In the course of establishing the Disability Leadership Institute, and undertaking my year of Westpac Social Change Fellowship, I’ve talked to many people who have responsibility for diversity in large companies, across governments, and in the community sector.
Very early in my Fellowship year I realised that the prevailing assumption is that people with disabilities don’t do leadership. There were no programs, targets, or plans for developing disability leadership talent to be found anywhere. A startling discovery, but probably not that surprising to the disability community.
All apparent effort was, and still is, focussed on entry level positions. “Get a job” has been the policy, program and budgeting imperative of governments for over 30 years. The assumption is that people with disabilities must start at the bottom, and there are seemingly no plans for career development or gradual change at this stage. Of course, there are only so many entry level jobs to go around, but this also denies many highly qualified and experienced people with disabilities any real opportunity. It’s probably a contributing factor to why Australia stagnates at the back of the OECD pack when it comes to disability employment levels.
In a recent discussion with a senior state bureaucrat, responsible for all disability and inclusion policy for a State government, it became clear that these policies spring from deep rooted prejudice.
The relevant State minister had asked the bureaucrat to speak to me about the National Register of Disability Leaders and the recently launched Future Shapers program. We spent an hour on the phone discussing various aspects of disability, but it was almost impossible to generate a spark of interest in disability leadership.
This bureaucrat had been doing their job for some time and had reached a level of seniority where they felt they know their field well. They certainly spoke as though they were an expert in their understanding of disability and barriers to participation. Yet, I couldn’t get them to move away from talking about entry level employment and the astonishing amount of energy and resources that were being devoted to that in this State.
My struggle became clear when this person said: “there just aren’t that many jobs in the public sector that people with disabilities can do.”
Awkward moment, my brain starts whirling, and I didn’t say: “well I know quite a few disabled people who could do your job better for a start.” Best not, let’s keep it nice.
Its one thing to completely miss the potential for disability leadership, it’s another thing to actively deny the possibility that most jobs can be done by disabled people at all.
Every job, each and every job, everywhere, can be done by a person with disability. All of them. Every single one.
All jobs attract people who must be suited to them in various ways. All jobs require specialist skills, or physique, or approach, or qualifications. All jobs have a narrower field of preferred candidates than the entire population. That’s the purpose behind recruitment and selection processes.
Given the enormous diversity within the largest minority on the planet it is highly unlikely that there is no person with disability who could whatever job is at hand.
So, how is it that disability automatically rules someone out?
Prejudice, that’s how.
Until we address the underlying, deep rooted prejudice that insists on entry level work, within a limited range of positions, nothing will change.
It appears that the people who are responsible for making change may also be those who carry some of the greatest prejudice against the potential of disabled people. It’s those who “know best” that present some of the greatest barriers to the inclusion of people with disabilities.
Have you checked your prejudice lately? Have you been thinking there are some jobs that disabled people can’t do? Have you been assuming that disabled people can’t do leadership?
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