Preferential Treatment?

Sending a clear message that disability is wanted in decision making rooms.

Achieving diversity employment outcomes remains a challenge. Few organisations are achieving outcomes in disability diversity, particularly in achieving career paths to leadership. Many tactics have been tried and little has changed in several decades.

It’s time to think differently to achieve disability leadership outcomes, including the use of targeted succession planning by identifying high potential talent. Yet, employers baulk at such solutions as being “preferential treatment” of disabled people.

How can it be preferential to target high potential disabled employees to achieve a goal that has not been achieved using any other method?

Identifying high potential disabled talent in order to build their capacity through on the job training and mentoring for specific positions, is a clear option for rapidly growing the disability leadership workforce. It has been successfully used in other diversity areas across the board. A common response to this suggestion is “won’t that disadvantage those people who are not openly identifying as disabled who might also be high potential.”


Making it clear that an organisation values disability and wants to promote disabled people into more senior positions sends a clear message that disability is wanted in the room, including the leadership and decision-making rooms of the organisation.

This message is uncommon, and its absence has resulted in large numbers of disabled people concealing their disability in the workplace. Disability is not currently valued and this has significant ramifications for disabled employees including high rates of bullying and harassment. Many DLI members report hitting a ceiling if they openly identify as disabled, and substantial numbers report losing their jobs once their disability became evident.

The message currently is that disability is not wanted at senior levels.

Changing the message to one of valuing disability will have a profound impact on whether people stay with an employer, on building inclusive culture in organisations, and on the morale of disabled staff at more junior levels.

Organisations regularly report at least half of their disabled staff not openly identifying. They only know they exist due to anonymous staff surveys. Why openly identify when it could be career ending?

Illustrating the value of disability diversity at the top of the organisation as a desirable asset, by openly supporting high potential disabled talent, will shift the numbers of staff openly identifying as disabled and contribute towards a more inclusive culture overall. If someone feels wanted and valued, they will be more comfortable in being fully themselves.

That isn’t preferential treatment. Its valuing difference.

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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

Author: hchristinar

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

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