Disabled people are far less likely to be employed than other people, “53% of working-age people with disability are in the labour force, compared with 83% of those without disability. 25% of people with severe or profound disability are in the labour force, compared with 63% with other disability” (AIHW 2019).
This low participation rate means that most workplaces have few disabled people present. It is even less likely that those disabled people will be in senior positions. Having worked with disabled leaders for several years it becomes clear that the more senior someone is, the more likely it is that they will be the only disabled person in their team, or branch, or section.
Being the only one creates hazards that organisations should be mindful of:
- The expectation to represent all disabled people.
This phenomenon is experienced by people from all minorities when they have low workplace presence, including women working in non-traditional fields. One person is seen by those around them to be the apologist or educator for all people from that demographic group.
Being the only person with disability means being asked to explain what disability is like, why others with disability are not working or contributing, or why there needs to be specialist responses and training, for example. Disability leaders report being asked what its like being blind when they are not themselves blind, or why some people require certain supports when others do not.
These demands are exhausting and quickly become a form of harassment. Organisations should ensure that their team leaders and supervisors prevent this type of questioning. Your disability workforce is not responsible for representing disabled people generally. They are there to work.
- Being held as the poster person who sells the organisation’s diversity.
The quest to be viewed as an inclusive organisation with a diverse workforce takes many forms. Organisations work hard and invest significant resources to develop and sustain diversity. An entire industry of conferences, external assessments, and awards has grown around successfully building diversity and most organisations want to participate.
The challenge for many disability leaders is their rarity. Disabled people are repeatedly asked, or expected, to appear on posters, speak at diversity events, or attend graduation intake inductions to share their story when organisations want to prove how diverse they are. Disability leaders are often asked to speak at morning teas on International Day of People with Disability simply because they are disabled people.
Many Disability Leadership Institute members report being hired as accountants, or IT specialists, or managers, yet being frequently asked to take time out of their regular duties to speak or appear at events, both internal and external, so that their organisation can be seen to be building diversity. For some it has become a constant distraction that prevents them from undertaking their regular duties properly. More pertinently this can build resentment with other team members who cover their duties in their absence. Bullying and harassment rates for workers with disabilities are at least twice that as for their colleagues (IGPA 2016), so providing opportunities for resentment is unhelpful to say the least.
Being disabled does not equate to wanting to be put on display to prove an organisation is diverse. Be mindful that this person was recruited for their expertise in accounting, or IT or management not as a diversity salesperson. If an organisation is truly diverse and inclusive it will sell itself through strong workforce retention and a reputation as an employer of choice.
- An expectation to deliver disability awareness training for anyone who requests it.
Being disabled does not equate to being an expert in all aspects of disability, nor in being an educator on how to be inclusive. If an organisation wants to deliver awareness training it should hire professionals who carry this specialist expertise. If a person was recruited to be an accountant, or IT specialist, or manager they should be respected for that expertise.
Additionally, disability leaders should not be considered “on call” to answer any questions arising within an organisation, whether that is formally on behalf of the organisation, or individual colleagues dropping by with a quick query. Disability leaders are there to do their job like everyone else with the same challenges on time management and focus that all employees face.
Naturally, all employees with disability should be consulted by an organisation about any upgrades or improvements to the workplace to ensure personal needs are met, and not eroded, but they are not experts who can speak on behalf of everyone and should not be expected to do so.
- The need to constantly assert access requirements and prove that they are necessary.
Just because someone has reached senior levels does not mean their disability has disappeared or been “overcome”. The person continues to require workplace adjustments so that they can operate effectively in their position. It can be difficult to assert this need within an environment of fast-moving responses required at management level, or when executive leadership needs to be politely reminded by subordinates.
It is an organisation’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace for its employees. For its employees with disability this means adjustments regardless of their level in the organisation. Adjustments take many forms including flexible working conditions, different meeting processes, or ensuring interpreters or translating equipment are present. Significant levels of research indicate that more diverse teams produce better outcomes, and often workplace adjustments provide improvements (for example to meeting practice) which introduce broader innovation and efficiencies.
Being the only person with disability at senior levels can be fatiguing, and often uncovers continuing prejudice and ignorance about disability within organisations. It is the responsibility of organisations to address this, rather than individual disability leaders. The benefits can be numerous including greater diversity, staff retention and a more innovative workplace.
Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute
Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person.