investigation and in January this year told the CPSU the NDIA had contravened federal workplace health and safety legislation.
Specifically, Comcare said in its letter it had found the NDIA “did not provide and maintain safe systems of work, so far as reasonably practicable, relating to psychosocial risks associated with workload management”.
In its statement, the NDIA said Comcare’s investigation had not resulted in a “formal breach”.
“At the time of the final report, the Comcare inspector’s view was that the agency had developed a well-consulted, corrective action workplan to manage the concern,” it said.