Diversity or assimilation?

Are we really embracing the value of diversity or just focussing on statistics?

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What do we mean by diversity?

 

What is the purpose behind the growing diversity industry?

 

Why do we want diversity anyway?

 

Perhaps we are simply caught up in the latest trend, and if we say the word diversity often enough then it will become true. Perhaps we keep saying “diversity” in the hope that our good intentions will result in outcomes, but what outcomes are we looking for?

 

There is increasing evidence that diversity contributes substantially to the bottom line of organisations. A concept that once started as “it’s the right thing to do” has become a key factor in any business case for improving organisational outcomes and efficiencies. Additionally, it has become clear that diversity manifests in different ways – it’s not just population groups but also how people approach what they are doing.

 

The recognition of the importance of cognitive diversity is a game changer for people with disabilities and should become the pathway to valued inclusion in the mainstream workforce. Yet disability employment rates remain stagnant, and disability leadership is nowhere to be seen. Very few studies or articles about diversity mention disability, and very few organisations are embracing disability as a highly valued employment asset.

 

It seems that the work of building diversity has become lost in numbers rather than outcomes. By focusing on individual population groups, rather than taking an intersectional approach, we are yet to fully embrace the real potential of diversity. We have become focused on hiring people, but have yet to work out how to use the full potential of those recruits to achieve organisational outcomes. What’s the point of building diversity in our workforce if it isn’t contributing to what our organisations are doing?

 

After DLI discussions with many organisations and individuals it seems disability is still on the outside of diversity thinking. While being uncomfortable is part of diversity practice, apparently people with disabilities still make people too uncomfortable to be fully valued as equal colleagues.

 

The DLI 2016 national survey of disability leaders identified that the majority are working in disability specific organisations. The small percentage who are working in mainstream organisations have shared 2 common experiences with the DLI:

  1. I just put my head down and work, I’m not here to talk disability, and
  2. My other diversity attributes are welcome, but my colleagues prefer that I don’t mention my disability.

 

This points to a lack of valuing disability and what it can contribute to a team and an organisation. It also means the significant benefits of having a diverse workforce are missed. More critically, it raises a very uncomfortable question: do we expect our diverse workforce to become like us – to assimilate? If so, then what is the point of building diversity at all?

 

Are we really embracing the value of diversity, or are we so focused on statistics that the outcomes have been lost?

 

Diversity is exciting, has enormous benefits, and greatly enriches the workplace experience for everyone. It’s time we used our diverse workforce and valued the contribution that diverse qualities and attributes make to organisational outcomes. To do this we must embrace a disabled workforce, value the attributes of people with disabilities, and consider how they will contribute to more robust outcomes. Without this we won’t have meaningful diversity and will continue to miss the full benefits of what diversity can bring to our organisations.

 

 

The final Team Leading Disability Masterclass for managers and supervisors of diverse teams will be held in Melbourne on 30 October 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unique Leadership of Minority Women conference

Its about being in the room

Keynote address by Christina Ryan

Sydney – 27 September 2017

 

Acknowledge traditional owners.

 

I’ve spent the last 20 years working on violence against women with disabilities. It’s a soul destroying space which hasn’t shifted at all in 2 decades and which remains largely invisible. Half of all reported incidents of violence against women in Australia are against women with disabilities, yet we are still asked to prove that there is a problem, and still expected to find mainstream response services adequate when its long been recognised that women from other minority groups require specialist solutions appropriate to them.

 

At the COAG summit on violence against women, this time last year, I was one of 3 women with disabilities present, that equates to 1.5% of delegates, yet we are 20% of Australian women and half the violence against women problem. Don’t worry we’re used to this kind of marginalisation, it’s standard. Our Indigenous sisters who also experience appalling levels of violence, had about 40 delegates, quite rightly, a specialist break out focus group, and speaking spots as facilitators. Yet we were marginalised and through that silenced.

 

So, with so much still to do in the violence space why have I turned my attention to talking about disability leadership? How do these 2 things relate to each other, do they relate at all?

 

Yes, totally.

 

Because as long as we are not in leadership positions we are not equal. While we are not equal we will continue to be marginalised. I believe that the high levels of violence directly relate to the very low levels of women with disabilities in leadership positions. Our lack of value as members of the community. It’s as simple as that.

 

What did we do when we found ourselves so outnumbered at the COAG summit and shoved into a conglomerate diversity group which also included LGBTIQ women, culturally diverse women, and men who experienced violence? Well we caucused, and we pushed, and we made sure we spoke up a lot and we insisted on language that became Summit language. What we did was ensure that women with disabilities were not invisible in the Outcomes, even if we were barely in the room and marginalised within it. How did I know that this was the way to overcome our marginalisation? Well I’d dealt with situations like this before and I’ll tell you about them shortly.

 

This is the unique skill of disabled women that I have learned over 2 decades. And over that time, it has made a difference and it has changed the understanding of disability in various forums.

 

Earlier this year I was debriefing my team after yet another 4 Corners program looking at the appalling levels of violence experienced by people with disabilities, particularly those expected to live in congregate living arrangements. What some of us call institutions. My team was talking about the program because this is their work, they are at the coalface of responding to what happens to people in these places and trying to do something about it. The disability movement has been calling for a royal commission for some time, but nobody wants to touch it, it would be a Pandora’s box and force governments to face up to some horrible truths that would cost them too much money to deal with, so its best ignored. It’s also easy to continue to ignore something when there are no disabled women in any of the leadership forums which make decisions about government priorities and budgets.

 

As we debriefed one of the team became quite distressed, crying out “why won’t they just listen to what we are saying, why do we keep having to say it over and over again!”. It’s a good question and there is a pretty basic answer: because we are not equal. Disabled people, particularly women, in this country are still less than human, we’re not proper women, and certainly shouldn’t be believed when we speak up about what is happening to us. Yes, it is that serious. We are not seen as competent, we are ignored in discussions, and we are usually not even in the room.

 

What’s going on?

 

Let’s just stop here for a second. Close your eyes. I want you to name 5 disabled women leaders that you know, that are alive and working today, who are active in your space. I’ll give you a second.

 

Okay, how did we do? Did anyone get to 5? Remember we are talking about 20% of Australian women. Now take out the Paralympians and how many have you got left? Does anyone still have 5 women leaders with disabilities?

 

Why did I say, “take out the Paralympians”? Well not because they aren’t wonderful people and they aren’t doing great things, they certainly are, but because in Australia and in most countries, that is the only leadership pathway available to people with disabilities. There is nothing else. You can either be an elite athlete, and make something from your success once you are back home, or there is nothing. We have never had a consistent ongoing program in Australia to develop disability leaders or to support those who are doing leadership work. You either make it in the mainstream or nothing.

 

So, we’ve had to get highly inventive to have the successes that we have had.

 

Unlike our colleagues in other diversity groups who have had specialist leadership programs for some time, disabled people must simply cut it in the mainstream. No prizes for guessing why there aren’t many disabled leaders kicking around.  In fact, our research shows that most of the disability leaders who access mainstream leadership training are then marginalised and never get to use their skills and qualifications.

 

Last year I had one of those moments of revelation you get from time to time. I realised that disabled people would not be listened to while we remained outside of the key conversations that shape our community and our country. I know about being in the room, it’s what I’ve been working at doing for 20 years and its where I’ve made a difference for my community; by being in mainstream spaces that disabled women don’t normally go.

 

So, I established the Disability Leadership Institute to provide Australia’s first ongoing program of disability leadership development and support. I got sick of dealing with violence as an outcome of inequality and now I am working on addressing the inequality directly by making sure that we have leaders, skilled up and ready to be in the room.

 

Back to that story from before.

 

A few years ago, I was on the official Australian delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This is a major annual United Nations forum which carries forward the work of the Beijing global conference for women held in 1995. Australia sends a delegation each year and includes NGO reps on that delegation. It’s taken very seriously.

 

As a mainstream forum of the UN this is a space where disabled women are simply not present. The building isn’t even built to cater for people with disabilities and various security work arounds had to be achieved to even get me into the meetings that I was required to attend. Truthfully, I don’t think the Australian Government really understood just how radical it was to include me on their delegation. But that’s okay, what was potentially tokenism at home became a global game changer.

 

This work requires a strong stomach. As the only member of a minority group present inside the forum I had to work to make sure that the 2 million Australian women I was representing (for WWDA) were noticed. I was also painfully aware that it wasn’t just 2 million Australian women, it was potentially half a billion women globally who were relying on me to be seen and heard. No pressure there then.

 

What I did know is that my sisters in the global disability movement knew I was there and were watching. How could I make a difference for them and use this rare opportunity to best effect?

 

The answer was very simple, tough to execute, but very simple in theory and it is my gift to you all today: I made sure I was in the room.

 

There are simply no disabled people in mainstream forums at the UN. There are even less disabled women. So, I made sure I was in the room. While other members of our delegation went off sightseeing, or participated in NGO sessions at CSW in buildings outside the UN, I sat alongside our delegation head while she worked to negotiate the Outcomes. (Only the delegation head is permitted to speak within such forums.) It was 2 weeks of exhaustion, marginalisation, being stared at by delegates from other countries, and lambasted by some members of my own delegation for taking up too much space. It was a very isolating experience.

 

So, why would someone do this? Well I was there for 2 million Australian women, and half a billion women globally and I knew it. The impact of me being in the room is that they could not forget disability. See, with me you get a bonus, you can tell I’m disabled just by looking. So, it’s hard to ignore disability when I’m there. For many delegates from other countries and groupings this made them incredibly uncomfortable and even led to deliberate attempts to have me removed.

 

End result? Australia had a major victory with new language in the Outcomes about women with disabilities and other minority women, we also managed to include language about intersectionality for the first time. That language is still there today and monitored closely each year by disabled women globally to ensure we are not slipping back into invisibility.

 

Another thing happened during that time: when delivering her report to the plenary session the CEDAW Committee chair mentioned women with disabilities. It was also mentioned in the hard copy of her speech circulated to those of us on the floor of the General Assembly. Yet, weeks later when the official version was loaded onto the CEDAW Committee website, that reference was absent. Because I was in the room, had heard the reference and had a copy of the early version of the speech which mentioned women with disabilities, the International Network of Women with Disabilities was able to mobilise. We approached the CEDAW secretariat and insisted that they change the record. They resisted, we insisted. Eventually I scanned my copy of the speech and we sent that in via Women Enabled (our international umbrella body) and they were left with no option except to change the official record. Because I was in the room we were unable to be made invisible again, because I was in the room I had the information and resources to get the official record changed. There is no other way that could have happened.

 

This resulted in women with disabilities raising our profile with other mainstream UN forums like the CEDAW committee and secretariat, and with UNWomen which was launched while I was there. There is now regular consideration of women with disabilities by the CEDAW committee, including work on violence only last month, and UNWomen makes sure it has a woman with disability on its executive, currently the fabulous Nidhi Goyal.

 

The other major outcome has been the opening up of these mainstream UN forums to women with disabilities globally. You see I sent a daily ebulletin out to my networks reporting on what was happening and the disability perspective on it. This has since become a standard expectation for those representing the disability movement at UN forums.

 

Suddenly my sisters realised that they could do this, that they should do this, and they have increasingly participated in treaty reporting processes, and other mainstream forums. They realised that they should also be in the room. There are now disabled women’s caucuses at CSW where previously there weren’t even any disabled women. There are regular side events (the government sponsored in depth discussions that happen on the sidelines.) There is an expectation that women with disabilities will be referred to explicitly and that our priorities will be considered.

 

Additionally, disabled women are now regularly members of NGO delegations to treaty reporting processes like CEDAW. I’ve been particularly proud of the support I’ve given to the Indian and UK women in this regard, but also, through CREA, to rights activists in Botswana, Uganda, Nepal, Senegal and Croatia to name a few.

 

All this just because I insisted on being in the room.

 

When you are highly marginalised its crucial to be inventive and persistent. We don’t have any other option, if we want to be heard we have to get clever. We’re not wanted in these spaces, we make people feel uncomfortable and awkward. In some countries, whose delegates were present at CSW, disability is still a great shame and disabled women particularly are still slung in institutions or hidden away in back rooms. Claiming space in that room was also claiming space on the agenda and in the language. It signalled a culture shift that has become unstoppable.

 

If we can do this in international forums then we must also start doing it at home. A survey undertaken by the Disability Leadership Institute last year showed that over ¾ of Australian disability leaders are working within disability specific spaces. We are not in the mainstream, we are not claiming space in the rooms of decision making, and we are not part of the public discourse. This renders us invisible and it makes it easy to forget our priorities and perspective when formulating public policy.

 

I didn’t wait to be asked at the UN, and it’s time we stopped waiting to be asked at home in Australia.

 

Being in the room is a skill, but leadership isn’t just about skills, it’s also about attributes or what you might call personal qualities. The most evident attribute in successful women disability leaders that I have observed is resilience. A gold standard of the world’s best leaders, the holy grail of leadership attributes is something we could bottle and sell if that were possible. Curiously, the enormous body of work on resilience implies that this attribute is a tough one to achieve and takes a lifetime of learning. That is not the experience of me and my sisters in the disability movement. There are many podcasts about resilience which all seem to feature retired (white) military men, yet women with disabilities do this one literally lying down.

 

We are resilient. We are the home of resilience. In her recent feature with Australian Story Kiruna Stamell referred to the “energy required to not give a fuck”. Well that energy is resilience.

 

Women with disabilities are still being silenced, marginalised, kept out of the room, publicly and privately shamed into silence, and yet we keep doing our work and changing the world. Often, we are doing this while living in enormous chronic pain. You haven’t met resilience until you’ve worked alongside a woman with disability. In some ways this is our superpower, our strength, but before I get into inspiration porn and talking up the freak show, I want to pull back and say it’s true. Unambiguously true and real that we have incredible persistence and strength in the face of being constantly told, overtly and tacitly, that we are not wanted, are an inconvenience, are an embarrassment, make everyone uncomfortable.

 

To remain in those rooms, to effect change, and to go back and do it again has required resilience in spades. Perhaps it is that which makes those around us uncomfortable? When we are assumed to be weak and delicate it turns out we are the strongest people in the room.

 

Alongside setting up the Disability Leadership Institute I’ve also received a Westpac Social Change Fellowship. I’ve been talking to diversity practitioners across a range of government and corporate agencies to better understand what is happening in disability leadership and what structures for diversity have worked, haven’t worked and might be useful.

 

I discovered something a bit shocking very early on: it is still totally outside scope to put the 2 words disability and leadership in the same sentence. Disability leadership wasn’t deliberately excluded, it just simply hadn’t occurred to anyone that it existed and that they should be doing something about it. There was a total absence of action to build and support disability leaders within our leading government and corporate agencies even in organisations that have strong number of disability employees in their workforce.

 

Once again, being in the room has seen a difference. Six months after I started those conversations several agencies have realised that just building up the numbers in their disability workforce is only the beginning and they need to look at pathways to leadership and how to develop future leaders for their organisation, including c suite and executive disability leaders. We won’t get real change until we also have CEOs at the highest level and heads of government agencies. This is a very small beginning but it’s started and that’s the important thing.

 

When we are highly marginalised, invisible and silenced, simply being in the room is a remarkably powerful skill which acts as a reminder of our existence. Even if we don’t get to speak we can no longer be forgotten by decision makers and agenda setters. Clearly the aim is to be influencers within high level decision making forums, but we must start somewhere and for women with disabilities we are still back at the start.

 

We’ve become inventive, persistent, but most of all resilient in ensuring that our existence is remembered and that we play a role in shaping the agenda. We are some of the strongest people you will ever know and we have now decided that it’s time to do something about our marginalisation. Yes, the world should be taking notice of that and it should be getting excited, because we have a contribution to make that will change everything, forever.

 

We are making a difference but the best is yet to come!

 

Thank you.

 

 

 

Identifying disability

“We know we’ve got more staff with disability.”

One of the most common questions I am asked is “what do you mean by disability”?

 

Many organisations know that they have a much higher presence of disabled people in their workforce than have openly identified. Still others are confused by whether disability covers the myriad of injuries that can befall anyone throughout their life; is psychosocial disability included, and what about workplace injuries?

 

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) doesn’t split psychosocial disability out into another category, that is a peculiarly Australian aspect of disability not recognised by the rest of the world. So, people with psychosocial disability are people with disability.

 

Here’s a question for you:

 

How do you know someone on your team is gay or Indigenous?

 

No, it’s not a trick question.

 

Usually you know about people belonging to a diversity group because that person openly identifies, and they tell you or talk about it openly. They may also approach you for considerations relating to their diversity. This is how you know they exist and how you count them in your diversity statistics.

 

It’s the same for disability.

 

You know someone is disabled because they identify as a person with disability. They will tell you if they consider it relevant, talk about themselves in this context, and they might ask for certain adjustments to the workplace or their position to accommodate their disability needs (most people with disabilities don’t need any adjustments at all).

 

There are a few things that are generally understood when someone identifies as disabled. Disability is not the same as injury. In other words, people don’t expect to recover from their disability, it’s with them for the long haul. In fact, it can be quite offensive to a person with disability to suggest that they will recover or “get better” over time.

 

While injuries, including workplace injuries, can have a disabling effect, this is not the same as becoming disabled and identifying as a disabled person. Of course, work injured people should also receive reasonable adjustments and a return to work program, but they shouldn’t automatically be counted amongst your workforce with disabilities.

 

Most people with disabilities are not evident just by looking. You can’t tell they have a disability unless they tell you. For those who do “look” disabled you must still wait for them to identify as disabled before you make assumptions. There are people who do not see themselves as a person with disability, for whom it is not part of their identity, and it’s inappropriate to impose this identity on them regardless of how they appear at face value. Additionally, half of all people with disabilities have more than one disability, and most disabilities are not visually evident, so you can’t assume that someone in a wheelchair needs only certain access measures, they may have several other requirements.

 

So, how do you know a person is a person with disability?

 

They will tell you.

 

As an employer, or supervisor, it then becomes your responsibility to make sure that the person has any reasonable adjustment that they need and is not subjected to ableist behaviour, or bullying or harassment.

 

What about all those people who will identify anonymously in organisation surveys, but don’t openly identify as disabled people on a day to day basis?

 

They will if they feel comfortable and safe, so focus on a culture of inclusion and mutual respect. Are your workers valued for being disabled people? Do they know that they are considered an asset to the organisation because of their diversity and what it brings?  Focus on getting your culture right and the rest will follow.

 

The Team Leading Disability Masterclass is for managers and supervisors of diverse teams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diversity through an intersectional approach

Intersectionality recognises population groups

“We’re focussing on gender first before we move to the next diversity group”.

 

There are numerous population groups that make up the diversity soup that enriches our community: women, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, people of culturally diverse backgrounds, LGBTIQ people, young people, and old people.

So, achieving diversity in your workforce, boardroom, membership, or consultation group takes a lot more than simply achieving 50 per cent women. Somehow you need to recognise all of those diversity (or population) groups and factor them into your recruitment strategies, whatever the purpose of that recruitment.

Intersectionality recognises population groups, but it also recognises that many people in minority or disadvantaged groups come from one or more of those groups. Perhaps you are an Indigenous woman with disability, or a young trans culturally diverse man. Intersectionality is when different population groups intersect within the same person – the United Nations has also called it “multiple disadvantage”.

The catch phrase “pale, male and stale” recognises the need to step away from a very narrow recruitment pool into a wider group where women are present, in order to achieve gender diversity. However, if the group becomes “pale, female and stale” is it any different? Have we achieved success in diversity if everyone is an upright white person?

This is the next major challenge in the diversity field.

Approaching diversity through the prism of intersectionality assists us with bringing different population groups into our recruitment processes without tackling them one by one. It recognises that all diversity groups are present right across our population.

If your recruitment is targeting gender, remember that 20 per cent of women are women with disabilities, about 20 per cent will come from a culturally diverse background, 3 per cent will be Indigenous, etc.

If you are targeting Indigenous people for your recruitment, then about half of them will be people with disabilities, half will be women, and a percentage will be LGBTIQ.

If you are targeting people with disabilities, a little over half will be women, there will be Indigenous and CALD people, plus a percentage of people identifying as LGBTIQ. People with disabilities have a similar diversity to the broader population although there are slightly more women than men.

It’s critical to be aware of these intersectional factors, so that we can approach true diversity in the group we are building. It is also important to avoid tokenism. Population levels in diversity groups may not be exactly represented in the initial group you recruit, because recruiting on merit is also a factor in building towards the ultimate sustainable outcome.

The key is to recognise population levels, through an intersectional approach, while working proactively towards achieving those levels.

Working through an intersectional lens assists us to understand our targets for diversity, but embedding diversity demands the development of a strong inclusive culture that features both diversity and intersectionality. A “pale, male and stale” culture will not sustain a diverse and intersectional group; rather it will simply perpetuate the exclusion we are working to overcome.

When a critical mass of diversity is achieved through an intersectional approach, it can start to be perpetuated and sustained through a strong culture of inclusion. It’s the first step on the road to real diversity and inclusion for the long haul.

Christina Ryan is the founder of the Disability Leadership Institute, and a management consultant, speaker and writer who specialises in executive and team culture and coaching.

Where are disability leaders in the media?

How often do we see disability leaders as experts in the media?

How often do we see people with disabilities in the media? Rarely.

How often do we see people with disabilities in the media as an expert talking about something that isn’t their disability? Almost never.

 

This is just one area of absence for disability leadership but it’s a key one. The lack of media visibility for disability leaders reinforces the public perception that we aren’t experts, and that we have no interests outside our own disability.

 

Yet as disability leaders we know that we have many interests, and areas of professional and personal expertise. While it will take substantial culture shift to address the assumption that we have no other interests this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared to talk to the media when an opportunity arises.

 

Talking to media is simply a skill that can be learned, like any other. Like any skill it takes time and practice and a bit of commitment, but it’s not rocket science. Of course, you don’t have to do it, but it can be very useful to know how to get your message across when needed.

 

One day 20 per cent of experts in the media will be people with disabilities. Across all fields and programs. It won’t be unusual to see someone with disability talking about their latest academic study, or representing a global corporation. Our personal stories won’t be demanded by journalists because they think we have nothing else to talk about and it’s the most interesting thing about us. We will be seen as opinion setters, experts, valuable analysts.

 

In today’s social media world our ability to jump in and share our opinion is vital, otherwise we will remain invisible. Once we do that we start to build our profiles as experts and opinion setters, but what happens after that? Are you ready to speak publicly?

 

The next DLI webinar is a skill building one to assist you to be confident in Talking to Media. The webinar includes some basic skills, and tips and tricks to hone your message and get it across. No previous experience is required; we all have to start somewhere. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your field is, if you hate talking publicly or have a communication barrier, or whether you do media a lot or rarely, being prepared to speak about your opinion or your work is important. Join us on 30 June.

Christina Ryan is the founder of the Disability Leadership Institute and a 2017 Westpac Social Change Scholar.

Where are the leaders with disabilities?

Name 5 disability leaders. Now take out the paralympians.

Australians with disabilities sit on boards, lead teams, run organisations, and represent our communities from the local level right up to representing our country in international forums and at the United Nations.

 

Yet, when seeking diversity for our corporations, our board rooms, and as community leaders, disability is often forgotten. Some suggest that there are no leaders with disabilities; that the skill base is simply not there. Leaders with disabilities are rarely in the room, so they remain invisible. Few disability leaders are known; even fewer are appointed or recognised.

People with disabilities have almost no presence in politics, high levels of business or government, or as members of boards or advisory groups. Often it is assumed that there are simply no people with disabilities qualified to operate at these levels, or that people with disabilities can only be experts in disability related areas.

Take a moment now, close your eyes and name five Australian leaders with disabilities.

Now take out the Paralympians.

Not because Paralympians aren’t fantastic and aren’t leaders, far from it, but in Australia today this is the only structured route to leadership if you are a person with disability.

Australia has never had a cohesive ongoing program to identify, support and develop leaders with disabilities. Discussions with colleagues in the disability rights movement could only identify five short term, geographic specific, leadership projects for people with disabilities in over two decades. There are leadership programs for women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and people from culturally diverse backgrounds. In many cases there are also targets or quotas to improve the leadership presence of these other diversity groups, including the LGBTI community, but disability remains forgotten.

In 2016 the Disability Leadership Institute undertook a national survey of disability leaders. The outcomes were stark. Survey results clearly illustrated a lack of any systematic approach to disability leadership development across Australia. There is no likelihood of disability leadership levels of eighteen per cent, in proportion to their presence in the population, anytime soon.

The majority of survey respondents were undertaking leadership work using their own resources. While a small number were employed by organisations, the majority were undertaking leadership work in their communities without funding support. Most were working in disability related areas. Don’t forget, Australia has one of the lowest disability employment rates in the OECD, and about half of all people with disabilities live below the poverty line, so cost is a major barrier to participation.

Many established disability leaders are regularly mentoring several emerging leaders simultaneously to ensure some continuity for leaders with disabilities over time. It is widely recognised that this is the only real development opportunity currently available.

There was little executive management training and support, most had been gained on the job. Training and development for leaders with disabilities is ad hoc with no particular consistency in training received by anyone across governance, management or community representation roles. No specialist disability leadership training was mentioned by survey respondents.

It appears that neither public nor private sector employers have targeted people with disabilities as leaders, or provided training or leadership coaching to progress their careers. Over fifty five per cent of respondents to the DLI survey said that any training they received had not actually led to any leadership opportunities, or was irrelevant to the work they had subsequently undertaken in both leadership and representative roles.

Over seventy per cent of survey respondents had experienced barriers to undertaking leadership opportunities and development due to a lack of accessible format documents, discrimination, lack of reasonable adjustments including flexible hours, transport or travel difficulties, the extra hours required alongside regular commitments to achieve recognition or appointments, cost (most respondents were self-funding), the assumption that people were only experts in disability matters, and continuing suspicion that people with disabilities can’t make tough decisions. Respondents had been asked to deliver conference papers from the floor when accessible podiums were not provided, to pay for their own accessible format documents, to self-fund extra travel costs associated with interstate or international commitments, amongst other barriers.

A particular barrier for disability leaders is the ableist expectation that leadership is only possible within the current paradigm in which it sits. Leaders with disabilities were expected to operate without consideration that they might do so in a different way to existing norms, not just to accommodate their disability requirements, but as a result of viewing the world through a disability perspective. The 2016 survey showed that this lack of cultural awareness caused many leaders to abandon training or leadership opportunities due to discrimination and ableism. The term “exclusive” was used by several survey respondents.

Australia cannot continue to exclude eighteen per cent of its leadership potential. It cannot continue to hope that disability leaders will emerge fully formed to take their place alongside the rest of the community. The few disability leaders there are have arisen by accident, rather than by design and this is unacceptable. Alongside other diversity groups in our population, disability leaders require specific, targeted, culturally appropriate, ongoing development and support until critical mass is achieved. This support and development has never existed in Australia. It appears that it hasn’t even been considered.

If mainstream programs were working we wouldn’t be having this conversation – they aren’t, they haven’t yet, so it’s time for some specialist work to support one in five of Australia’s population to reach their potential, and to be seen as equals. The Disability Leadership Institute has been established by leaders with disabilities for leaders with disabilities to address the diversity imbalance. It’s time to change the way leadership is understood.

Christina Ryan is the founder of the Disability Leadership Institute and has been a leader in the Australia disability rights movement for over two decades. She is a 2017 Westpac Social Change Scholar.

This article was commissioned for, and first appeared in, the Australian Greens Magazine.

Networking is different for disability leaders

Disability Leaders face some distinct barriers to networking

Networking is a key element of leadership work and produces many of the opportunities that we all want to take up, so it’s a vital skill and ability for all of us to be engaged in.

 

Many leadership opportunities arise because someone knows someone and the network circles around to you. If you aren’t part of those networks then you are significantly disadvantaged.

 

Networking can be different for people with disabilities and the DLI 2016 survey of leaders illustrated a number of barriers to networking that we face, for example:

 

– the costs associated with attending

– the extra hours and energy needed – many events happen after hours

– being in the mainstream / prejudice

– crowds, noise.

 

These are just some of the issues raised as barriers to being in the room and being able to network effectively.

 

There are now a number of apps that scan business cards to assist leaders who need alternative formats or who can’t carry cards, but not all are suitable for the needs of leaders with disabilities, so don’t assume technology solves everything.

 

The cost of networking is a distinct barrier that is very difficult to overcome. If you can’t afford to be in the room, regularly, then you won’t get to meet the people that you need to meet. People quickly forget someone that isn’t seen often, and that means they forget that you might be a suitable candidate for something. While online social networking does assist in some ways, it simply doesn’t replace being in the room and meeting people.

 

Above all, networking is something you get better at with practice. So, barriers experienced by leaders with disabilities must be addressed so that we can get the practice, and through that get the opportunities that networking provides.

Christina Ryan is the Founder of the Disability Leadership Institute, a specialist leadership and coaching consultant, and a 2017 Westpac Social Change Scholar