by Christina Ryan, CEO/Founder of the Disability Leadership Institute
Three years ago I had a 3 am moment. Violence is a direct outcome of inequality. The less equal people are, the more violence they experience. There is a wealth of data relating to gender based violence which has repeatedly said this, yet we haven’t had a similar conversation about disability and inequality.
To address the appalling levels of violence and marginalisation in the disability community we needed disabled people to be in the rooms making the decisions, allocating the budgets, influencing the public conversation. We needed disabled people to be seen as high calibre valued contributors in the public domain.
After 25 years of working to address violence against people with disabilities, I realised that we need to stop hacking away at the symptoms of inequality and tackle it head on. That means leadership. It means getting equal.
While I still do some violence related work, supporting my community and sharing my expertise, now I focus on sharing my leadership skills by coaching and developing leaders in our community. And there are plenty of them.
Curiously, there had never been an ongoing disability leadership development program in Australia. There had been several short-term pilots or specific entry level programs, but nothing to support disability leaders in our work or to provide ongoing development. Looking globally, the story is the same.
Those programs that did exist were developed and run by non-disabled people. Most focused at entry level leadership and targeted developing skills and getting employed. Its almost as if there was an assumption that there were no disabled people operating in leadership positions, or that there ever would be.
Certainly, there wasn’t a single internal disability leadership program or pathway in any of the corporate or government organisations that I spoke to as part of my Westpac Social Change Fellowship, despite them all having women specific programs, many working on Indigenous leadership development, and some having programs for culturally diverse people.
Fast forward to 2019. The Disability Leadership Institute is having our third birthday. Its an astonishing thing to realise that an early morning idea has become a reality for members in over 20 countries. That we’ve had around 50 people work through our coaching program and are about to start our second Future Shapers leadership program. We’re heading for the second National Awards for Disability Leadership and our first Disability Entrepreneurs Festival.
More importantly, we’ve put the term “disability leadership” on the map and now hear it referred to in the mainstream.
There is so much more to do. Recently I attended a forum where disability leadership was acknowledged as possible “to the best extent they can”. It was a timely reminder that there is still an incredible level of prejudice in the wider community about the ability of disabled people to “do” leadership and be seen as innovators and game changers.
We still have very very few disability leaders in appointed positions of leadership. Disability is rarely included in discussions on diversity. Many disability leaders face high levels of bullying and harassment. Continued practices of appointing on “merit” exclude highly qualified disabled people from positions on ASX boards, political appointments, and as senior bureaucrats.
Bizarrely, I am also regularly asked why we need specialist disability leadership development. Clearly the inability of the mainstream to achieve any outcomes in this area over several decades hasn’t been noticed. Absence translates to invisibility. Its easy to forget that disability leaders aren’t in the room when nobody ever mentions it, and very few see disability leadership as a thing.
We’ve started the change and look forward to what the future brings.
I’d like to thank everyone who has been a part of the Disability Leadership Institute in our first three years. Your enthusiasm, encouragement, and friendship have made this a really fun ride. We couldn’t have done it without you.
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