Succession Planning for Diversity

Time to challenge the way things have always been done

Many disability leaders refer to “the ceiling” blocking the upper levels that they are rarely appointed to. Openly identifying as disabled can end an otherwise promising career, and is one of the biggest risks facing a disability leader.

Many organisations refer to a lack of disabled candidates for their senior vacancies, particularly at executive and board level, yet they continue to use “merit” based appointment processes which result in the exclusion of disabled candidates.

Few organisations are proactively responding to a lack of disability diversity on their current executive team by focusing on who is coming after them. Will the next round of appointments increase disability diversity? Not if current strategies are any indication.

Organisations seem to have abandoned succession planning to resolve their lack of diversity. Rather, they persist in scanning externally for suitable candidates for executive and board positions, and then lament the lack of disability diversity available. Large budgets are spent on recruitment firms who also have no real solutions to offer that will change the status quo.

Organisations and executive recruitment agencies repeatedly throw their hands up and declare “we tried, there were just no suitable candidates, so nothing can be done.” Challenging historical assumptions takes commitment and strategic thinking, yet the response so far has been to continue trying the old methods which have repeatedly failed;  appointments based on “merit”, and hoping that fully formed senior disability leaders will just turn up.

It is time to challenge the way things have always been done if disability diversity is to be achieved.

According to a 2018 study by Harvard Law School, the median tenure for a CEO is 5 years. This means action taken now may see a different looking executive within 5 years – a relatively short timeframe. The disability diversity situation has not changed in over 3 decades, yet within 5 years executives in many organisations could be different if progressive action were taken now.

One way that organisations could be more proactive is in their succession planning. If each member of the board and all senior leadership positions had a shadow, who openly identifies as a disabled person, then the lack of disabled people in decision making ranks would change within 5 to 10 years.

No more waiting for decades for some entry level or graduate program people to trickle up. That strategy has been tried consistently for 35 years and has completely failed.

When organisations are unable to find suitable candidates, they should be appointing a high potential disabled person as deputy, or 2IC, to the non-disabled person who is being appointed now. The disabled person can then succeed the non-disabled person 5 to 8 years later when the first person moves on. During that time they will have benefited from mentoring, on the job learning, and an expectation that their high-level capability will be deployed.

Within a few short years a much larger bank of high potential disability leaders will be developed, with the ability to stay within an organisation or move further afield, in the same way that others do in the workforce. These strategies have worked for achieving greater diversity in gender and are increasingly used to build the presence of other diversity groups. 

There is no lack of suitable disability leaders. There has simply been a lack of appropriate disability leadership development and strategies to take advantage of the available talent.

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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.

Narrow leadership, poor decisions

The community needs diverse decision makers.

What happens when an entire population group is absent from decision making forums? It makes it possible to forget them. The people who are most affected and should be central considerations in emergency responses are left out, and that means poor decisions are made. At best they are remembered later, and the response is retrofitted in some way to include them.


Recently, the Disability Royal Commission took evidence from the Commonwealth Health Department. In damming testimony it became clear that Health had completely failed to include any considerations around disability in its pandemic planning. The original plans taken to National Cabinet in March did not mention disability once.


It took another 6 weeks of intense lobbying and commitment by disabled peoples organisations to have a plan developed and approved which acknowledged the disproportional impact of the pandemic on disabled people. The international lessons have been stark and could have been averted with specific proactive measures, yet no advice was provided to National Cabinet, and no work was done on a national plan until disabled people reminded the government that we existed.


How could this happen? How could the largest minority group in the country, expected to be heavily impacted by the pandemic, be completely forgotten and left unmentioned?


It’s been a rough year in Australia, and around the world.


Starting from late 2019 we have been in emergency mode, scrambling to respond to massive bushfires, living with hazardous smoke levels for months, surviving a severe hailstorm, dealing with floods, and now a pandemic.


In a year that we would all rather forget, there is also something we should be noticing and remembering. Decisions are being made by a very narrow cast group of people and it shows. There is very little diversity in our decision making rooms.


Remember the haircut decision? We could all continue to have haircuts so long as they took less than half an hour. It quickly became clear that this decision had been made by men. Few women were able to abide by the 30 minute restriction. It was a classic example of how decisions made by an homogenous group risk leaving out other groups in the community.


The disability community has observed this repeatedly over this entire period of emergencies and natural disasters. There are almost no disabled people in leadership or decision making positions, so the decisions being made, and the solutions being offered, rarely suit people with disabilities. A constant rearguard action lobbying to retrofit decisions and plans has been underway since late 2019, including ensuring bushfire relief is accessible, masks can be bought with NDIS plan funds, Auslan interpreters are available to public housing tenants in sudden lockdown, and that disability group homes will be adequately resourced to prevent virus outbreaks, to name a few.


The Department of Health is like most government agencies, it has low numbers of disabled people in its workforce and even less at senior levels. Most federal government agencies struggle to have people with disabilities in their workforce, and most of those are in the lower half of the hierarchy. Across the entire public sector there are just a handful of openly disabled people at senior executive (SES) level. Even the department which has primary responsibility for disability policy, the Department of Social Services, has no openly disabled people in its senior ranks.


Forgetting disabled people becomes easy under these circumstances. Disability will never be central to policy making, or decision making, while disabled people are nowhere to be seen in the critical rooms where fast responses to emergencies are constructed.


To make good decisions, good responses, and good plans, disabled people need to be in the room as equal contributors to decision making.


It has been long established that having women in board rooms and executive suites leads to stronger outcomes, yet, curiously, there is not a similar understanding that the same strategy is required for other diversity groups like disabled people. This thinking was abandoned decades ago in relation to women yet persists in relation to disabled people.


Whenever someone remembers that disabled people exist, we are invited onto an advisory or reference group. We are rarely asked to take a seat at the main table where decisions are made.


During emergencies rapid responses are required. There is no time to “consult”. Taking the time to talk to people outside the room becomes impractical. The solution is to have diversity inside the rapid response decision making rooms to ensure that all members of the community are considered. We have learned this in regard to other diversity groups, yet somehow in 2020 disabled people are still left out in the cold and are regularly forgotten.


This is a critical time for leaders and decision makers. The community needs diverse decision makers and policy advisors to ensure the whole community is part of the response. Without that we will continue to see disabled people being forgotten and left by the wayside.

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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.












Being the Only One

The challenge for many disability leaders is their rarity.

Disabled people are far less likely to be employed than other people, “53% of working-age people with disability are in the labour force, compared with 83% of those without disability. 25% of people with severe or profound disability are in the labour force, compared with 63% with other disability” (AIHW 2019).


This low participation rate means that most workplaces have few disabled people present. It is even less likely that those disabled people will be in senior positions. Having worked with disabled leaders for several years it becomes clear that the more senior someone is, the more likely it is that they will be the only disabled person in their team, or branch, or section.


Being the only one creates hazards that organisations should be mindful of:


  1. The expectation to represent all disabled people.


This phenomenon is experienced by people from all minorities when they have low workplace presence, including women working in non-traditional fields. One person is seen by those around them to be the apologist or educator for all people from that demographic group.


Being the only person with disability means being asked to explain what disability is like, why others with disability are not working or contributing, or why there needs to be specialist responses and training, for example. Disability leaders report being asked what its like being blind when they are not themselves blind, or why some people require certain supports when others do not.


These demands are exhausting and quickly become a form of harassment. Organisations should ensure that their team leaders and supervisors prevent this type of questioning. Your disability workforce is not responsible for representing disabled people generally. They are there to work.


  1. Being held as the poster person who sells the organisation’s diversity.


The quest to be viewed as an inclusive organisation with a diverse workforce takes many forms. Organisations work hard and invest significant resources to develop and sustain diversity. An entire industry of conferences, external assessments, and awards has grown around successfully building diversity and most organisations want to participate.


The challenge for many disability leaders is their rarity. Disabled people are repeatedly asked, or expected, to appear on posters, speak at diversity events, or attend graduation intake inductions to share their story when organisations want to prove how diverse they are. Disability leaders are often asked to speak at morning teas on International Day of People with Disability simply because they are disabled people.


Many Disability Leadership Institute members report being hired as accountants, or IT specialists, or managers, yet being frequently asked to take time out of their regular duties to speak or appear at events, both internal and external, so that their organisation can be seen to be building diversity. For some it has become a constant distraction that prevents them from undertaking their regular duties properly. More pertinently this can build resentment with other team members who cover their duties in their absence. Bullying and harassment rates for workers with disabilities are at least twice that as for their colleagues (IGPA 2016), so providing opportunities for resentment is unhelpful to say the least.


Being disabled does not equate to wanting to be put on display to prove an organisation is diverse. Be mindful that this person was recruited for their expertise in accounting, or IT or management not as a diversity salesperson. If an organisation is truly diverse and inclusive it will sell itself through strong workforce retention and a reputation as an employer of choice.


  1. An expectation to deliver disability awareness training for anyone who requests it.


Being disabled does not equate to being an expert in all aspects of disability, nor in being an educator on how to be inclusive. If an organisation wants to deliver awareness training it should hire professionals who carry this specialist expertise. If a person was recruited to be an accountant, or IT specialist, or manager they should be respected for that expertise.


Additionally, disability leaders should not be considered “on call” to answer any questions arising within an organisation, whether that is formally on behalf of the organisation, or individual colleagues dropping by with a quick query. Disability leaders are there to do their job like everyone else with the same challenges on time management and focus that all employees face.


Naturally, all employees with disability should be consulted by an organisation about any upgrades or improvements to the workplace to ensure personal needs are met, and not eroded, but they are not experts who can speak on behalf of everyone and should not be expected to do so.


  1. The need to constantly assert access requirements and prove that they are necessary.


Just because someone has reached senior levels does not mean their disability has disappeared or been “overcome”. The person continues to require workplace adjustments so that they can operate effectively in their position. It can be difficult to assert this need within an environment of fast-moving responses required at management level, or when executive leadership needs to be politely reminded by subordinates.


It is an organisation’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace for its employees. For its employees with disability this means adjustments regardless of their level in the organisation. Adjustments take many forms including flexible working conditions, different meeting processes, or ensuring interpreters or translating equipment are present. Significant levels of research indicate that more diverse teams produce better outcomes, and often workplace adjustments provide improvements (for example to meeting practice) which introduce broader innovation and efficiencies.


Being the only person with disability at senior levels can be fatiguing, and often uncovers continuing prejudice and ignorance about disability within organisations. It is the responsibility of organisations to address this, rather than individual disability leaders. The benefits can be numerous including greater diversity, staff retention and a more innovative workplace.

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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.

Building Diversity from Adversity

Why the talk of snapping back when we should be moving forward.

We are living through the making of history, so why all the talk of snapping back to normal as though historic pivot points don’t change how humanity operates? They have in the past, so why assume that they won’t change us this time round? This is the time to reassess and consider how to consciously incorporate what we have learned into a better future.

Many people, including disabled people, don’t want to return to the normal of before. As it becomes increasingly evident that our leadership groups are drawn from a very narrow group in society, those for whom the old conditions have been designed, this is the opportunity to address long standing exclusions. With a change in how we work must come a change in who forms our leadership groups.

There is a real opportunity to use the current circumstances to change how we work and who we work with. Most importantly, this is when we can stop all the talking about diversity and start building a new reality; a truly diverse leadership with all the benefits that it can bring us. Previous diversity talk has been predicated on the assumption that diverse people are welcome, including disabled people, so long as they slot into an old model of working that specifically excludes them because it has been designed to suit those currently in it.

This means disabled people have not been working in these environments in meaningful numbers, and rarely make it to leadership levels. Disabled people have long been told they cannot be appointed to a position unless they are able to work at an office and commit to long hours. Others have been denied advancement because they work flexible or part time hours, or are not provided with appropriate adjustments. The outcomes of these attitudes have been a less diverse workforce and very few disabled people in leadership positions.

The pandemic has shown us that these restrictions are limiting the effectiveness of our teams. When people are able to work as best suits them, including having more capacity because their day doesn’t include three hours of travel, their contribution increases. When work can be done from any location, people are able to contribute all of their energy to the work not the getting to work.

Most importantly, there is far more capacity for disabled people to participate in a workforce where extra physical demands no longer form part of unwritten job conditions. Rather than denying advancement to disabled people for not meeting arbitrary physical expectations, they can now be appointed to all levels, including senior positions.

This pivot point in history has shown us that everyone works differently and excels under different conditions. We’ve been welded to a centuries old model of work that insists on working from offices, between certain hours. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to harness the benefits of 21st century technology allowing teams to work from multiple locations and at more flexible times. It has highlighted the need for managers to engage their teams with innovation and agility. For many it has illustrated how much more effective teams can be when individual needs are acknowledged and adjusted for.

Now is the time to reconsider the old restrictions of being present in a specific location, between specific hours, in order to be appointed to a position. Its time to harness the technology available, and the lessons of an adverse situation, to bring more diverse people into our workforce and particularly our leadership teams. We have been learning that there is no one size fits all solution. By recognising that lesson, we can welcome more diversity into our organisations, building working conditions around the person.

Rock, Grant and Grey showed that diverse teams are more effective and solve problems faster in their HBR article of 2016. In their 2017 HBR article Sherbin and Kennedy explained that disabled people are ten per cent more innovative in the workplace. Diversity and disability are key elements of moving to a better future, yet we haven’t been using them because we have restricted ourselves to a centuries old model of working that suits very few. That can change now. The broader inclusion the current opportunity provides must be consciously noted and maintained.

While many have been struggling with an online world, disability leaders are embracing finally being in the room using technology and collaborative methods with which we are already familiar. We are seeing greater understanding that being physically in the same room is not necessary to have an effective conversation. Suddenly we can be speakers at conferences, participate in forums, attend virtual board meetings, and form part of remote teams and in recent times we have been doing all of these things.

As a result, disabled people have become more visible. We certainly do not want to snap back to the old version of normal. We want to move forward to a world where these gains become embedded and our expertise continues to be valued and used, where it is regularly in the room and where it contributes to a better style of leadership that is more inclusive and innovative.

Without realising it the pandemic has seen the world move to a more adaptive working style that better incorporates individual need. This provides a real opportunity to extend this to everyone, so that diversity can become one of the silver linings of a very adverse situation. We are finally more focussed on the individual, and that is what is needed to build disability diversity. Rather than assuming one size will fit all, it has become clear that we can work better by discarding those old limitations.

This is an historical turning point, and it has become one where disabled people can become more visible and more recognised as the experts that we are. Snapping back to an old normal and an old model of working is neither desirable nor sensible. Organisations which consciously harness the lessons of the pandemic, by appointing the many highly qualified and capable disabled people available to leadership positions, will be the ones that leap into a better future.


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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.


Inclusive Human Resources

Once leaders provide guidance human resources can implement with confidence

This article is the fourth in a series of five articles examining inclusive workplaces.


Earlier this year we asked Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) members what experiences and suggestions they had about workplace inclusion. DLI members work across a wide range of fields and at all levels of organisations. Their experiences and suggestions reflect that broad experience.


DLI members talked about various touch points within organisations from recruitment through to leadership. Experiences of human resources departments and staff were varied; however, some common themes arose on how human resources might become more inclusive, including areas that require urgent attention.


Human resources is seen as crucial to an inclusive workplace. Every staff member will interact with human resources at some point and for staff with disabilities this can be more frequent if they require adjustments or experience bullying or harassment. Ensuring the  human resources experience is positive is vital to staff retention and an overall culture of inclusion within the organisation, yet the leadership of many organisations don’t provide clear guidance on what inclusive human resources looks like, including a lack of flexible work options and a lack of understanding about reasonable adjustment.


As mentioned in a previous article Leading For Inclusion it is critical that an inclusive culture comes from the top of every organisation. Individuals in human resources should not be responsible for overall organisational culture, although this is exactly what many organisations appear to expect. Once leaders provide guidance on diversity and inclusion, human resources is able to implement with confidence.


Some specific suggestions from DLI members include:


Ensuring there are disabled people working in human resources and valuing the expert contribution of those staff. DLI members repeatedly refer to their disability expertise not being valued in the workplace. This applies to disabled human resources specialists as well. When a disabled staff member, who understands the disability experience, is overruled by a more senior team member because “that’s not how we do things here”, it sends a clear message that disability expertise is unwanted and unvalued.


Any staff member with disability seeking human resources assistance will be wary of repeating the experience if their concern is dismissed, or their sharing of information with another disabled staff member is later dismissed. Having disabled people working inside human resources sends a clear message. It also contributes to changing the understanding of human resources and shifting the culture to be more inclusive.


Asking all staff how they like to work/communicate and then creating shared profiles with that information, so everyone knows that everyone one else has specific strengths and preferences. Regardless of being disabled or non-disabled, every employee has communication preferences and requirements. Developing centrally held profiles for that information so that staff members are not constantly repeating their personal needs is a high priority for DLI members.


Some disabled people require specific assistive technology, others require specific formats for documents, or an ability to work remotely, or a preference for video over audio conferencing. Staff working flexibility may have certain times of day that work better than others. These preferences are all basic workplace adjustments that should not need to be repeatedly requested.


Shared profiles can be created without risking the individual privacy of staff members. Many organisations have staff directories which can be searched for name and contact details. Adding a preference for hours of contact, video conferencing, or specific document style would be a simple addition resulting in greater inclusion for every person working for that organisation.


Consistently collecting data on diversity numbers and length of employment, including how many people openly identify as disabled. Many organisations can cite how many staff anonymously identify as disabled, yet they are unable to translate this into those who openly identify as disabled. Collecting further critical data, such as how long openly identifying disabled people work for the organisation in comparison to all staff, is exceedingly rare.


Understanding the levels of sustained disability employment can provide deep insight into how inclusive a workplace is. Many organisations struggle to retain their disabled staff, yet they are not collecting data to assist with understanding the reasons behind this.


Inclusion will look different for every organisation because every organisation is different; however, there are some structural underpinnings that can be considered by any organisation that wishes to be inclusive, as well as being seen to be inclusive.

Thanks to the many DLI members who shared thoughts and experiences for this article.


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Managing with Inclusion

DLI members share their thoughts on how managers can be inclusive.

by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO

This is the third article in a series about workplace inclusion.


Team leaders, managers, or supervisors play a pivotal role in making sure inclusion happens in an organisation. They are on the front line of implementing organisational policy, and the vision of the organisation’s leaders. Without their buy in, and strong commitment, inclusion simply will not happen.

The Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) asked our members about workplace inclusion and they identified managers, or team leaders (we use the term managers generically here), as being important in making inclusion a reality.

DLI members had several comments and suggestions for getting inclusion right across a range of workplace touch points. Many of these suggestions come from managers of teams, CEOs, and highly qualified disabled people struggling to find work. All the suggestions are from disabled people as both practitioners of inclusion and participants in inclusive processes.

Inclusion needs to start at the beginning, during recruitment, and continue as an ongoing focus for management and leadership every day. Complacency is not an option. Never assume your organisation is fully inclusive, nor that you have no further work to do. There is always more to be done, just as there are always more ways of being inclusive, because diverse people are diverse, and each person must be treated as an individual.

Managers, supervisors and team leaders should consider:

How they take organisation level policies and apply them at team level. It is managers who make sure teams are practicing inclusion every day. Strong supervision to ensure any bullying or harassment is nipped in the bud, cliques aren’t forming which leave people of diversity aside, and being open about the kind of organisation this is and its leaders’ vision for diversity and inclusion.

Managers should not assume that their direct reports know what is expected, nor should they rely on common sense. Neither of these strategies has worked in the past, and there is no evidence to suggest they will succeed. Regular proactive team leadership is required to bring inclusion into the team as an ever-present expectation and practice.

Ongoing conversations amongst team members which may lead to flexible work arrangements on where and how work is done. Managers need to be open about flexible work and what it means. Flexible work is more than working remotely, and it’s important to consider how team members who may be working elsewhere can be included in day to day work and outcomes.

It is often managers who approve flexible and remote working practices. This is enormous power to wield over team members which needs to be handled delicately within an environment of acceptance and trust. Without flexible work arrangements many disabled workers do not sustain employment or feel excluded, so they leave. How managers refer to flexible work, how it is approved, and how flexible work arrangements are discussed on a daily basis will dictate how the rest of the team accepts it, and whether it becomes part of how business is done.

Ensure regular activities like staff meetings and team gatherings are undertaken in open reflective ways. When inclusion and inclusive practices are part of an ongoing conversation there will be greater understanding and acceptance of them. Managers can ensure that inclusion is a regular item on team meeting agendas, including how the team is travelling, how inclusion is discussed, what the team could be doing better. Is the team fulfilling the vision of the organisation’s leaders? Are there any gaps and what is being done about them?

Managers are the gatekeepers to professional development for team members. Accepting all team members equally means ensuring that everyone has equitable access to professional development. A study conducted by the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) showed that disabled team members are far less likely to be provided professional development opportunities as members of the same team.

Additionally, managers have a key role to play in addressing bullying and harassment. The same IGPA study uncovered a rate of bullying that is double that for the broader workforce. Tackling this head on, by ensuring that all team members understand how unacceptable bullying is, must become second nature to managers of diverse teams.

Being open about reality and committing to a more inclusive team are part of a manager’s commitment to ensuring their team embraces inclusion and the broader vision of an inclusive organisation.

Managers, supervisors and team leaders are pivotal to building organisation inclusion. Without them inclusion will not happen, nor can it be sustained. Remaining open, not shutting conversations down, and being clear that the goal of inclusion is yet to be reached, can be part of bringing a team, and therefore a workforce, along with the management and leadership vision of an inclusive organisation.


Thanks to the many DLI members who shared thoughts and experiences for this article.

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Leading for Inclusion

Leaders have a strong role to play in creating an inclusive workplace.

Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) members recently shared their experiences of workplace inclusion. They identified that workplaces still aren’t getting inclusion right, with a continuing lack of real action, and despite many workplaces claiming that they are inclusive.


One of the key areas identified for action is leadership. Leaders have a strong role to play creating, and maintaining, an inclusive workplace. They are particularly responsible for ensuring that complacency doesn’t set in after one or two successes.


Leading by example seems an obvious suggestion, but its very easy to lose the time to be an example when the pressures of leadership take hold. Additionally, those in leadership positions often delegate to others without clear guidance on what exactly they are expecting diversity to look like, or how they would like to see it done. Be clear in your vision for inclusion and how it is done in your organisation. Share your thoughts regularly on the purpose of achieving diversity and your passion for it.


Another clear leadership example is to have disability leaders in your organisation. When disability is visible in the top ranks it is far easier for all your workforce to raise disability requirements or concerns. One of the biggest challenges faced by organisations is knowing they have a level of disability present, yet people don’t feel comfortable openly identifying as disabled. As with all diversity groups, senior leadership examples make a difference. The Disability Leadership Institute encourages disability leadership as a way of shifting culture.


Maintain an open conversation about gaps in inclusion and openly work to address them. Your organisation has a lot to do about inclusion, everyone does. So, talk about it. It’s okay not to be “there” yet. Be clear about what you know is missing, ask for information and suggestions about what could be done.


Share your plans for how your organisation with achieve the end vision, talk about it regularly in all communications. Make sure your team leaders feel licensed to share the organisation’s plans with their teams, particularly those who may feel more marginalised.


Nobody knows everything. No organisation is perfect. Maintaining a façade that you do know, or that your organisation is already “there” will only disenfranchise your workforce. Be comfortable in acknowledging the gaps and be clear in how the organisation is working to address them. Most importantly, don’t get defensive. Few organisations are yet to get it right, so you aren’t alone. Leaders who think they are always right are also very good at losing their people. An open culture of sharing shortcomings relies on you knowing those shortcomings exist and being open about them.


Commit resources to your plans for inclusion. Leadership commitment is the only way big outcomes will be achieved. If you are working to improve inclusion in your organisation you will need to openly acknowledge it as a goal, while also ensuring your leadership team and team leaders have the resources, they need to make it reality.


Many leaders have asked me if disability inclusion is possible by tagging it onto something else, or by just expecting it without having to commit more time and resources alongside their other diversity objectives. There is no evidence that this will work. In fact, there is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that this approach will fail, given the static disability employment and leadership figures over more than three decades. If you are serious then you will need to commit to making disability inclusion happen, and that means acknowledging that it will take time and resources.


Achieving disability inclusion is like any other business outcome. You don’t expect other areas of your business to just happen without a concerted plan and whole of organisation effort. So, don’t expect it from disability inclusion. To make this real requires real leadership from the top, and that means planning, vision and commitment. It means benchmarking and tracking so that you know you are achieving your outcomes, just as you would any other aspect of your business.


Good intentions are not good enough. Leaders must commit to disability inclusion, make plans and commit resources. Leaders need to be open with their teams and mean what they say. Create a culture of constant improvement so that shortcomings are identified, shared and addressed.


Leaders have a real responsibility to make disability inclusion happen. As with all culture shifting this big change must come from the top.


Thanks to the many DLI members who shared thoughts and experiences for this article.

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Meaning well doesn’t equal inclusion

Real inclusion takes action as well as good intentions.

By DLI CEO Christina Ryan

It’s unusual to meet someone who doesn’t think it’s a good idea to employ disabled people, or to be working towards an inclusive workplace.

So, why is it still so hard to find good workplaces that are inclusive where disabled people feel comfortable and stay for the long haul? Why have the statistics on disability employment stagnated for decades, or gone backwards?

Because everybody thinks they’re doing something, and very few are.

Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) members recently shared their experiences of workplace inclusion. They identified that workplaces still aren’t getting inclusion right, with a continuing lack of real action, and despite many workplaces claiming they are inclusive.

There is no doubt employers mean well, but is meaning well enough to get inclusion over the line? Unfortunately not. Meaning well doesn’t equate to action, and it is real action that is needed.

DLI members had several comments and suggestions for getting inclusion right across a range of workplace touch points. Many of these suggestions come from managers of teams, CEOs, and highly qualified disabled people struggling to find work. All the suggestions are from disabled people as both practitioners of inclusion and participants in inclusive processes.

Inclusion needs to start at the beginning, during recruitment, and continue as an ongoing focus for management and leadership every day. Complacency is not an option. Never assume your organisation is fully inclusive, nor that you have no further work to do. There is always more to be done, just as there are always more ways of being inclusive, because diverse people are diverse and each person must be treated as an individual.


  • Contacting people before their recruitment interview, or appraisal process, to ask what adjustments need to be made and then making those adjustments
  • Making sure interviewers can respond to questions about workplace adjustments at interview
  • Ensuring interviews are accessible so that people can focus on their interview and not their disability needs
  • Ensuring people are confident and comfortable asking for adjustment during the recruitment phase, this means having an accessible recruitment process
  • Providing questions before interview, meeting interview panel members beforehand, or not even having a formal interview process
  • Openly seeking disabled people for your workforce

Human Resources:

  • Ensuring there are disabled people working in human resources, and valuing the expert contribution of those staff
  • Asking all staff how they like to work/communicate and then creating shared profiles with that information, so everyone knows that everyone one else has particular strengths and preferences
  • Collecting data on diversity numbers and length of employment, including how many people openly identify as disabled


  • Taking organisation level policies and applying them at team level
  • Ongoing conversations amongst team members which may lead to flexible work arrangements on where and how work is done
  • Doing regular things like staff meetings and team gatherings in open reflective ways


  • Leadership leading by example, making sure all team members are checked on as part of daily routines to avoid exclusion and cliques developing
  • Maintaining an open conversation about gaps in inclusion and openly working to address those gaps
  • Workplaces claiming to be diverse should be planning, providing funding and seeking counsel for success in diversity, just as they would any other part of their business mission

Finally, and rather obviously: having more than good intentions by actually employing disabled people. Many organisations say that employing disabled people is a good thing to do, yet half of all disabled people remain unemployed.

Clearly good intentions are not good enough. Workplaces need to mean it and that means action.

Action starts from recruitment and continues throughout the organisation as part of daily operations. Action means policies, processes and an ongoing conversation about what inclusion looks like for this team.

Action also means management openly taking responsibility for addressing inclusion gaps as a leadership example.

Inclusion will look different for every team, because every team is different; however, there are some structural underpinnings that can be considered for any organisation that wishes to be inclusive, as well as being seen to be inclusive.


Thanks to the many DLI members who shared thoughts and experiences for this article.

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Making Change

Disabled people are the single largest minority group on the planet. Yet we are rarely seen in leadership and decision making roles, our visibility in popular culture and media is low, and recognition of our work as thought leaders and influencers is almost non-existent. The work of the disability rights movement often consists of us highlighting our absence from the public domain.


Shifting the status of disabled people to achieve equality will take many people and a long time. It will take a multi pronged approach across a wide range of fields. With 1.5 billion people it will also need to be happening in many places around the globe simultaneously in ways that are suitable to conditions in that myriad of locations.


The global disability rights movement is as diverse as it is large. This is its strength, as it ensures that the simultaneous work required is happening. Across numerous fields, in numerous countries, within all cultures, disabled people are working to assert our rights. Yet the disability rights movement is only a small percentage of disabled people, and a small percentage of the work that is required. Social change movements usually consist of less than 10% of a specific population group, and the disability movement is no different.


Many disabled people work in invisible ways, shifting ground from within existing business and government structures. This work is just as important, just as necessary, as the work of those who use the public domain to challenge assumptions and perspectives on disabled people. Internal institutional barriers need to be addressed as much as social assumptions and social policy. Without taking our place as 15% of global leadership we won’t be in a position to challenge the ableist structural barriers which deny an equitable disabled presence across the public and private domains.


As with any social change movement there are those who speak loudly and those who work behind the scenes. All are vital, particularly with such a large minority. Some demand strong ethical behaviour of themselves denying any solution other than end point outcomes, others are pragmatic and work more incrementally to shift legislation or policy. Some take a leadership role; others work to support those on the frontline of change making. Some work through organisations, many don’t. Some accept recognition for their work, others prefer to be acknowledged only as part of the larger movement. As with all movements, all approaches are vital contributions to the overall outcome of equality.


Curiously, there are those who suggest that only people from certain parts of the political spectrum, or with certain values and ethics, should be accepted as legitimate members of the disability rights movement. Yet, the size of the disability population and the diversity of disabled people would suggest that we must be present across all fields, political backgrounds, and perspectives. With such a large global population it is impossible to consider that we might always agree with each other. It is more likely that we won’t, particularly when intersectional and cultural factors are considered. That doesn’t mean that we can’t support those who work differently, or with whom we disagree, knowing that they too are making a difference.


It’s time to celebrate our work wherever it happens, and recognise that all of it is contributing to the greater visibility and status of disabled people. People should be encouraged to work where they are best placed to do so, using their skills and qualities. Making change is often about getting on the bus that comes past, not waiting for the perfect set of circumstances to arise before acting. If someone jumped on the bus as it went by we should applaud them for embracing the opportunity as it arose.


Periodically people are critical because someone isn’t their choice as the best person for an accolade or an appointment, yet often it is being in the right place at the right time that decides who does something or is asked for comment. Should we remain invisible or should we seize those chances while we can? However people achieve recognition, positions of influence, rights outcomes, or make change it is all valuable and raises our status as global citizens. Being in the room is the key to equality. There are many many rooms, so we need many people to ensure we are in all of them. All of this work contributes to the #Global15Percent


Wherever we do our work and achieve change, disabled people should be supported and celebrated, even if specific individuals don’t work in a way that we personally prefer or use language we’d rather they didn’t. Our diversity is our strength and that means embracing our difference including our different approaches, because our equality requires all that difference. Disability is our common thread, yet it doesn’t make us all the same, and that’s the best thing.



Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, she has worked across 5 social change movements throughout her lifetime including the disability rights movement.

Who decides on inclusion?

Massive buzzwork, but what does it really mean?

by Christina Ryan, CEO, Disability Leadership Institute


Inclusion: massive buzzword, but what does it really mean and how do we get it?


Its popular for organisations to claim that they are being inclusive, yet retention rates remain low for disabled people in most organisations, with very few moving into positions of leadership or responsibility.


A key factor in understanding inclusion is that it lies in the eye of the beholder. Many organisations have good intentions on inclusion, yet their staff members from minority groups don’t feel comfortable and leave within a short period. For other organisations inclusion is a reality, so long as everyone fits in and conforms to company culture.


Its very easy to say you are being inclusive, its another matter to be viewed as being so by those who are the target for being included. Most people mean well, but they forget their unconscious behaviours. Very few people are comfortable with stepping back to allow a person from a minority group (like a disabled person) to take an opportunity over themselves. Even fewer seem comfortable with a disabled person being their supervisor.


There are those who consider inclusion to be not “seeing” a person’s difference. This isn’t inclusion, its assimilation. Many members of the Disability Leadership Institute share stories where “I couldn’t tell you were deaf, you were almost normal”, or “I didn’t see your wheelchair after a while”. This is denying a person’s disability exists and certainly isn’t inclusion.


Inclusion is about embracing diversity and using it. Not about denying it and expecting everyone to fit in to the dominant culture.


Diversity is about embracing the value, the richness, that diversity brings. This means operating differently, ensuring that everyone contributes equally, and recognizing the skills, expertise and perspective of disability leaders on your team. Disability leaders will operate differently, and you want this, embrace it, value it, use it. It might make you uncomfortable or seem annoying to have to change how you have a conversation, yet this is exactly the outcome you are trying to achieve because it means you are being pushed outside your comfort zone and having your perspective disrupted.


There isn’t much point in appointing disability leaders to your team if they aren’t valued for their contribution. This seems like an unnecessary thing to say, yet the Disability Leadership Institute has heard many stories about disabled staff who are never sent the documents in a format they can read and work on, or aren’t given time to hear what is happening via their interpreter, and even highly experienced executives who are never given the opportunity to speak and share their views. They are, quite literally, token appointments.


Inclusion is real when people feel included. They are valued and used as equal members of the team. It’s easy to identify inclusion; your staff turnover reduces as you achieve high retention of people from minority groups. The only people who can judge if your organisation is inclusive are those who are being included. They’ll let you know, and your staff retention rates will prove it.

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