We should create the mainstream

We could solve inclusion tomorrow


It happened again this week. I was around yet another conversation about how the mainstream wasn’t working for disabled people. It feels like these conversations happen just about every day. On this occasion disability leaders were enrolled in a mainstream course and some were finding it very difficult to participate.


Traditionally, people with disabilities have been segregated. We were put in institutions so that the community didn’t have to see us or deal with us. More recently this morphed into “special” education, sports, transport and employment. Many of us still live in small institutions called group houses.


Then along came disability rights. Suddenly we had a right to be part of the broader community and they were expected to include us. Problem is they’re just no good at it. This means we spend a lot of our time and energy alerting people to discriminatory behaviour, exclusion and general ableism. Yet, it’s still somehow our responsibility to campaign constantly for access, attitude shifting and the right to participate.


This is particularly chronic with employment and leadership work. The only option we’ve had for a long time is to try hard to fit into the mainstream. It’s what most of us are doing today. Many influential people insist this must be the only option. Problem is the mainstream doesn’t cope well with us and we spend just as much time battling to make it work as we do using it and being in it. Let’s remember that overheard conversation again.


Right now, it’s all about us having to go to the rest of the world and asking to be allowed in.


What if we flipped it?


Sure, we should be in the mainstream, but how about we create that mainstream? How about it’s a mainstream that is built by us, that we then include the rest of the world in? What if we include them in our mainstream, rather than they include us in their failed version?


What would it look like if it was our safe space first, that we then opened the door to others for general access? Why is it us going to the rest of the world? Why doesn’t the rest of the world come to us?


One of the things I discovered during my Westpac Fellowship last year is that disability leaders have a strong focus on the individual – on making sure that any given environment works for each person in it. Its what we do best because we know that we are a highly diverse community and we want to make sure everyone is part of it. Disability leaders do inclusion instinctively.


Think about it. While the rest of the world is busting a gut to understand and do inclusion, most disability leaders are doing it all day every day as part of standard operations. We know what it means, what it looks like and how to do it.


So, if you want to run a program, consultation, department, big bank, festival: get disability leaders to run it! We’ll build the mainstream, and then we’ll open the door to the rest of the world to come inside. We could solve inclusion tomorrow. Just like that.


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Should I openly identify as disabled?

Without role models culture won’t change.

One of the perennial topics of conversation in the disability community is whether someone should openly identify as disabled in their workplace. It’s a thorny issue and for good reason.


So, many people with disabilities have made the decision to openly identify and then experienced serious consequences, even losing their jobs over it. Of course, you can’t be sacked specifically because of your disability, there is legislation in many countries to prevent this, but you can be made to feel very very unwelcome and decide to leave. Many people have stories to share about themselves or about colleagues in the disability community.


Employment rates are low for disabled people, retention rates aren’t much better. What can we do to avoid the constant recruitment trap? Losing staff and constantly needing to recruit is hardly the solution, there must be other ways to build disability workforce so that we are also building disability leadership.


Recently I’ve been talking with disability leaders about being role models in their workplaces. Given that most people with disabilities are not visibly disabled this is a big ask. Yet it’s crucial to have senior role models so that culture changes and so that new recruits can see what is possible for them in an organisation. This is the “be what you can see” strategy. This strategy has worked increasingly well for women and for Indigenous peoples over the last couple of decades. We need to start using it for employees with disabilities as well.


Unfortunately, this places enormous pressure on disability leaders when they have already pushed very hard to get where they are, and just want to get on with being another employee, not a crusader.


Why must individual disabled people put their careers and financial security on the line?


Being part of a network, having peers at your level, and being part of a broader professional disability community (like the Disability Leadership Institute) are all contributions to how you can be supported if you decide to openly identify. However, none of these will prevent discrimination or ableist responses. Networks may provide assistance in knowing you are not alone and help with sharing solutions, but they don’t change the attitudes of others.


Of course, many people do not have the option of choosing to disclose as we are readily identifiable. In some ways this makes it easier as we don’t live with the anxiety of being exposed or choosing to make the decision to be open, but in other ways it makes it much harder as the prejudice starts before we even get in the room. We are left out of invitations or excluded from new projects because it is assumed we aren’t the best and brightest. All without someone knowing anything about us, except that we are disabled.


There is no easy answer, if there was we wouldn’t still be having the conversation.


People with disabilities are all different. As the single largest minority on the planet today, we are not generic, we are incredibly diverse. Our community is highly intersectional. Our one common thread is our disability and the prejudice and exclusion that it brings. Unfortunately, many of the responses to disability in the workplace are generic, rather than built round the individual, and this compounds the barriers to achieving career success and leadership positions.


We can’t shift the culture until we have critical mass, we won’t achieve critical mass while the culture remains as it is.


We need disabled people in far greater numbers in the public domain to achieve the culture shift that is desperately needed. However, this won’t happen until we are in a wide variety of positions and fields in strong numbers and openly recognised for our contribution to local, national and global leadership. People with disabilities are already in many of these places but are not openly identifying as disabled because the risks are so high, and why should they?


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Stop Recruiting People with Disabilities!

Constant recruitment is just hitting the same nail with a bigger sledgehammer.

Throughout the course of my Westpac Social Change Fellowship year I met with many organisations, government agencies and global corporates. One common thread emerged from these meetings: all but two were struggling to employ meaningful numbers of people with disabilities and all were constantly working to recruit people at the entry level as a way of increasing their disability employment percentages.


At the same time all these organisations had a strong percentage of people identifying as disabled during their annual survey of staff. Yet the numbers showing up in the survey were not translating into people openly identifying as disabled on a day to day basis.




Case study:


Dianne works internationally for a global corporate as a senior partner. She is responsible for an entire division and has been with the company for 15 years. Recently, Dianne’s disability has become more pronounced and she is unable to conceal it anymore, so she’s started talking to her close colleagues and superiors about workplace adjustments. Dianne is still able to perform her role and to make the decisions required of her, but suddenly her company is not including her in key meetings and she is no longer being given responsibility for new initiatives. Her client load dries up. Dianne feels that she is no longer welcome, and she resigns from her position feeling forced out because she has no clients or responsibility anymore.


Case study:


Brian is a senior executive in the public sector with a long career of achievement and recognition. Following a recent break, he’s realised that he needs to be open about his psychosocial disability and the need to adjust his work hours more flexibly so that he can sustain his high-pressure position. There’s just a few things that he needs to be careful about, otherwise he’s fine to meet the demands of the job. It takes enormous courage to talk openly about his disability, but he’s conscious that he can also act as a role model for other staff in the department, so he goes ahead with his decision to be open. The following month Brian isn’t assigned a position when the department spills positions and shuffles the SES around as part of machinery of government changes. Despite being one of the most valued leaders until now, he suddenly becomes redundant. Brian realises that this wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t made the decision to be open about his disability.


People are not open about their disability in the workplace because it isn’t safe for them to be so. These are real case studies (deidentified) from leaders associated with the Disability Leadership Institute. Both case studies are less than five years old. They are not unusual stories.


If Dianne and Brian had been supported when making the decision to be open about their disability both these organisations would have retained leadership talent, had senior role models for junior staff to look up to (you can’t be what you can’t see), and would have increased their disability workforce percentage. More critically both organisations would also have had access to the innovation and perspective that disabled workers contribute at higher levels than non-disabled workforce, and this would have improved their efficiency and bottom line.


Rather than continually recruiting entry level staff with disabilities, organisations should be working hard to retain the existing numbers of disabled workers that they already have. The people are there, they just aren’t being open about their disability because it is clearly not safe to do so. If organisations focussed on changing culture their disability workforce percentages would increase overnight. More critically, retention of new staff coming in at entry level would increase because the culture was supportive, and disability was valued.


Focussing on recruitment provides a constant stream of junior staff who must then individually change the culture around them from a position of least power. Recruitment takes substantial resources and takes a long time to contribute to culture shift in a meaningful way. It also doesn’t address the revolving door of more senior disabled staff who have a contribution to make.


Focussing on retention of existing staff, by changing culture, shifts an organisation to a position of consolidation of existing resources. It offers role models, enhanced innovation, and through this builds an attractive workplace that people with disabilities will aspire to.


Constant recruitment is not the solution to low disability workforce numbers. It is simply hitting the same nail with a bigger and bigger sledgehammer.


Until culture is addressed, organisations will continue to experience far lower percentages of openly identified disabled workforce than the real percentages they are uncovering in annual staff surveys.



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The Disability Leadership Institute offers disability consulting to assist with culture change in your organisation. We will build a solution to suit your unique needs.




6 reasons why you shouldn’t hire people with disabilities

Why are you hiring people with disability?

Many organisations are working to hire more people with disabilities. Some have quotas or targets, others have procedures in place as they try to increase the numbers of people with disabilities in their workforce. A few organisations now have disability action plans outlining recruitment measures and processes as they work on building and retaining staff with disabilities.


As I’ve spoken to organisations over the last year I’ve heard many views on hiring people with disabilities. On why it should happen, and about why it might be difficult. I’ve also been asked to advise on disability action plans and trouble shoot recruitment and retention strategies. Every organisation is different, but it seems there are some stark similarities when it comes to disability recruitment.


Why is your organisation hiring people with disabilities, what is the purpose behind it? Here are 6 reasons that I heard in 2017:


  1. It’s the right thing to do


  1. People with disabilities have a right to independence


  1. We have an employment quota set by the Minister


  1. Our competitors are all doing it, so we’ve set a target too


  1. Its good for the confidence of people with disabilities to work


  1. We have diversity targets, so we should be doing this


These are all reasons why you shouldn’t be hiring people with disabilities.


Sure, you should be doing the right thing, and you should be concerned about the independence and confidence of people with disabilities. You should also have diversity targets, and even quotas for disability employment. Keeping up with competitor’s ways of doing business is very important, but is it really a very good reason to hire anyone?


Notice something else about these reasons?


They are mostly about how you behave towards people with disabilities, or about improving social outcomes. In some cases, they are statements about people with disabilities needing assistance or requiring a start in life. None of these statements is a good recruitment strategy, and none will ensure long term retention of people.


Would you want to be hired for these reasons? Would you feel valued in your workplace if this was why you were there? Would you feel like an equal team member?


Would you be open about your disability in a workplace that hired for these reasons?


Probably not.


So, why should you be hiring people with disabilities?


  1. Diverse teams solve problems faster, up to twice as fast.


  1. Diversity is very good for your business bottom line


  1. People with disabilities are more innovative


You should be hiring people with disabilities because it’s good for business. Because your organisation will be more efficient, and it will improve your bottom line. You should be hiring people with disabilities because you want to improve your innovation and problem-solving capacity, and through that improve your bottom line. You should hire people with disabilities because you want to increase your general competitiveness rankings by having a team that solves problems faster and is more innovative.


It’s not about the right thing to do – it’s about building a more robust organisation that can respond to issues with greater agility, by building better solutions faster, and more efficiently. It’s about wanting people with disabilities on your team because they contribute substantially to the outcomes your business or organisation is working towards.


Without people with disabilities you are missing out on a large part of the diversity equation and the benefits which diversity brings. Hire people with disabilities because you value what they contribute, and hire them because they will deliver what your business needs. Hire people with disabilities because its good for business and will build a better future. Hire people with disabilities because you can’t afford not to in an increasingly competitive environment which puts a high value on innovation.


More importantly, make sure you have people with disabilities guiding your organisation and making some of its key decisions. You need people with disabilities in your leadership team to really get the most from having a diverse workforce, and you need leaders with disabilities because it will help to shape your organisation more innovatively for the future.


Need help: The Disability Leadership Institute provides consulting services to organisations wanting to improve their diversity outcomes. Contact us today.


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Is Inclusion the problem?

Who should be driving inclusion? Are we approaching it the right way?

In examining diversity, and the structures to make it happen, one word keeps coming up – Inclusion.


There is a strong recognition that diversity won’t really be achieved, it won’t stick, without inclusion as part of the package. All of the collective wisdom is telling us so, and it’s one of the most popular buzzwords in conversations, yet for decades there hasn’t been any real shift in the numbers of people with disabilities being employed or ending up in leadership positions.


So, what’s happening?


Is inclusion part of the problem?


One of the biggest issues with inclusion, as it is practiced now, is that it relies on those with power to open their door to those without power. The excluded are outside knocking on the door and asking to be let in, waiting to be included. Ultimately this disempowers the already less powerful in the diversity relationship.


In examining the diversity sector over the last year, it seems that diversity practitioners aren’t very diverse. There isn’t a very strong presence of minority groups within the diversity industry. Is this part of the barrier to those minority groups, including people with disabilities, being included?


It’s time to disrupt the thinking about inclusion so that it becomes more effective as a tool. Are we relying on inclusion as a process, rather than aiming towards it as an outcome? Are we relying solely on good intentions about inclusion to make it a reality? Perhaps its time to redefine what inclusion looks like and shift its ownership to those being included, away from those doing the including.


The only way to shift power imbalances is to address the inequality that underlies them. This means having people from disempowered population groups in positions of power, so that they drive the inclusion, so that they control the door to be opened. This is particularly the case for people with disabilities who hold almost no positions of leadership, respect or authority within government, business or non-government sectors.


The inclusion of people with disabilities is being left to people without disabilities to drive.


How do we shift this?


Rather than focussing all available efforts, resources, time and goodwill on getting people with disabilities in the door at entry level – the least powerful positions with little capacity to open the door to others – it’s time to focus significant efforts on appointing people with disabilities to leadership positions across executives, boards, parliaments and community leadership.


A strong example of how this can be achieved is the Merit Trap as discussed by the Male Champions of Change who have recognised that simply looking for another person with the same skills and qualifications is a good way to overlook new thinking, innovation, and potentially the right candidate.


By appointing people from minority groups to positions of power and authority we will create “door openers”. By being wary of the Merit Trap, we are recognising that a person from a minority group, a person with disability, may not be the most obvious candidate for a position, but they may be the most innovative one to take us into the future.


So, inclusion isn’t the problem, its how we are doing inclusion that is the problem. We aren’t using it to shift power, we are currently using it to disempower the very people we are working to include. It is being used by those with power as a process, rather than ceded to the disempowered as an outcome


It is our approach to inclusion that is the problem, not inclusion itself.


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Diversity or assimilation?

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

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.

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.