Amongst the regular calls for more disability diversity in board rooms and executive teams are the voices which suggest that there might already be disabled people present, they just aren’t open about it.
Certainly, there will be disabled people in these places, as in many other locations; however, if they are not openly disabled the benefits of their presence are markedly reduced.
The presence of openly identifying disabled people brings several specific benefits to decision making rooms and discussions:
- It contributes diverse perspectives to conversations and to the outcomes of conversations.
Someone who is disabled, but does not openly identify, will also bring a disability perspective to the conversation, although it will be hampered by their desire to conceal their disability. This means they cannot speak as a disabled person. Their disability expertise will be less recognised, or not recognised at all.
Diverse perspectives have been proven to produce better decisions. Diversity in a decision making room increases the ability of the decision making group to consider problems or strategy from a greater number of angles.
Without a known presence of diversity there is no credible knowledge and the diversity area is readily sidelined.
2. It changes the conversation to have openly disabled people present.
The behaviour of others in the room is influenced by knowing that disabled people are listening. There will still be ableism and ableist language (as many disability leaders can attest); however, disability cannot be forgotten or left off the agenda as happens consistently when disabled people are absent.
This benefit has been evident in high level discussion spaces, for example at the United Nations where there are few disabled people in any rooms except disability specific ones. When there were disabled people in the room, Australia succeeded in having disability specific language included in UN Outcomes documents for the first time. That language is still there a decade later and has changed the conversation and expectations about the presence of disabled women. Because disabled women were in the room, they were consistently referred to, remembered, and became part of the outcome.
Being in the room matters. It influences the conversation.
3. It provides a role model for other disability leaders.
The classic diversity catch cry: “you can’t be what you can’t see” rings true in disability as in other diversity areas. Naturally, not all disabled people are visibly disabled. In fact, most are not. It is critical that openly identifying disabled people; people who openly bring disability into the room, are present, so that they are known to be there. A disability does not have to be evident for a person to be openly identifying as disabled.
When it becomes usual to see disability leaders in all locations, and at all levels, it will be safer to be in those rooms and more disability leaders will follow. Disability will become a regular factor in policy development and decision making, using the expertise of direct experience.
Being in the room matters. Until disabled people are known to be in rooms, and are part of leadership groups, we will remain marginalised and forgotten.
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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person