Not being disabled is a deal breaker

The new NDIS CEO must be a disabled person and they will be the best person for the job.

several chess pieces, one piece is alone away from the group

by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO


When the newly appointed CEO of the NDIS resigned after 18 months the call went out from disabled people for the new CEO to be one of us, a disabled person. Its time to stop with the experiments on our lives and start to give the NDIS the tools and space it needs to reach its potential.


As ever, there were those who simply assumed that there was no disabled person qualified to take on this role. They insisted that it wasn’t a deal breaker if the new CEO was not a person with disability. Clearly it can’t be given there is no such person available, well that’s what is assumed.


The new CEO of the NDIS must be a disabled person, and that person will certainly be the best person for the job.


Australia isn’t very good at employing people with disabilities. Its even worse at appointing people with disabilities to executive positions. This isn’t because there are no candidates, it’s because we are obsessed with appointing on “merit”.


The Male Champions of Change undertook research in 2016 which showed that appointing on merit results in one outcome: people who look like you do. Merit based appointments assume that there is a single path to seniority and that this path looks like the one that all predecessors took, including having certain qualifications, and the types of positions and industries required to get there.


While the Male Champions are concerned with gender equality and increasing the numbers of women in senior appointments, the same principles apply to other areas of diversity including disability. The merit trap, as the Male Champions call it, effectively locks people from diverse experiences out of positions, particularly executive positions.


It is time to redefine merit or to dispense with it altogether.


In the case of the NDIS, being disabled should be a primary selection criterion, a high value contributor to being appointed. This isn’t only about having a disability perspective, about understanding the experience of marginalisation, discrimination and oppression, although that is critically important. It is also about the symbolic importance of having “one of us” inside the NDIS at the very top, making key decisions about how the NDIS supports disabled people to live our lives, and providing the primary guidance for this major disability reform. Having a CEO with disability is fundamentally about being able to trust that the NDIS is working with us and for us.


Suggestions that appointing on merit also means that this person won’t be disabled, assumes that there are not disability leaders currently in CEO positions, or who have expertise and competence in shifting the culture of organisations. The presumption that no disability leader exists who will have a broader understanding of the lives of other disabled people is also erroneous, when there are many who are currently running organisations providing a broad array of services to disabled people, including services for those with cognitive and/or psychosocial disability. These are some of the most inclusive CEOs around and the NDIS would benefit enormously from their expertise.


The NDIS needs significant cultural reform so that it provides an holistic participant experience, rather than a wall of bureaucracy. The NDIS also needs significant internal reform so that it attracts and retains its staff, particularly those with disabilities. These reforms require someone who knows disability intimately, who is not only disabled but has experience as a leader, and who is trusted by the disability community to be competent for the task that is ahead.


This is not a job for someone from outside the disability community, who has confidence but no competence in working with disabled people (Deloitte Insight 2019). It must be a person who understands how to build systems that support disability engagement, rather than block it. Turning the NDIS around, to fulfil the vision that we all held for it, will require a level of competence that is yet to be applied in this position. As Kurt Fearnley recently said, “we tried the corporate route and it hasn’t worked.”


The next CEO of the NDIS can and should be a disabled person, because only a person with disability can do all these things.


Suggestions that it won’t be a deal breaker if the new NDIS CEO isn’t a disabled person are totally wrong and exhibit an attitude that is part of the continuing problem. Disabled people have been patient and hopeful, yet we have remained consistently marginalised by those who think they know best how the NDIS should work for us. Clearly, they don’t because the NDIS is a mess. Using it is difficult and highly bureaucratic. It has become what the Productivity Commission warned against: a bigger version of the old system rather than a new system that places control in the hands of the user.


NDIS staff turnover is very high and many disabled staff struggle to feel valued. The culture both inside and out is overbearing and judgmental about disability. The Agency has become more of a 1980s behemoth than a 21st century leader. There is a high level of disillusionment right across the disability community about whether the potential of the NDIS will ever be realised.


Doing more of the same will not work and will lead to a further erosion of the NDIS and the hope and vision that it should be providing for disabled Australians.


Time for the people who think they understand, and know best, to move out of the way and let the real experts in disability get on with making the NDIS what it could be.









Author: hchristinar

The professional hub for disability leaders. Time to change the way leadership is understood.

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