University of Western Australia: Diversity critical for future workforce

Recognising the strength and talent of people with disability is vital for an innovative and adaptive future workforce, according to a careers advisor and disability advocate at The University of Western Australia.

Catherine Lightfoot has worked with dozens of neurodiverse students in her role at the UWA Careers Centre, many of them diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder.


She says International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD) is the perfect time to recognise the creativity and diversity of disabled people.

“I think the most important thing we can do is give space for people with disability to be heard. I’m a huge advocate for radical listening – that is, listening without expectation, and without trying to overlay your own experiences. Everybody’s story is different,” she said.

Ms Lightfoot takes a non-traditional approach to career advising in a role that extends from helping students with disabilities find work experience and graduate opportunities, to assisting them in understanding their rights around disclosing disabilities and in settling into new jobs.

“Rather than ask students what they’re good or bad at, I prefer to ask them what makes them energised,” she said. “A lot of students with autism, for example, are told by their families ‘you should do IT or engineering, you’ll be good at it’.

“But often, they’re happier when they transfer to teaching, music or arts – and you can see them thriving in that space. The diversity of people’s experiences and abilities is why I prefer the term ‘different abilities’ to ‘disabilities’.”

The development coach points to the work UWA support program UniAccess is doing to support students with disabilities, including a Specialist Mentoring Program that sees students with autism spectrum disorder and related conditions matched with volunteer mentors studying psychology.

This year around 25 students took part in the program each semester, receiving individualised support to achieve their academic, social and employment goals, including developing strategies to tackle challenges such as time management, wording emails and social situations.

Diversity learning

“The future workforce will be reliant on people who think differently – who can innovate and adapt – and this trend will only increase as the world faces more challenges such as responding to climate change and pandemics,” she said.

“It would be terrible if we were all made from the same mould and human capital was reduced to a commodity. To progress as humans, we need to not be frightened of creativity and diversity.”

“It would be terrible if we were all made from the same mould and human capital was reduced to a commodity. To progress as humans, we need to not be frightened of creativity and diversity.”

Ms Catherine Lightfoot
Held on December 3 each year, IDPwD is a United Nations observed day observed at increasing public awareness, understanding and acceptance of people with disability.

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