By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO
“People with disabilities need training and confidence building.”
I hear this one all the time, and its rubbish. Disability leaders are everywhere, but are regularly shut out of key opportunities, career paths, and even consultation processes. Not because we can’t do what’s required, but because of the assumption that we aren’t up to the job at hand.
An assumption that doesn’t reflect reality.
Recently, a key diversity organisation held a panel event about inclusive workplaces, and on face value this looked like a must-see event. On closer inspection, though, the language was all pitched at “get a job” entry level recruitment, and how to make sure your new employee was settling into the workplace. Sigh.
At a meeting last week, I was part of a conversation about getting more disabled people onto boards and committees. Great stuff! Once again, though, the conversation meandered into governance training and entry level board recruitment. Actually, plenty of disability leaders have formal governance qualifications, about 40 per cent of the National Register of Disability Leaders, we just can’t find boards that trust our expertise.
A roundtable I attended a few months back talked employment, but only in the context of entry level recruitment.
Then there was that bureaucrat I talked to recently who insisted that people with disabilities just can’t do most jobs in the public sector. I personally know 4 people who could have done their job without any trouble at all.
Sure, half of people with disabilities don’t participate in the labour force, but that means half of us do, and we haven’t just arrived, we’ve been there a while. So, why aren’t we doing better at finding our way to leadership positions?
Perhaps because the focus, and all resources, remains almost entirely at the entry level, and on training us and building our confidence. The continuing assumption that we need support to get going, to start, to find our way, is acting as a systemic barrier to our advancement within the organisations we are already in.
All the action plans, employment strategies, publicity campaigns, television series and conversation, talk entry level. I have yet to see one, and I’ve read lots, that goes beyond and recognises our career paths, expertise and value, which talks about leadership pathways or board room diversity.
Once you get us, you forget about us. That’s the message behind your entry level language.
Being stuck on entry level means there is no attention being given to career paths, targeting leadership talent and celebrating role models.
It also means the mainstream remains a lonely place and few disability leaders feel safe openly identifying in the workplace. Entry level language demeans disability leaders and homogenises us into a common stereotype as just starting out, unskilled, and requiring support. It might be good for your sense of charity and doing a good thing, but it doesn’t get us into the c-suite or the board room.
Mind your language. Address your unconscious bias about entry level and start talking leadership, career pathways and role models. If the assumption remains that we are all at the starting line, we will never get beyond it.
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