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.

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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

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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.

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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

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.

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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

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.

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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

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.

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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

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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