Integrating disability and leadership

Beginning the development of disability leaders.

coloured puzzle pieces fitted together, an orange L shape is over by itself.

By Christina Ryan, CEO Disability Leadership Institute

Until recently disability leadership hasn’t been a recognised field of endeavour. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been happening, rather it means that the practice of leadership by disabled people hasn’t been included in leadership discussions, nor has it been an area of development or research.


There are still many people who struggle to see disabled people as leaders or leadership material. This is a cultural phenomenon grown over several hundred years as a result of sequestering disabled people away from the community on the assumption that disability equates to an inability to operate in the wider world as equals.


To be disabled has been to be shamed and stigmatised, and this experience continues, particularly in the workplace. There are still very few disability leaders who openly identify as disabled in their workplaces. Often it is those who have no choice because their disability is evident, or they require specific adjustments and must seek employer support. Those who require adjustments are a very small proportion of disabled people. Likewise, those whose disability is visibly evident are a small proportion of disabled people. So, most people don’t openly identify and the ability to harness their diversity is lost.


Striving for an open environment where disability leaders feel safe and comfortable being themselves in the workplace is not new.


The work being undertaken by the Disability Leadership Institute, in developing leaders who use their disability as an aspect of their leadership, is new.


The historic sequestration of disability away from the mainstream, and the assumption that disabled people cannot be leaders making tough decisions or taking responsibility, has acted as a barrier to disability leadership being recognised or embraced.


In reognising that disability leadership exists, and working to develop disability leaders, it is first necessary to recognise that disability leaders are experts at masking their disability, at putting it to one side to avoid stigma or other consequences. In order to succeed many disability leaders have become highly adept at putting those around them at ease. Operating in an ableist world, which still considers disability to be “other”, these leaders take responsibility for their disability not hindering the work around them.


When developing disability leaders, who use their disability as an asset in their leadership and embrace its ability to provide a different perspective, lateral thinking ability and strong problem-solving capacity, the first step has often been to address the historic shaming and stigma associated with disability.


As disability leaders first commence their relationship with the Disability Leadership Institute many are in a cycle of apologising. This isn’t about their lack of confidence in the world, these are highly competent and qualified people, rather it is about addressing a hyper awareness that their disability makes others uncomfortable. A further complication is the ableist expectation that because they are the “other” person, they are somehow responsible for addressing the discomfort that they are perceived to have caused. Fundamentally, disability leaders have developed expertise in navigating the unsafe environments they work in by minimising their disability to the greatest extent possible and apologising to put others at ease.


Many leaders commencing programs or coaching with the DLI start every sentence by saying sorry, sometimes repeatedly. Moving away from apology is difficult and takes real time for many leaders. This is a vital first step; however, before leaders are able to progress to a point of embracing their disability and how it operates as a leadership asset. Once a leader is comfortable with using other ways to navigate these environments, they become adept at embracing the amount of space they inhabit, and the flexibility they require to operate at their best. This is when they move towards integrating their whole self into their leadership practice.


The ability to talk openly, without justifying disability and how it behaves, in a supportive environment, is a critical underpinning of all Disability Leadership Institute work, including the Future Shapers program and DLI member groups. This is the importance of specialist leadership development. Without it the integration of disability and leadership will remain unrecognised and out of reach, and disability leaders continue to be denied the ability to approach their leadership holistically.

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Author: hchristinar

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

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