OPINION: Australia's employment of people with disability, already among the lowest in the developed world, is worsening. It is time to overcome our squeamishness about quotas to address this embarrassing gap in our human rights.

Perhaps we need to learn from Chinese policy, which combines employment quotas and a levy on employers who do not comply.

All private and public employers in China who employ more than 20 staff must meet a quota of at least 1.5 per cent of employees with disability (quotas average 5 per cent in Europe). Employers who do not meet the quota must pay a levy, while those who exceed it attract concessions such as tax breaks and priority for state contracts, and lower costs such as concessional rent of government land.

The real game changer is the levy on employers who choose not to employ people with disability. Rather than adding to general taxation revenue, this levy is paid to the Disabled Persons' Employment Security Fund, which is controlled by the Disabled Persons' Federation. The levy has generated a huge fund for disability policy intervention, such as training, employment support and assistance.

Imagine the possibilities if similar organisations in Australia controlled this type of fund. Their choice of priorities for investment and expenditure would likely be radically different from that of current governments. They would probably include contemporary approaches to innovation, e-commerce and start-ups controlled by people with disability, reaching into new markets not thought of by people without their life experiences.

Similarly, what innovation might arise in response to quotas for employment? Australian companies might be spurred on to employ people with disability in creative positions to generate new products and market opportunities. New ideas are stimulated by unexpected connections and by necessity – disability is one area where this happens. For example, technologies that respond to disability differences have potential for society-wide impact, such as smart home technology. Employees who experience these differences are the ones who know what the market needs.

In China, people with disability form businesses that take economic advantage of the additional concessions. Even in poor areas in China, I have met people who pitched their low-cost business idea to the local Disabled Persons' Federation and gained sufficient financial support to launch their business. Three young men in Qianmen, a squalid part of central Beijing before it was redeveloped, managed a business making and selling traditional products to tourists. The profitable business not only created employment, it contributed to local community culture. More recently, people with disability in rural China are generating e-commerce businesses through WeChat and Taobao, with the global reach that Australian businesses are only just beginning to understand.  

In Australia, the National Disability Insurance Scheme funds social support, not employment. Yet the NDIS financial model is premised on enabling people with disability to enter the paid workforce. Social support is only a means to ends – to enable people to engage in meaningful activity, including paid work. Research conducted recently by the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW found that employees with intellectual disability who work in a regular job prefer it for the better pay and community connections. The National Disability Employment Framework, expected to be released in 2017, could well learn from the Chinese experiences to incentivise Australian employers.

As Australia and China develop closer relations, the opportunities to learn from each other are expanding. This exchange is well overdue, and has shifted from Australians advising China to recognition that Australia can also learn from Chinese approaches to some shared social questions. Innovative policy responses can arise from stepping outside the Australian context. Australia can learn from China about how the problems are understood, how the people experiencing the problems can be included in finding solutions and how policy change can respond to their rights.

Professor Karen Fisher is a disability policy researcher at the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW. 

This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.