By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO
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.
For regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute sign up for our bulletins