Identifying disability

“We know we’ve got more staff with disability.”

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


One of the most common questions I am asked is “what do you mean by disability”?


Many organisations know that they have a much higher presence of disabled people in their workforce than have openly identified. Still others are confused by whether disability covers the myriad of injuries that can befall anyone throughout their life; is psychosocial disability included, and what about workplace injuries?


The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) doesn’t split psychosocial disability out into another category, that is a peculiarly Australian aspect of disability not recognised by the rest of the world. So, people with psychosocial disability are people with disability.


Here’s a question for you:


How do you know someone on your team is gay or Indigenous?


No, it’s not a trick question.


Usually you know about people belonging to a diversity group because that person openly identifies, and they tell you or talk about it openly. They may also approach you for considerations relating to their diversity. This is how you know they exist and how you count them in your diversity statistics.


It’s the same for disability.


You know someone is disabled because they identify as a person with disability. They will tell you if they consider it relevant, talk about themselves in this context, and they might ask for certain adjustments to the workplace or their position to accommodate their disability needs (most people with disabilities don’t need any adjustments at all).


There are a few things that are generally understood when someone identifies as disabled. Disability is not the same as injury. In other words, people don’t expect to recover from their disability, it’s with them for the long haul. In fact, it can be quite offensive to a person with disability to suggest that they will recover or “get better” over time.


While injuries, including workplace injuries, can have a disabling effect, this is not the same as becoming disabled and identifying as a disabled person. Of course, work injured people should also receive reasonable adjustments and a return to work program, but they shouldn’t automatically be counted amongst your workforce with disabilities.


Most people with disabilities are not evident just by looking. You can’t tell they have a disability unless they tell you. For those who do “look” disabled you must still wait for them to identify as disabled before you make assumptions. There are people who do not see themselves as a person with disability, for whom it is not part of their identity, and it’s inappropriate to impose this identity on them regardless of how they appear at face value. Additionally, half of all people with disabilities have more than one disability, and most disabilities are not visually evident, so you can’t assume that someone in a wheelchair needs only certain access measures, they may have several other requirements.


So, how do you know a person is a person with disability?


They will tell you.


As an employer, or supervisor, it then becomes your responsibility to make sure that the person has any reasonable adjustment that they need and is not subjected to ableist behaviour, or bullying or harassment.


What about all those people who will identify anonymously in organisation surveys, but don’t openly identify as disabled people on a day to day basis?


They will if they feel comfortable and safe, so focus on a culture of inclusion and mutual respect. Are your workers valued for being disabled people? Do they know that they are considered an asset to the organisation because of their diversity and what it brings?  Focus on getting your culture right and the rest will follow.


The Team Leading Disability Masterclass is for managers and supervisors of diverse teams.







Where are disability leaders in the media?

How often do we see disability leaders as experts in the media?

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO

How often do we see people with disabilities in the media? Rarely.

How often do we see people with disabilities in the media as an expert talking about something that isn’t their disability? Almost never.


This is just one area of absence for disability leadership but it’s a key one. The lack of media visibility for disability leaders reinforces the public perception that we aren’t experts, and that we have no interests outside our own disability.


Yet as disability leaders we know that we have many interests, and areas of professional and personal expertise. While it will take substantial culture shift to address the assumption that we have no other interests this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared to talk to the media when an opportunity arises.


Talking to media is simply a skill that can be learned, like any other. Like any skill it takes time and practice and a bit of commitment, but it’s not rocket science. Of course, you don’t have to do it, but it can be very useful to know how to get your message across when needed.


One day 20 per cent of experts in the media will be people with disabilities. Across all fields and programs. It won’t be unusual to see someone with disability talking about their latest academic study, or representing a global corporation. Our personal stories won’t be demanded by journalists because they think we have nothing else to talk about and it’s the most interesting thing about us. We will be seen as opinion setters, experts, valuable analysts.


In today’s social media world our ability to jump in and share our opinion is vital, otherwise we will remain invisible. Once we do that we start to build our profiles as experts and opinion setters, but what happens after that? Are you ready to speak publicly?


The next DLI webinar is a skill building one to assist you to be confident in Talking to Media. The webinar includes some basic skills, and tips and tricks to hone your message and get it across. No previous experience is required; we all have to start somewhere. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your field is, if you hate talking publicly or have a communication barrier, or whether you do media a lot or rarely, being prepared to speak about your opinion or your work is important. Join us on 30 June.

Christina Ryan is the founder of the Disability Leadership Institute and a 2017 Westpac Social Change Scholar.

Where are the leaders with disabilities?

Name 5 disability leaders. Now take out the paralympians.

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO
Australians with disabilities sit on boards, lead teams, run organisations, and represent our communities from the local level right up to representing our country in international forums and at the United Nations.


Yet, when seeking diversity for our corporations, our board rooms, and as community leaders, disability is often forgotten. Some suggest that there are no leaders with disabilities; that the skill base is simply not there. Leaders with disabilities are rarely in the room, so they remain invisible. Few disability leaders are known; even fewer are appointed or recognised.

People with disabilities have almost no presence in politics, high levels of business or government, or as members of boards or advisory groups. Often it is assumed that there are simply no people with disabilities qualified to operate at these levels, or that people with disabilities can only be experts in disability related areas.

Take a moment now, close your eyes and name five Australian leaders with disabilities.

Now take out the Paralympians.

Not because Paralympians aren’t fantastic and aren’t leaders, far from it, but in Australia today this is the only structured route to leadership if you are a person with disability.

Australia has never had a cohesive ongoing program to identify, support and develop leaders with disabilities. Discussions with colleagues in the disability rights movement could only identify five short term, geographic specific, leadership projects for people with disabilities in over two decades. There are leadership programs for women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and people from culturally diverse backgrounds. In many cases there are also targets or quotas to improve the leadership presence of these other diversity groups, including the LGBTI community, but disability remains forgotten.

In 2016 the Disability Leadership Institute undertook a national survey of disability leaders. The outcomes were stark. Survey results clearly illustrated a lack of any systematic approach to disability leadership development across Australia. There is no likelihood of disability leadership levels of eighteen per cent, in proportion to their presence in the population, anytime soon.

The majority of survey respondents were undertaking leadership work using their own resources. While a small number were employed by organisations, the majority were undertaking leadership work in their communities without funding support. Most were working in disability related areas. Don’t forget, Australia has one of the lowest disability employment rates in the OECD, and about half of all people with disabilities live below the poverty line, so cost is a major barrier to participation.

Many established disability leaders are regularly mentoring several emerging leaders simultaneously to ensure some continuity for leaders with disabilities over time. It is widely recognised that this is the only real development opportunity currently available.

There was little executive management training and support, most had been gained on the job. Training and development for leaders with disabilities is ad hoc with no particular consistency in training received by anyone across governance, management or community representation roles. No specialist disability leadership training was mentioned by survey respondents.

It appears that neither public nor private sector employers have targeted people with disabilities as leaders, or provided training or leadership coaching to progress their careers. Over fifty five per cent of respondents to the DLI survey said that any training they received had not actually led to any leadership opportunities, or was irrelevant to the work they had subsequently undertaken in both leadership and representative roles.

Over seventy per cent of survey respondents had experienced barriers to undertaking leadership opportunities and development due to a lack of accessible format documents, discrimination, lack of reasonable adjustments including flexible hours, transport or travel difficulties, the extra hours required alongside regular commitments to achieve recognition or appointments, cost (most respondents were self-funding), the assumption that people were only experts in disability matters, and continuing suspicion that people with disabilities can’t make tough decisions. Respondents had been asked to deliver conference papers from the floor when accessible podiums were not provided, to pay for their own accessible format documents, to self-fund extra travel costs associated with interstate or international commitments, amongst other barriers.

A particular barrier for disability leaders is the ableist expectation that leadership is only possible within the current paradigm in which it sits. Leaders with disabilities were expected to operate without consideration that they might do so in a different way to existing norms, not just to accommodate their disability requirements, but as a result of viewing the world through a disability perspective. The 2016 survey showed that this lack of cultural awareness caused many leaders to abandon training or leadership opportunities due to discrimination and ableism. The term “exclusive” was used by several survey respondents.

Australia cannot continue to exclude eighteen per cent of its leadership potential. It cannot continue to hope that disability leaders will emerge fully formed to take their place alongside the rest of the community. The few disability leaders there are have arisen by accident, rather than by design and this is unacceptable. Alongside other diversity groups in our population, disability leaders require specific, targeted, culturally appropriate, ongoing development and support until critical mass is achieved. This support and development has never existed in Australia. It appears that it hasn’t even been considered.

If mainstream programs were working we wouldn’t be having this conversation – they aren’t, they haven’t yet, so it’s time for some specialist work to support one in five of Australia’s population to reach their potential, and to be seen as equals. The Disability Leadership Institute has been established by leaders with disabilities for leaders with disabilities to address the diversity imbalance. It’s time to change the way leadership is understood.

Christina Ryan is the founder of the Disability Leadership Institute and has been a leader in the Australia disability rights movement for over two decades. She is a 2017 Westpac Social Change Scholar.

This article was commissioned for, and first appeared in, the Australian Greens Magazine.

Networking is different for disability leaders

Disability Leaders face some distinct barriers to networking

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


Networking is a key element of leadership work and produces many of the opportunities that we all want to take up, so it’s a vital skill and ability for all of us to be engaged in.


Many leadership opportunities arise because someone knows someone and the network circles around to you. If you aren’t part of those networks then you are significantly disadvantaged.


Networking can be different for people with disabilities and the DLI 2016 survey of leaders illustrated a number of barriers to networking that we face, for example:


– the costs associated with attending

– the extra hours and energy needed – many events happen after hours

– being in the mainstream / prejudice

– crowds, noise.


These are just some of the issues raised as barriers to being in the room and being able to network effectively.


There are now a number of apps that scan business cards to assist leaders who need alternative formats or who can’t carry cards, but not all are suitable for the needs of leaders with disabilities, so don’t assume technology solves everything.


The cost of networking is a distinct barrier that is very difficult to overcome. If you can’t afford to be in the room, regularly, then you won’t get to meet the people that you need to meet. People quickly forget someone that isn’t seen often, and that means they forget that you might be a suitable candidate for something. While online social networking does assist in some ways, it simply doesn’t replace being in the room and meeting people.


Above all, networking is something you get better at with practice. So, barriers experienced by leaders with disabilities must be addressed so that we can get the practice, and through that get the opportunities that networking provides.

Christina Ryan is the Founder of the Disability Leadership Institute, a specialist leadership and coaching consultant, and a 2017 Westpac Social Change Scholar

Disability Leaders in the Mainstream

Being in the room is vital for disability leaders

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


The 2016 survey of disability leaders found that most leaders with disabilities are operating in disability specific places not in the mainstream.


What’s behind this? Is the mainstream unwelcoming, or perhaps it’s not interested in disability. Maybe it’s just inaccessible. Is it easier to get employment in disability specific fields? Whatever the reason, the few leaders who do work in the mainstream said that they feel very isolated and are constantly battling to be respected and included.


Working in the mainstream confronts all the prejudices and access barriers that people with disabilities face every day. It forces people to accept you, but to also consider how disability is relevant to whatever the mainstream area is. You are also more likely to be an expert or specialist in your field, so people will need to adjust how they respond to you. Being the only person with disability in a room can be exhausting, but it is also the place where change happens.


Leaders working in the mainstream have told the Disability Leadership Institute many stories including:


– being treated like the work experience kid

– having your disability being the only topic of conversation

– getting stuck in a crowded room and unable to move

– general inaccessibility preventing meaningful participation

– doubting your non-disability expertise


These are just some examples of the barriers faced by leaders working in the mainstream. It can take a strong stomach and real persistence to continue to operate in such environments, but the outcomes are valuable and often make real change for our community.


Our next webinar, Mainstreaming – being in the room, is looking at how to work in the mainstream effectively and with confidence. We’ll examine how you can get the most out of being the only person with disability in the room and how to use your presence to get strong disability outcomes.


The webinar will cover:

– Being in the room.

– Key principles to being in the mainstream

– How to communicate

– What to communicate

– Why are you in the room?

– Making sure you stay in the room.

– Using your presence to increase the representation of people with disabilities


Christina Ryan is the founder of the Disability Leadership Institute and a 2017 Westpac Social Change Scholar.