Nathan Kirby was medically discharged from the Defence Force after breaking his neck in a snowboarding accident. Our Disability Lead talks about living with chronic pain, headaches and sleep difficulties and the work he’s doing to help drive greater employment opportunities for people with disability at Accenture. Hear his story.

The radiographer’s words stick in my head. “Neck brace now please”. Within a few seconds I was surrounded by medical staff from the Perisher snowfields medical centre and things started happening very quickly. Shortly a medical evacuation helicopter would launch from Canberra Hospital to airlift me out. I was in my early 30s, a sports nut, and I’d just broken my neck.

 In the air strip

Since the accident, I haven’t returned to full-time work. The Air Force provided every support I could ask for, but it became clear I wouldn’t be able to return to full time work, nor return to being deployable, and I was medically discharged a few years later. While the injury has reduced my neck and back movement, the greatest medical impacts are the chronic pain, chronic headaches, and regular impact on sleep. Non visible disability like chronic pain can be difficult to explain - my wife is probably the only person who really gets it.

When I started looking for new employment, I encountered a different challenge. Employers can lack confidence around disability and default to ‘no’. I had a couple of interviews for roles that were well within my knowledge, skills and experience. But when I mentioned flexible work hours, part-time work or limited travel, you could see the distinct change of body language and each time I was unsuccessful in the interview.   

But then I had an interview with BCT solutions who have since been acquired by Accenture, and it was the opposite experience. I mentioned the adjustments I’d need, and the interviewer listened. He inquired, not about ‘what happened’ or ‘have you tried this’ but about what was required for me to do the job and do it well. We agreed I’d commit for a 6 month client-facing project and I could reassess the impacts at the end. That was three years ago. 

When Accenture acquired BCT Solutions, I had some nervousness, but the overriding message was “if it worked for BCT, it should work for us”.

After joining Accenture, I took on a secondary role as the Disability Inclusion Program Lead. The program leads initiatives to help people with disability perform at their best. I enjoyed becoming part of an established network for people with disability and having access to terrific support mechanisms like our Disability Accommodation Request Tool. This tool lets you ask for whatever you need (within reason) to perform at your best. It’s centrally funded, not by your manager. You don’t have to prove your disability, so no delays or costs seeking medical certificates. And it’s in your own words – no requirement to fit within pre-determined categories or drop-down boxes.

 Wearing my braces

In this role, I’ve shifted our focus from awareness and advocacy to recruitment and retention, setting a mission to “actively recruit, support and develop people with disability and carers”. That’s why I’m proud we’ve publicly committed to become a Disability Confident Recruiter as recognised by the Australian Network on Disability, and have set a recruitment target for 8.7% of our recruitment pipeline to be people with disability by 2022.  

It’s a smart business tactic. People with disability who are willing and able to work are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without disability, they take less sick leave and stay in jobs longer than people without disability (Source: Australian Public Service Commission). This means there’s this sizeable pool of loyal, talented individuals just waiting to be given a chance.

At a time of major skills shortages, Australian businesses should be leaning in to make the minor accommodations it can require to employ people with disability. It’s my personal belief the greatest opportunity that employers can give to people with disability, is the opportunity for employment.

If I was to give any advice to people working with or hiring people with disability, it would be ATP - Ask The Person. Not “what happened” or “have you tried this silver bullet solution” but rather “are there accommodations we can make to help you perform at your best?”. Be open to challenging the status quo arrangements within your organisation.

My advice for people with disability looking for work? I’m always cautious here because everyone’s experience is different, but my broad suggestion is to be as open as you are comfortable being about your disability. Also, to recognise when you have a disability. Some injured veterans or sports people don’t think of their injuries as being classed as disability. I get it! I didn’t originally think of my chronic pain as a disability either. But unless you embrace your situation, you’ll find it hard to communicate the support you need to give your best work performance. If the organisation is the right fit, they’ll be keen to assist with adjustments where required, and then you’ll know you have found a great employer.

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Nathan Kirby

ANZ Disability Inclusion Program Lead

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