Seeing Disability

Known diversity, the presence of openly identifying disabled people, makes a difference.

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:

  1. 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.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

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

Avoiding diversity?

Advisory groups are a way of avoiding disability diversity in board rooms.

Recent events with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) have illustrated how critical the presence of disability leaders is to good policy and decision making affecting disabled people.

The NDIS continues to have no disabled people in its executive leadership team, and there are no disabled people on the board following a recent retirement. The NDIS is developing policy, and making decisions, about the lives of disabled people without a single disabled person in the room.

As an organisation that is solely focused on disability, they should have a presence of more than 50 percent disability in both the board room and the executive leadership team (to align with international benchmarks); however, nearly a decade after the National Disability Insurance Agency was established there continues to be an absence of disability in its critical decision making spaces.

The outcome of the recent attempt to introduce independent assessments is a powerful reminder of why the presence of disabled people in these decision making spaces is vital. Without the deeper industry and community knowledge, and the wealth of expertise, associated with being a disabled person it is impossible to make a good disability related decisions.

The NDIS has been relying on an advisory body throughout its decade of existence; in other words, they rely on being able to consult disabled people when it suits them. If the expertise of that advisory body is so valuable, why isn’t it in the board room and on the executive team?

In our 2018 global scan the Disability Leadership Institute discovered that advisory groups don’t work. Yet they continue to be a popular mechanism for introducing diverse voices, particularly consumer voices, into board rooms. The key finding of that global scan was that advisory groups are only as effective as the bridge between them and the organisation they are advising. When this breaks down, as it inevitably does, the advisory group becomes marginalised and unheard. It is common for advisory bodies’ advice to be ignored if it is inconvenient or bears a cost burden.

Have advisory groups become a way of avoiding genuine diversity; a way of avoiding the hard work of developing an inclusive culture where diverse voices are present throughout the decision making structure of organisations?

Perhaps advisory groups are a sloppy way of admitting that diversity makes executives and boards uncomfortable? After all, having diversity in the room, particularly disability diversity, remains unusual. It appears the majority of organisations still find it challenging to put the two words disability and leadership into the same sentence. The NDIS certainly seems challenged by disability leadership, given their persistence in avoiding it.

Trusting disability leaders to be competent contributors remains outside scope for many in decision making positions, perhaps because they remain unfamiliar with the enormous benefits that disability diversity brings, including greater levels of innovation and problem solving.

The prevailing assumption persists that there are few board ready disabled people, despite the Disability Leadership Institute having several hundred disability leaders listed on the National Register of Disability Leaders.

Is it only prejudice that is getting in the way of building board diversity?

Perhaps it is also a lack of innovation as organisations continue with their old methods of recruiting board members – methods they have become comfortable and settled in, and which provide a steady pipeline of old fashioned non-diverse talent. After all, most high level boards are still appointed on “merit” from known networks; processes designed to maintain the existing narrowcast non-diverse pool of mainly older, mainly white, mainly male board members they are familiar with.

The NDIS is a microcosm of the broader issue surrounding the lack of disability diversity in board rooms and on executive teams; unfortunately, it has become clear that this lack of diversity is a significant hindrance to it generating good policy and making good decisions, resulting in significant costs to the disability community of time, energy, and funds.

The Disability Leadership Institute calls on all Australian governments to ensure that all future appointments to the board of the NDIS, and its executive leadership team, are disabled people and that this continues until the benchmark of over 50 percent presence of disability is achieved.

Sign up
 for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

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

Recognition Matters

Without recognition there is no equality

Is the work of disabled people less valuable to the community than the work of everyone else?

Naturally it isn’t, yet this is the message being sent to disabled people as we continue to be overlooked for honours and awards.

Recent discussions amongst DLI members indicate that the work of disability leaders is not valued in the same way as the work of other folk. Our work is generally invisible to the broader community and usually remains unrecognised.

Recognition for outstanding work is delivered in several ways in our community, yet outstanding work by disabled people rarely features amongst those recognised. When recognition is given, it remains unusual. The recent Australian Honours for the Queen’s Birthday featured about 10 disabled people amongst 947 recipients, when population parity should have acknowledged the work of 189 disabled people.

The DLI is unaware of any disability leaders undertaking their work in a quest to be awarded an Australian Honour, but that does not mean that there are not many hundreds of disabled people who should be recognised for the outstanding work that they do for their communities.

The last several years has seen an increasing presence of disabled people acknowledged through the Australian of The Year awards, although it is still remarkable to see a disabled person, and none have yet been recognised with the major awards. When the percentages remain so low it is less likely that disability leaders will succeed.

Even the awards acknowledging excellence in business, the Telstra Business Awards (and Businesswomen’s Awards) have rarely featured disability entrepreneurs, yet disabled people are over twice as likely to start their own business as non-disabled people (UTS 2020).

The conclusion reached by many members of the DLI is that the way disabled people do business, and the work that is done in our community by disability leaders is not valued, or considered as valid, as the work of the broader community.

There are many who are highly sceptical of these honours and awards systems because of their lack of diverse recipients. Many refuse to engage with the various honours and awards systems because highly deserving people are regularly overlooked while high profile people who have achieved less are awarded. If disability leaders are not nominated, they cannot be recognised. As long as we remain unrecognised the awards and honours systems remain narrow and are not a valid reflection of the outstanding work being done across Australian communities today.

Current systems continue to perpetuate the myth that valuable work is done only by a small section of society. This is patently incorrect. Perhaps it is a reflection of the non-diverse judging panels who decide who should be recognised.

Until this changes. Until the work of disability leaders is valued, and valid, disabled people have not reached equality.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

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

Learning the hard way

They want what we have, just not the way we learned it.

Leadership is an interesting field of learning. There are a myriad courses and ways of approaching the broad field of leadership. Curiously, not a great deal of value seems to be placed on those who learn leadership the hard way, who learn through experience rather than books; or rather, when experience is valued, it is only certain types of experience that seem to register.

Many recognised leaders continue to be appointed and revered, yet their leadership has only been learned through programs and books. When the community turns to them during a crisis, they often fall short.  

All the book learning in the world will not necessarily assist when someone is under pressure or facing multiple conflicting demands. For many it is these pressures that push them back into their default style of operation, usually less empathic, more insecure and unable to effectively communicate. They turn towards their long-held patterns of behaviour as a way of navigating an unknown situation.

Just when they really need to draw on all the book learning it fails them, because remembering theory is difficult when under significant pressure.

How is it possible to know if someone has empathic and inspiring leadership qualities that are more likely to stand up under pressure? How can resilient leadership be measured?

The Disability Leadership Institute uses vertical leadership principles, based on action logics, in our leadership development work. Vertical leadership can be measured by recognised leadership assessment tools, like the one the DLI uses in its flagship leadership program The Future Shapers.

Such leadership assessments are not concerned with how well someone understands core business skills, rather they are interested in how a person operates and navigates a situation. These are the qualities that do not come from book learning, they come from living through situations that most people in the community are fortunate to avoid.

As the DLI develops the world’s first bank of disability leadership data, it is becoming clear that disability leaders are often ranking in the highest levels of leadership operation. Through Future Shapers assessment processes, undertaken at the beginning and end of each year long program, a picture is growing of leaders who are working at the post-conventional thinking stages, and who are developing further into those stages through the program.

So, what is going on?

It appears that disability leaders have developed a core of resilience which is measurable through vertical leadership assessments. Most of these leaders are not recognised, and many have been actively denied career pathways and positions that use their leadership skills and expertise. They are the types of people that are looked for in crisis situations yet overlooked because of their disability.

As understanding grows about disability leadership, it seems that leadership is only recognised if it is attached to book learning and university courses – having someone with an MBA is more important than having someone who knows how to respond to challenging situations. Yet, disability leaders are ranking more highly, often in the top 15 percent globally, than those who use those more conventional pathways to recognised leadership.

Perhaps it is time to recognise that leadership can be learned the hard way, and that it is more likely to produce those most desired leadership qualities – empathy, resilience, lateral thinking and strategic recalibration – that many of the world’s leaders struggle to draw on under pressure. Disability leadership might not be accompanied by an MBA, or a resume full of corporate or political appointments, yet it is measurable and appears to align more closely with the type of leadership that the global community is looking for.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

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

Critical Mass

We’re a long way from the critical mass needed to trigger culture change

Requesting workplace adjustments, flexible working arrangements, or modified equipment in the workplace is a tough gig. It is even more difficult for those who are the only disabled person on their team or in their workplace – that is, almost all disabled people.

Experiences of the Disability Leadership Institute show that disability leaders requests for workplace adjustments are usually the minimum required by the person to be able to do their job effectively, yet these minimum requirements are often refused. They are expected to try harder or to act like they are not disabled people.

Most disabled people do not openly identify as disabled. They are in workplaces, but the risks faced by openly identifying are too high and are usually avoided at all costs. Openly identifying is a last resort taken when workplace adjustments are unable to be avoided. For many, openly identifying sounds the death knell for their career or their employment. 

Diversity specialists talk about critical mass, that point when the numbers of a minority trigger cultural change. When working on gender diversity, a 30 percent presence of women in a workplace, or on a board, is considered critical mass. There are very few workplaces where disabled people are more than 30 percent, there are very few that have more than 10 percent.

Despite being around 20 percent of the population, it is more common for a disabled person to be the only member of their team, or their branch, or their organisation. Critical mass and the culture change triggered by it are a long way from reality.

More commonly, these highly isolated disabled people are expected to change culture from within, often from a low position in the hierarchy, and often without adequate workplace adjustments. For example, in many public sectors achieving a 3 percent presence of disabled people has become a talking point, a moment of pride for the agencies concerned. In context, 3 percent is better than just over 1 percent, which is the long-term level for most public sectors, but it is still well short of the 20 percent presence of disability in the wider population and there is no indication of when this might be achieved.

Neither 1 percent nor 3 percent will achieve critical mass, neither level represents more than a token presence of disability.

Disability Leadership Institute members report becoming full time advocates for workplace adjustments, while also experiencing the higher levels of bullying and harassment that accompany most workplaces. Their days are focused on changing workplace culture when they should be focused on work.

Employers want to tick the disability diversity box yet remain wholly unprepared for what that means. The result is a continuing failure to provide safe workplaces where inclusive culture and workplace modifications are business as usual. Rather, inclusion and modifications remain misunderstood, resisted, and refused, and disabled people continue to pour time and energy into changing their workplaces instead of being able to join them.

Until 20 percent moves closer, or becomes reality, true inclusion will remain elusive.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

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

Embracing workplace adjustments

embracing the value, the richness, that diversity brings

A common topic of discussion amongst disability leaders is workplace adjustments – one of the most common reasons that people leave sought after positions.

Workplace adjustments range from appropriate furniture and software, to flexible working conditions including reduced hours and working remotely. Workplace adjustments and inclusion go hand in hand; they need to work in concert to ensure the right conditions exist to sustain employment.

The Disability Leadership Institute hears stories each week from disability leaders who have left their jobs because they were unable to access appropriate workplace adjustments. It is not a small decision to leave a job, particularly for a disabled person, and is usually the last resort after all alternatives have been exhausted.

Poor workplace adjustments go hand in hand with bullying and harassment, which disabled people experience at three to five times the rate of other employees (according to various workplace studies including IGPA and VPS). The refusal to provide safe working conditions, and to target those that ask for them, creates hostile environments that ultimately become impossible to work in.

Common experiences include:

Intrusive questioning

The demand to constantly prove the need for disability adjustments happens to many disability leaders. This may take the form of inappropriate questioning from team leaders or supervisors seeking detailed medical information, to colleagues demanding to know why they get adjustments when others do not.

Being subjected to intrusive questions is a form of harassment. It becomes bullying when adjustments are refused because a team leader does not trust their team member and disbelieves their needs.

The expectation that a disabled person constantly provide proof of their needs represents a culture of suspicion which has its roots in several hundred years of prejudice about who knows best about disability. Disabled people are not trusted to articulate their needs. Someone else will know better and judgements for them. These demands are paternalistic and exclusionary.

Consider that a disability leader, particularly one moving into a senior position, has sustained employment for some time and is well versed in what they need and how to maintain an effective presence in the workplace. Disability leaders know what will work best for them and should be trusted and supported, not denied. These are people making high level work related decisions every day.

Consider, also, that disability leaders who openly identify as disabled are already placing themselves at risk by doing so. There is substantial evidence to suggest that being openly disabled is a barrier to promotion and, in many cases, reduces the options for career pathways. Why would someone openly identify as disabled when the outcomes can be career ending?

Rather than questioning disability leaders, employers should provide the workplace adjustments as requested and focus on supporting the person to contribute effectively. People are not seeking adjustments for fun; they are clarifying what is needed for them to be the recruitment solution the employer was looking for.

Ableism / assimilation

Why do employers recruit openly disabled people? Because they are the best person for the job, and to achieve diversity in their workforce.

Diversity is about embracing the value, the richness, that diversity brings. This means operating differently, ensuring that all team members are equal and contribute equally, and recognizing the skills, expertise and perspective of disabled people in an organisation. Disabled people will operate differently, and employers should want this, embrace it, value it, use it.

Disability in an organisation is not about ticking a box, it is about improving the organisation’s decision making and overall health.

There is not much point, in having disabled people in a team if they are not valued for their contribution. The Disability Leadership Institute hears many stories of people leaving jobs because they were expected to operate as though they were not disabled. They were then bullied when they could not. They are, quite literally, token appointments.

Diversity is not assimilation. There is not a lot of value in finding people of diversity to be part of an organisation and then expecting them to think and act the same as everyone else. Expecting disability leaders to operate as others do is assimilation. It is also ableism. The expectation that someone can be “normal” if they try hard enough to fit in. This is why many disabled people leave positions.

Workforce adjustments makes good sense. They provide team members with the ability to work to their best, alongside their colleagues, and to contribute as equals to the team and the organisation.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

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

Who will come after you?

Who is in the room with you, are you up for the DLI challenge?

There is an urban myth that a lack of competent disability leaders is the underlying cause of a continuing lack of disability leadership in organisations, yet the Disability Leadership Institute knows that there are numerous highly competent leaders across a wide range of fields who would be suitable for appointment.

Building a diverse workforce is a challenging goal. Building a diverse leadership seems even more challenging, particularly if aiming for disability leadership.

Perhaps disability leaders aren’t in the “right” networks, or prejudice continues to prevent recognition. Perhaps the pathways that disability leaders take are different to those taken by others towards leadership positions, so they are in unexpected locations.

Curiously, many organisations whose work is focused on disability, including service providers and those representing disabled people, do not have a strong presence of disability leadership. Many have none. Despite the average tenure for CEOs being less than 8 years, the levels of disability leadership remain low and have not changed appreciably over several decades.

In 2021 the Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) is challenging all organisations across all fields – companies, government agencies, non-profits – to actively build succession plans which result in the appointment of disability leaders to their boards and executive teams.

In 2021 the Disability Leadership Institute is asking the question: who will come after you?

Are you actively working to ensure the next person to fill your position is a disabled person?

Boards, CEOs, and political leaders can make a strong contribution by insisting that a disabled person must be appointed. It is a choice to make this decision, yet few are making that choice.

Everyone can make a strong contribution by asking who is with them in decision making rooms; by asking “where are the disability leaders”. Change will not happen unless people make a commitment to make it happen. It starts with you.

Ask who is in the room with you. If there are no disabled people, ask why not. Then take responsibility for disabled people being in the room.

Make sure disabled people are appointed to leadership and decision-making positions with a consistent operational presence, rather than only seeking their advice or undertaking consultation when it seems convenient.

Ask yourself why a disabled person is not doing your job.

By 2025 the DLI wants a noticeable shift in the levels of disability diversity as organisations proactively work to build disability leadership. This is particularly critical for organisations with a disability focus, although all organisations must take responsibility for improving their levels of disability leadership.

This starts now – make 2021 the year of your commitment to the DLI challenge.

How will you contribute to achieving disability leadership?

Share your stories with us on LinkedIn Facebook, and Twitter.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

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

Preferential Treatment?

Sending a clear message that disability is wanted in decision making rooms.

Achieving diversity employment outcomes remains a challenge. Few organisations are achieving outcomes in disability diversity, particularly in achieving career paths to leadership. Many tactics have been tried and little has changed in several decades.

It’s time to think differently to achieve disability leadership outcomes, including the use of targeted succession planning by identifying high potential talent. Yet, employers baulk at such solutions as being “preferential treatment” of disabled people.

How can it be preferential to target high potential disabled employees to achieve a goal that has not been achieved using any other method?

Identifying high potential disabled talent in order to build their capacity through on the job training and mentoring for specific positions, is a clear option for rapidly growing the disability leadership workforce. It has been successfully used in other diversity areas across the board. A common response to this suggestion is “won’t that disadvantage those people who are not openly identifying as disabled who might also be high potential.”


Making it clear that an organisation values disability and wants to promote disabled people into more senior positions sends a clear message that disability is wanted in the room, including the leadership and decision-making rooms of the organisation.

This message is uncommon, and its absence has resulted in large numbers of disabled people concealing their disability in the workplace. Disability is not currently valued and this has significant ramifications for disabled employees including high rates of bullying and harassment. Many DLI members report hitting a ceiling if they openly identify as disabled, and substantial numbers report losing their jobs once their disability became evident.

The message currently is that disability is not wanted at senior levels.

Changing the message to one of valuing disability will have a profound impact on whether people stay with an employer, on building inclusive culture in organisations, and on the morale of disabled staff at more junior levels.

Organisations regularly report at least half of their disabled staff not openly identifying. They only know they exist due to anonymous staff surveys. Why openly identify when it could be career ending?

Illustrating the value of disability diversity at the top of the organisation as a desirable asset, by openly supporting high potential disabled talent, will shift the numbers of staff openly identifying as disabled and contribute towards a more inclusive culture overall. If someone feels wanted and valued, they will be more comfortable in being fully themselves.

That isn’t preferential treatment. Its valuing difference.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

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

Disability as an asset

Disability should be seen as one of the biggest assets an employee has.

Disability should be considered one of the most valuable assets an employee can bring to a team and organisation. Instead it is usually viewed as creating an extra burden on teams and team leaders, taking resources, time and energy from colleagues.

To address this a mythology has developed around disabled people that they are less prone to sick days and will be more loyal than other employees. Once again, disabled people are reduced to being present for reasons other than their ability to contribute to the success of the organisation.

For added emphasis all manner of feel good reasons are developed to tug on the heart strings, suggesting that employing disabled people will make organisations feel better about themselves, as though the function of disabled people is to improve the wellbeing of others. Common reasons such as:

  1. It’s the right thing to do
  2. People with disabilities have a right to independence
  3. We have an employment quota set by the Minister
  4. Our competitors are all doing it, so we’ve set a target too
  5. It’s good for the confidence of people with disabilities to work
  6. We have diversity targets, so we should be doing this

All of these reasons do not contribute to the good of the organisation, its bottom line, or its strategic goals. They are about the wellbeing of the people framing the question, or for externally driven factors like government targets. These reasons contribute to a perpetuation of disability being seen as an inconvenient characteristic.

Disability should be seen as one of the biggest assets an employee has, and one of the biggest assets for achieving diversity targets and the benefits they bring.

Rather than ticking boxes and achieving quotas in order to win diversity awards, organisations should be assessed on how their innovation has improved, or the greater capacity of their teams to solve problems, or a greater connection to their consumer base, or an improvement to their overall efficiency and profit levels.

These are all contributions that a strong presence of disabled employees will provide, they are all outcomes of greater diversity in the workplace, yet they are rarely acknowledged and are not the criteria for winning business or diversity awards.

Disability is still framed as a deficit, yet it has been proven to bring quantifiable value to organisations, improving decision making, and ensuring greater connection with the market.

Organisations often cite far greater numbers of disabled employees in anonymous censuses than openly disclose their disabilities. Disability Leadership Institute members make it clear that this is due to unsafe work environments where disability is not welcomed by colleagues. The more senior a person is, the higher risk open disclosure becomes, so people do not openly identify unless they have no choice.

When the benefits disability brings are considered, disability should be viewed as an asset, with specific targeted recruitment to bring it into the senior echelons of organisations in order to drive efficiency and innovation.

Once disabled people know they are valued they will openly identify as disabled and bring their full range of talents to the table.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

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

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.

Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

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.