In 2016 the Disability Leadership Institute undertook the first national survey of disability leaders. One specific finding was that the majority of leaders had undertaken training but the training did not assist in achieving leadership or representative opportunities.
When noting the lack of disabled people in leadership positions, governments and others often assume that there are no suitably trained or experienced leaders to be appointed. This leads to the announcement of further training or scholarships programs. While scholarships are vital to disabled people, many of whom live on low incomes, without those scholarships resulting in career outcomes they lose significant value.
Where are all the disability leaders who have already been trained? Over several decades these training and scholarship programs have produced many many leaders able to be appointed to boards or executive roles, yet there remains a noticeable lack of disability leaders in board and executive positions across all sectors.
Endless training is not producing the desired outcomes. Neither is hoping for the best and relying on goodwill.
It is time to introduce quotas or specific targets, and to also introduce identified positions. In the same way that gender targets have been used to increase gender diversity on boards and in leadership teams and identified positions have been used to ensure First Nations peoples have been placed in leadership positions particularly when related to work about First Nations communities, specific measures are required to increase the levels of disability leadership.
A national audit of disability leaders is also needed to ascertain what training has been undertaken, with longitudinal tracking data to identify what outcomes training has achieved and whether it is leading to career progression for disability leaders.
With several decades worth of trained leaders available, there is no shortage of people available to support the numbers targets would demand. Neither is there a lack of leaders in the pipeline to follow on from the few existing appointments.
More training and scholarships are a simplistic solution to the lack of disability leaders on boards and executive teams. Without being accompanied by targets or quotas, with benchmark timeframes, there is no guarantee that appointments will be made. The experiences of other diversity groups illustrate that targets and timeframes achieve results, yet few exist designed to increase disability leadership.
The Doing It Differently report noted lower levels of professional development offered to disabled people, and a lack of career progression resulting from a continuing prejudice about the capabilities of disability leaders.
Unlike other diversity groups, disabled people are rarely offered disability specific professional development. While there are specific programs for women, Indigenous peoples, and culturally diverse people, disabled people are expected to succeed by accessing only mainstream programs.
Disability leaders report numerous access and attitude barriers in mainstream programs which often result in them leaving before graduation (sometimes they are unable to even commence). Those undertaking programs at the Disability Leadership Institute regularly report on how unusual it is for them to find professional development opportunities which allow them to focus on their development, rather than on advocating for access, or masking while constantly explaining their disability.
Equality of access to professional development, including training, introducing leadership targets or quotas, and longitudinal tracking data to ascertain career progression and training outcomes, will provide a more holistic response to the lack of leadership diversity. A consistent approach to disability leadership has been absent from policy and program responses by governments and organisations to date yet is what is required to make the difference.
More training and scholarship programs are useful, but they won’t provide appointments for the myriad of disability leaders who have already acquired qualifications and who continue to miss out on being appointed to boards and executive positions.
The National Register of Disability Leaders offers an Australia wide listing service to get your vacant positions in front of talented and competent disabled people across a wide range of fields.
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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