Making Change

Disabled people are the single largest minority group on the planet. Yet we are rarely seen in leadership and decision making roles, our visibility in popular culture and media is low, and recognition of our work as thought leaders and influencers is almost non-existent. The work of the disability rights movement often consists of us highlighting our absence from the public domain.


Shifting the status of disabled people to achieve equality will take many people and a long time. It will take a multi pronged approach across a wide range of fields. With 1.5 billion people it will also need to be happening in many places around the globe simultaneously in ways that are suitable to conditions in that myriad of locations.


The global disability rights movement is as diverse as it is large. This is its strength, as it ensures that the simultaneous work required is happening. Across numerous fields, in numerous countries, within all cultures, disabled people are working to assert our rights. Yet the disability rights movement is only a small percentage of disabled people, and a small percentage of the work that is required. Social change movements usually consist of less than 10% of a specific population group, and the disability movement is no different.


Many disabled people work in invisible ways, shifting ground from within existing business and government structures. This work is just as important, just as necessary, as the work of those who use the public domain to challenge assumptions and perspectives on disabled people. Internal institutional barriers need to be addressed as much as social assumptions and social policy. Without taking our place as 15% of global leadership we won’t be in a position to challenge the ableist structural barriers which deny an equitable disabled presence across the public and private domains.


As with any social change movement there are those who speak loudly and those who work behind the scenes. All are vital, particularly with such a large minority. Some demand strong ethical behaviour of themselves denying any solution other than end point outcomes, others are pragmatic and work more incrementally to shift legislation or policy. Some take a leadership role; others work to support those on the frontline of change making. Some work through organisations, many don’t. Some accept recognition for their work, others prefer to be acknowledged only as part of the larger movement. As with all movements, all approaches are vital contributions to the overall outcome of equality.


Curiously, there are those who suggest that only people from certain parts of the political spectrum, or with certain values and ethics, should be accepted as legitimate members of the disability rights movement. Yet, the size of the disability population and the diversity of disabled people would suggest that we must be present across all fields, political backgrounds, and perspectives. With such a large global population it is impossible to consider that we might always agree with each other. It is more likely that we won’t, particularly when intersectional and cultural factors are considered. That doesn’t mean that we can’t support those who work differently, or with whom we disagree, knowing that they too are making a difference.


It’s time to celebrate our work wherever it happens, and recognise that all of it is contributing to the greater visibility and status of disabled people. People should be encouraged to work where they are best placed to do so, using their skills and qualities. Making change is often about getting on the bus that comes past, not waiting for the perfect set of circumstances to arise before acting. If someone jumped on the bus as it went by we should applaud them for embracing the opportunity as it arose.


Periodically people are critical because someone isn’t their choice as the best person for an accolade or an appointment, yet often it is being in the right place at the right time that decides who does something or is asked for comment. Should we remain invisible or should we seize those chances while we can? However people achieve recognition, positions of influence, rights outcomes, or make change it is all valuable and raises our status as global citizens. Being in the room is the key to equality. There are many many rooms, so we need many people to ensure we are in all of them. All of this work contributes to the #Global15Percent


Wherever we do our work and achieve change, disabled people should be supported and celebrated, even if specific individuals don’t work in a way that we personally prefer or use language we’d rather they didn’t. Our diversity is our strength and that means embracing our difference including our different approaches, because our equality requires all that difference. Disability is our common thread, yet it doesn’t make us all the same, and that’s the best thing.



Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, she has worked across 5 social change movements throughout her lifetime including the disability rights movement.

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Who decides on inclusion?

Massive buzzwork, but what does it really mean?

by Christina Ryan, CEO, Disability Leadership Institute


Inclusion: massive buzzword, but what does it really mean and how do we get it?


Its popular for organisations to claim that they are being inclusive, yet retention rates remain low for disabled people in most organisations, with very few moving into positions of leadership or responsibility.


A key factor in understanding inclusion is that it lies in the eye of the beholder. Many organisations have good intentions on inclusion, yet their staff members from minority groups don’t feel comfortable and leave within a short period. For other organisations inclusion is a reality, so long as everyone fits in and conforms to company culture.


Its very easy to say you are being inclusive, its another matter to be viewed as being so by those who are the target for being included. Most people mean well, but they forget their unconscious behaviours. Very few people are comfortable with stepping back to allow a person from a minority group (like a disabled person) to take an opportunity over themselves. Even fewer seem comfortable with a disabled person being their supervisor.


There are those who consider inclusion to be not “seeing” a person’s difference. This isn’t inclusion, its assimilation. Many members of the Disability Leadership Institute share stories where “I couldn’t tell you were deaf, you were almost normal”, or “I didn’t see your wheelchair after a while”. This is denying a person’s disability exists and certainly isn’t inclusion.


Inclusion is about embracing diversity and using it. Not about denying it and expecting everyone to fit in to the dominant culture.


Diversity is about embracing the value, the richness, that diversity brings. This means operating differently, ensuring that everyone contributes equally, and recognizing the skills, expertise and perspective of disability leaders on your team. Disability leaders will operate differently, and you want this, embrace it, value it, use it. It might make you uncomfortable or seem annoying to have to change how you have a conversation, yet this is exactly the outcome you are trying to achieve because it means you are being pushed outside your comfort zone and having your perspective disrupted.


There isn’t much point in appointing disability leaders to your team if they aren’t valued for their contribution. This seems like an unnecessary thing to say, yet the Disability Leadership Institute has heard many stories about disabled staff who are never sent the documents in a format they can read and work on, or aren’t given time to hear what is happening via their interpreter, and even highly experienced executives who are never given the opportunity to speak and share their views. They are, quite literally, token appointments.


Inclusion is real when people feel included. They are valued and used as equal members of the team. It’s easy to identify inclusion; your staff turnover reduces as you achieve high retention of people from minority groups. The only people who can judge if your organisation is inclusive are those who are being included. They’ll let you know, and your staff retention rates will prove it.

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Integrating disability and leadership

Beginning the development of disability leaders.

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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The Need for Specialist Disability Leadership Development

The DLI is frequently asked “wouldn’t mainstream leadership programs be just as good?”

This couldn’t happen in the mainstream

by Christina Ryan, CEO, Disability Leadership Institute

The DLI is frequently asked why disability leaders couldn’t achieve the same outcome they will get from the Future Shapers by undertaking a mainstream leadership program.


It’s because mainstream leadership programs don’t factor in disability, they deny it. Whenever leaders are encouraged to mask major aspects of themselves, they will continue to struggle with authentic leadership practice.


The Future Shapers is also more rigorous because of its holistic approach to disability and leadership. As the first program that weaves the two elements together it is understandable that the processes involved in applying this integrated approach are not well understood. It is becoming clearer that the interweaving process is transformative for participants, and results in a more holistic leader who has a greater ability to draw on all aspects of themselves.


Mainstream leadership programs are usually facilitated by non-disabled people. Most use horizontal, rather than vertical principles, and can be highly effective in producing leaders who are very skilled in navigating hierarchies and networks, with strong skills in governance and management.


Mainstream leadership programs completely ignore disability and how it is used as a leadership quality.


The closest mainstream leadership programs come to recognising disability is to have a focus on gathering disabled people together, usually in recognition of the low numbers who are in leadership positions. It is unusual for such programs to take anything other than an entry level approach, so more developed disability leaders have no recourse except to participate in mainstream leadership programs which place them in groups of abled people and ignore their disability, often actively encouraging participants to put their disability to one side, attempting to “overcome” it.


Putting your disability to one side, all day every day, takes energy and is depleting. Over time working “despite” your disability becomes a conditioned response to the mainstream world, requiring an unconscious and ongoing expense of personal energy: an ever-present undercurrent of negativity and denial.


Vertical leadership provides a real opportunity to develop leaders differently with its greater focus on self-awareness, personal reflection and collaboration. This opens the door to leaders who move beyond skills to become more robust at using their whole self, and who recognise that brushing aside elements of themselves denies their ability to continue developing as leaders.


Throughout the Future Shapers program the DLI asks participants how their disability contributes to their leadership. Initially this question is highly confronting and often results in responses about barriers and challenges. For some it reinvigorates memories of bullying or harassment. As participants develop vertically, they take a more holistic approach to this question and become less confronted and more whole in their self-reflection.


As vertical leadership is experiential, rather than academic, participants find it impossible to continue putting disability to one side. As the Future Shapers program progressed each participant became more engaged with their disability and how it worked for them. For some this process was deeply confronting, for others it generated ramifications and periods of unwellness as bodies recalibrated, resulting in stronger more self-aware leaders with an extra layer of resilience beyond their existing high levels.


Another understanding arising from the Future Shapers program is the critical need for the program facilitator, or lead mentor, to be a disabled person. Just as vertical leadership development programs recognise that someone more developed than the student should be providing guidance, disability leadership development should be guided by a more developed disability leader as they will have the deep personal understanding of both the disability experience and the rolling nature of the heat experiences faced by disability leaders.


As the Future Shapers participants recalibrated and embraced how their disability contributed to their leadership practice, the need for a more developed disability leader as program facilitator / lead mentor became more apparent. The deep dialogue being undertaken by participants turned increasingly to discussions about the combined zone of vertical leadership and disability. The process of self realisation was increasingly holistic.


These dialogues would have been impossible with a non-disabled person. Each participant acknowledged, at a time in their personal development when it became evident to them, that such conversations would not be possible unless the other participants in the dialogue were all disabled people (including the facilitator). The ability to talk openly, without justifying disability and how it behaves, in a supportive environment, became increasingly necessary for participants. This was not a planned aspect of the Future Shapers, rather it arose as a result of the process of vertical leadership development and the realisation that operating as a whole person is part of moving into post conventional thinking stages.


Participants in the Future Shapers program are already working in the mainstream. While they are all openly disabled, they also have experiences of bullying and harassment, of feeling required to put their disability to one side, and of struggling daily with ableism in the workplace. They maintain a certain wariness in order to navigate a still hostile world. Participating in a mainstream leadership program would not have addressed this wariness, rather it would have entrenched it and denied these leaders the ability to approach their leadership holistically.


As the DLI becomes more aware of the power of approaching disability leadership in an holistic way we are developing specific elements of the Future Shapers program to draw more deeply upon the untapped resource of leader’s disability experience. Participants find this work confronting and extremely rigorous: however, it is producing outstanding results that could not have been achieved otherwise.


No mainstream leadership program has this ability. The specialist approach to disability leadership development as taken by the Future Shapers program appears to be necessary, in order to most effectively support disability leaders through their vertical leadership development. The Future Shapers also confirms that specialist programs must carry a strong understanding of the disability leadership experience which means facilitation by disability leaders.


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The unique experience of developing disability leaders

Discoveries from the #FutureShapers include rolling heat experiences.

Discoveries from the Future Shapers

By Christina Ryan, CEO, Disability Leadership Institute


Upon completion of the world’s first specialist disability leadership program, based on vertical leadership development, the Disability Leadership Institute has begun to understand some specific and remarkable facets of disability leadership which could rewrite mainstream approaches to leadership development and broaden the understanding of how post conventional thinking develops.


Leadership development, particularly vertical development, is based on generating what is known as “heat experiences”. That is, applying difficult challenges to the developing leader so that they grow self-awareness, question their existing boundaries and understandings, and adjust their view of themselves and the world to a new level.


Nick Petrie outlines how “the leader faces a complex situation that disrupts and disorients his habitual way of thinking. He discovers that his current way of making sense of the world is inadequate. His mind starts to open and search for new and better ways to make sense of his challenge.”[1]


Joseph Jaworski sent people on 3-day solo camping trips into the Rocky Mountains to test their sense making.[2] Most leadership programs use a variety of tools to create heat processes, including wilderness experiences, individual projects, prescribing challenging work, and confronting accepted norms. These tools work to provide developing leaders with challenges outside their previous experience and aim to spark their development by creating a heat experience. Many of these are based on an able (usually) white (usually) male understanding of what leadership is and what it should look like.


What is also understood is that the average person will not face heat experiences often in their lives. Rather, a heat experience is an unusual event often accompanied by a life changing process for the person. When undergoing traumatic heat experiences most people dip out of their regular lives for the duration, while being supported by those around them to be less engaged in the minutiae of day to day existence.


In developing the Future Shapers the Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) recognises it is working in uncharted waters. Amongst the myriad leadership development programs available today none have focused on interweaving the disability experience with leadership development. In fact, most seek to actively “overcome” it. The Future Shapers, therefore, creates exciting potential for discovery. With the first iteration of the program now completed, it becomes clear that it has also created some unexpected understandings.


Disability leadership is a new field where little academic study or experiential research exists. In assessing the landscape to determine what was out there and how it might be harnessed, the DLI discovered that there was little to work with.[3] No specific programs exist focusing on disability leadership. Those that do work with disability leaders adapt mainstream leadership programs, usually at an entry level, while focusing on horizontal leadership skills. The disability experience is not central to these programs, nor is it openly embraced as an asset that will contribute to leadership development.


The Future Shapers works differently. Program participants are assessed for suitability with an expectation that some background in social change and/or leadership already exists. Only disabled people are accepted into the Future Shapers. The program uses vertical leadership development to achieve post conventional thinking, while embracing the disability experience as a contributor to how that leader operates.


Recently the Future Shapers graduated its first cohort and some unexpected understandings about vertical leadership have emerged. Many of these understandings will require considerably more research over coming years as the field of disability leadership unfolds.


Where most programs consciously generate heat experiences, and recognise that this might be the first time a leader undergoing development has faced that level of personal challenge and introspection, the Disability Leadership Institute has come to understand that disability leaders entering vertical leadership development have already worked through heat experiences and are doing so continuously without realising it.


One particular outcome of the recent program is a more developed understanding of how heat experiences apply to disability leadership. It appears that disability leaders experience a “rolling” heat experience, which contributes markedly to their vertical leadership development. The DLI observed this in each participant in the Future Shapers program and has identified two distinct ways that it manifests: external pressures like prejudice, discrimination and marginalisation; alongside the random nature of the individual’s disability (due to factors like weather or other illness) which can suddenly sideswipe a person’s operational capacity and generate a need for heightened self-awareness in order to recover.


Both contribute to the individual’s development. Each person will have a different experience according to their levels of privilege, type of disability, and other factors; however, the two sources of heat experience were present in each person and resulted in a significant contribution to their vertical leadership development throughout the Future Shapers program.


All disability leaders face prejudice, discrimination and marginalisation as an aspect of their daily lives. The world isn’t yet built for disabled people. Every time a disabled person goes to work, attends a meeting, travels on public transport, or goes to a conference they face barriers. Fitting into a world that is built for abled people means that every interaction with the outside world has the potential to marginalise the disabled person. Disability leaders are engaged with the outside world every day, increasing their exposure to environments that aren’t quite right, including some that are very hostile, particularly when working in mainstream environments.


Most disability leaders consciously put the experience of marginalisation to one side to ensure they are able to continue with their work; however, this means many don’t openly identify as disabled, or they work to minimize their disability requirements, or they expend energy reserves battling to have the environment adjusted to be more inclusive.[4]


This inherently hostile world provides a rolling heat experience of marginalisation and exclusion that is simply a facet of disability leadership, because to be doing their leadership work disability leaders must engage with it. Maintaining operational capacity becomes an openly acknowledged exercise in self-management for disability leaders that is demanded of few other members of the community. While others might dip out for the duration of a challenging period in their lives, disability leaders continue their work and remain engaged.


It appears that this ever present pressure and uncertainty acts as a rolling heat experience which provides disability leaders with a perspective on self-awareness and compassion that mainstream leadership programs attempt to generate through external factors, but which was inherently present for the Future Shapers cohort.


The Disability Leadership Institute suggests that the ever present nature of these two forms of heat experience creates a rolling heat experience which seems to add a deeper level to leadership development than traditional mainstream leadership programs, particularly when using vertical leadership principles as they are more “whole of person” than skills based horizontal leadership development.


Another understanding arising from the Future Shapers program is the critical need for the program facilitator, or lead mentor, to be a disabled person. Just as vertical leadership development programs recognise that someone more developed than the student should be providing guidance, disability leadership development should be guided by a more developed disability leader as they will have the deep personal understanding of both the disability experience and the rolling nature of the heat experiences faced by disability leaders.


This is the beginning of a new field of inquiry. Disability leadership has not been recognised until recently, therefore little investigation or research has been undertaken in this area. No specialist programs have previously existed. Applying vertical leadership development to disability leaders is producing unexpected outcomes which suggest that a specialist approach to disability leadership is necessary, in order to most effectively support disability leaders through their vertical leadership development, and that those specialist programs must carry a strong understanding of the disability leadership experience.


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[1] Nick Petrie, The How-To of Vertical Leadership Development–Part 2, 30 Experts, 3 Conditions, and 15 Approaches (2015).

[2] Joseph Jaworski, Synchronicity The Inner Path to Leadership (2011).

[3] Christina Ryan, The Absence (2018).

[4] the impact of marginalisation is probably experienced by members of all minority groups, this area requires further research.

Future Shaping

We’re looking forward to what the future brings.

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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Barriers to Disability Leadership

Should disability leaders give up their work?

by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO


What would you do if you turned up for work and you had to climb a 3-meter brick wall to get into the office? What about if everyone conducted team meetings in auslan, and you can’t speak auslan? How would you feel if you complained and nobody seemed to care?


Some colleagues of mine went to work the other day.


No big deal, hey. Lots of people go to work every day.


The difference is these colleagues are disability leaders. They are well respected in their various fields and regularly lead the public conversation about disability. They are some of the toughest people I know, not much gets in their way.


Except the other day.


The other day my colleagues had all registered to attend a conference. They were all attending this conference as part of their work. Some had travelled interstate.


None of them were able to fulfil their work obligations as expected because the conference was inaccessible. Very inaccessible.


I’m not going to name the organisers, or the leaders involved. There has been plenty of online discussion and media relating to the incident. What I am particularly annoyed by isn’t the inaccessibility, well actually that does annoy me, rather I’m very annoyed that a bunch of disability leaders went to work expecting to perform at their usual high standard, and they were unable to do so.


Most of them left. Those who stayed had a very difficult time. Several were adversely affected by staying and will need recovery time. All of the disability leaders involved were distressed by the situation and by how unexpected it was. Some said to me: “I just won’t go to conferences anymore”, or “perhaps I shouldn’t be doing this work”.


How is that the answer? Should disability leaders be giving up their work, or should conferences and workplaces be more committed to ensuring accessibility?


Newsflash: accessibility isn’t an extra or a nice thing to have, its mandatory if you want disabled people in the room. If you think diversity is of any value at all then accessibility is part of your regular processes, it’s just how you operate. You budget for it, make it happen, build it in from the outset. You choose venues that work, and make sure there are rapid responses to any issues that arise. You don’t argue and ablesplain and put the onus back onto the disability leader to get less disabled, you take responsibility for making accessibility happen and you fix it quickly when it doesn’t.


Most importantly, you make sure the people designing the access are those who know about access and have professional experience in accessibility. This means they will also be disabled people. These access experts should be paid for their work, just like your sound technicians and caterers.


This wasn’t an isolated incident. It happens every day, in all corners of the globe. This incident was quite high profile because of the people involved and that makes it unusual. Most incidents of inaccessibility happen to individuals, often in workplaces that aren’t supportive or have managers who think they know better, or they are single barriers affecting individuals at conferences rather than everyone, so we never hear about them.


This incident resulted in a formal apology delivered by the conference organisers during the final plenary. Unfortunately, most of the disability leaders affected weren’t there by then to hear it. The apology also didn’t include a commitment to recruit disabled people onto the organising committee in the future, nor did it include a reference to the same situation happening at the previous conference and this incident being a repeat.


There are still significant barriers to disability leadership. This is just one story.


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Not being disabled is a deal breaker

The new NDIS CEO must be a disabled person and they will be the best person for the job.

by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO


When the newly appointed CEO of the NDIS resigned after 18 months the call went out from disabled people for the new CEO to be one of us, a disabled person. Its time to stop with the experiments on our lives and start to give the NDIS the tools and space it needs to reach its potential.


As ever, there were those who simply assumed that there was no disabled person qualified to take on this role. They insisted that it wasn’t a deal breaker if the new CEO was not a person with disability. Clearly it can’t be given there is no such person available, well that’s what is assumed.


The new CEO of the NDIS must be a disabled person, and that person will certainly be the best person for the job.


Australia isn’t very good at employing people with disabilities. Its even worse at appointing people with disabilities to executive positions. This isn’t because there are no candidates, it’s because we are obsessed with appointing on “merit”.


The Male Champions of Change undertook research in 2016 which showed that appointing on merit results in one outcome: people who look like you do. Merit based appointments assume that there is a single path to seniority and that this path looks like the one that all predecessors took, including having certain qualifications, and the types of positions and industries required to get there.


While the Male Champions are concerned with gender equality and increasing the numbers of women in senior appointments, the same principles apply to other areas of diversity including disability. The merit trap, as the Male Champions call it, effectively locks people from diverse experiences out of positions, particularly executive positions.


It is time to redefine merit or to dispense with it altogether.


In the case of the NDIS, being disabled should be a primary selection criterion, a high value contributor to being appointed. This isn’t only about having a disability perspective, about understanding the experience of marginalisation, discrimination and oppression, although that is critically important. It is also about the symbolic importance of having “one of us” inside the NDIS at the very top, making key decisions about how the NDIS supports disabled people to live our lives, and providing the primary guidance for this major disability reform. Having a CEO with disability is fundamentally about being able to trust that the NDIS is working with us and for us.


Suggestions that appointing on merit also means that this person won’t be disabled, assumes that there are not disability leaders currently in CEO positions, or who have expertise and competence in shifting the culture of organisations. The presumption that no disability leader exists who will have a broader understanding of the lives of other disabled people is also erroneous, when there are many who are currently running organisations providing a broad array of services to disabled people, including services for those with cognitive and/or psychosocial disability. These are some of the most inclusive CEOs around and the NDIS would benefit enormously from their expertise.


The NDIS needs significant cultural reform so that it provides an holistic participant experience, rather than a wall of bureaucracy. The NDIS also needs significant internal reform so that it attracts and retains its staff, particularly those with disabilities. These reforms require someone who knows disability intimately, who is not only disabled but has experience as a leader, and who is trusted by the disability community to be competent for the task that is ahead.


This is not a job for someone from outside the disability community, who has confidence but no competence in working with disabled people (Deloitte Insight 2019). It must be a person who understands how to build systems that support disability engagement, rather than block it. Turning the NDIS around, to fulfil the vision that we all held for it, will require a level of competence that is yet to be applied in this position. As Kurt Fearnley recently said, “we tried the corporate route and it hasn’t worked.”


The next CEO of the NDIS can and should be a disabled person, because only a person with disability can do all these things.


Suggestions that it won’t be a deal breaker if the new NDIS CEO isn’t a disabled person are totally wrong and exhibit an attitude that is part of the continuing problem. Disabled people have been patient and hopeful, yet we have remained consistently marginalised by those who think they know best how the NDIS should work for us. Clearly, they don’t because the NDIS is a mess. Using it is difficult and highly bureaucratic. It has become what the Productivity Commission warned against: a bigger version of the old system rather than a new system that places control in the hands of the user.


NDIS staff turnover is very high and many disabled staff struggle to feel valued. The culture both inside and out is overbearing and judgmental about disability. The Agency has become more of a 1980s behemoth than a 21st century leader. There is a high level of disillusionment right across the disability community about whether the potential of the NDIS will ever be realised.


Doing more of the same will not work and will lead to a further erosion of the NDIS and the hope and vision that it should be providing for disabled Australians.


Time for the people who think they understand, and know best, to move out of the way and let the real experts in disability get on with making the NDIS what it could be.









Building Disability Board Diversity

To reach better levels of diversity we need to throw merit out the window.

Speech by Christina Ryan – 16 May 2019

Perth, for People with Disability WA


I’d like to start by acknowledging the Noongar (noon- ar) people of the Wadjuk nation, who’s land we are meeting on this morning, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

Diversity is an ongoing conversation. Its one we keep having because we struggle so hard to achieve diversity, and we struggle even more to be inclusive of diverse people once we have them in our organisations.

I’d like to talk to you about 3 elements this morning: merit, inclusion and competence.


Let’s do a quick check: who here appoints people to your organisation’s board or executive team based on merit? Hands up.

Okay, that’s excellent. Let’s have a look at how we can stop appointing on merit, because we now know that it’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.

A couple of years back the Male Champions of Change got together with Chief Executive Women and they did some research into merit. The Male Champions are focused on gender equality, but fundamentally they are in the same game as us, they are working to build more diversity within their organisations.

The Male Champion’s research discovered that appointing on merit has one outcome: more people who look like you. So, if your organisation is working on becoming more diverse, appointing on merit is the last thing you want to be doing.

Merit based appointments assume that there is a single pathway to seniority and that this path looks like the one that the position’s predecessors took: including having certain qualifications, holding certain types of positions, and working in specific industries to get to wherever you need to be.

The merit trap, as the Male Champions call it, effectively locks people from diverse experiences out of positions, particularly executive and board positions, because the people who have taken the same path are the ones who have the same advantages, backgrounds, education and privileges that you have experienced to get to where you are now.

In other words, people who look like you do, have similar experiences, and approach things in a similar way. They are probably also people you are comfortable with because they are “your” kind of people, and they think the “right way”. If someone’s path is different, it doesn’t matter how competent they are, they won’t be appointed because they aren’t “qualified”.

Our board rooms and executive teams are full of people who are appointed on merit and look at the result. A lack of diversity.


Last year the Disability Leadership Institute undertook research to identify ways to improve inclusion and develop strong inclusive cultures within organisations. To do this we did a global scan to understand what was being done around the globe and how it was working. This global scan led me to wondering if we haven’t been coming at the whole culture and inclusion conversation from the wrong angle. There are organisations that have changed their culture and embedded a more inclusive one from top to bottom. How have they done this?

In an attempt to better understand and serve their consumers, many organisations have established advisory bodies of consumers which provide advice to be fed into the day to day operations of the organisation.

Who here has a consumer advisory body?

This model attempts to bring the voice of consumers into board rooms and executive teams, but it does it at arm’s length. There is no real evidence that such advice is listened to, or acted on, or that it makes a difference to the consumer experience, or more importantly to how the organisation runs every day. More critically, there is strong evidence that the advice is simply ignored if it is inconvenient or poorly understood. Such examples include the National Disability Insurance Agency, and several of the US insurance company advisory bodies that we examined (Anthem, United Healthcare, and Centene). These organisations have clear structures in place that don’t necessarily translate into practice as a stronger consumer voice.

Organisations with advisory bodies need a key person who acts as the channel to ensure that the “advice” is transferred into the organisation as valued input. This transfer doesn’t always happen effectively. Additionally, when that key person departs, or the executive changes, the value of the advisory body faces significant risk with many not being used further, or no longer being valued for their contribution. Advisory bodies often become tokens for publicity or marketing purposes and do not contribute meaningfully, if at all, to organisational policy or practice.

The organisations that do have strong evidence of a consumer voice that contributes to how the organisation is run every day, and how the culture is designed to support a strong and positive consumer experience, are those that employ significant numbers of disabled people (or other target diversity consumer group) and which have a board that has a strong presence of that target group. It is these organisations which have experienced the culture shift required to embed long term consumer engagement. It is these organisations which are ahead of the global pack. (National Council on Disability (US), Association of Community Living (US), Think local act personal (UK) and Uloba (Norway)).

A key feature of organisations with a strong internal presence of consumer voice is that the culture is shifted from within in a sustainable way. This culture shift does not rely on individual key people, rather it is shifted by having a critical mass of the population group within the organisation, throughout its operations. Therefore, leading companies now work to build diversity in their executive and governance teams, particularly featuring population groups that are in their target market. This shift has been underway for decades, primarily featuring gender and race diversity, and now also broader diversity groups including disability.

There are several features of organisations that build consumer voices into their entire operation to “make it real”; these include:

  • significant buy in from the top echelons of the organisations most notably at CEO level,
  • strong representation from the consumer demographic in the board room, and
  • a high proportion of employees with consumer / target market experience.

Without these contributing factors organisations are vulnerable to their intentions slipping because they remain focussed on what is being done “to” the consumers not “with” the consumers.

Sometimes we get too hung up on ticking the diversity box, and not learning the lessons of other elements of business practice, like marketing. Marketing uses techniques which speak directly to the consumer, based on understanding that consumer. The most potent way to go about this is to have people from a particular demographic on both sides of the organisational experience, as staff and board as well as consumers, so that the conversation is authentic.

To affect a real culture shift to become an organisation which understands its target market/s there will, therefore, need to be considerable work done to bring the consumer voice into the board room and the staff group including at executive team level. Most importantly, the shift will need to be driven by the CEO to ensure total organisation embedding.

I enjoy the case study of Tom Peters, a CEO and leadership specialist who has worked with McKinsey and talks about “the ‘squint test:

One, look at a photograph of your exec team. Two, squint. Three: Does the composition of the team look more or less like the composition of the market you aim to serve?”

This example is about gender, when a company realised that it couldn’t successfully sell its product to women without having women as part of its board and executive. At the time, back in the 80s, they had no women, it was an all male board, and they realised that their big problem was that they weren’t talking to women, they were talking at them.

It has been long established that having women in board rooms and executive suites is good for business, particularly if an organisation wants to connect authentically with the female population, yet, curiously, there is not a similar understanding that the same strategies are required for other diversity groups like disabled people. There remains an assumption that disabled people can be spoken “for” and “to”. This thinking was abandoned decades ago in relation to women yet persists in relation to disabled people.

When a consumer / target market voice is embedded within an organisation, whatever that organisation does, it provides a further layer of engagement with its relevant community, and through that, a more robust approach to appropriate structures and processes.

Fundamentally, the culture is shifted organically through critical mass, rather than through one or two key people driving it as with advisory group structures. This provides for a long-term sustainable culture shift that is not reliant on a named process or specific key people.

Deloitte released a report last month which also showed this and took it a step further. They also insisted that there must be diversity inside our board rooms and executive or management teams to ensure sustainable culture shift and recommended that this happens alongside having a strong organisation Inclusion Policy. One that is owned and monitored by the board. This ensures that the board maintains an oversight role of how diversity is adding value to your work, and how it is contributing to your overall decision making and organisational health.

The Disability Leadership Institute has been working with the Victorian Government, Leadership Victoria and Voice At The Table as part of a project to increase the numbers of disabled people on Victorian Government boards and committees.

Some of the measures being taken include:

  • Setting a target
  • Advertising positions to people with disabilities so that they feel encouraged to apply for them. The DLI does this through our National Register of Disability Leaders. Many of the people on that register have done the Company Directors Course or have board careers in the community sector. Many had stopped applying for positions after repeated knockbacks and earlier bad experiences. If the position comes through us, they feel more encouraged to apply for it.
  • Leadership Victoria has been delivering governance training so that those who haven’t got governance experience can learn the basics.
  • Voice At The Table have been delivering training in inclusive meeting practices. This is really great work and I highly recommend it.
  • The DLI also has coaching available for getting your application right and for holding down your appointment once you have it.
  • The DLI has delivered Masterclasses, in recruiting disability to boards, to government board recruiters and chairs.
  • The Victorian Office for Disability also has a requirement that they must be notified of all board and committee positions that become available across government.

None of these mechanisms will have any effect, though, unless there is a commitment to appointing disabled people to boards and committees by the people doing the recruiting.

Stop for a moment, close your eyes, why do you want board diversity? What is the point of having disabled people inside your board room?

Diversity is about embracing the value, the richness, that diversity brings. This means operating differently, ensuring that all board members are equal and contribute equally, and recognizing the skills, expertise and perspective of disability leaders on your board. Disability leaders will operate differently, and you want this, embrace it, value it, use it. It might make you uncomfortable or seem annoying to have to change how you have a conversation, yet this is exactly the outcome you are trying to achieve because it means you are being pushed outside your box and having your perspective disrupted.

Disability in your board room is not about ticking a box, it’s about improving your board’s decision making and your organisation’s overall health. It’s about going outside your regular networks to those that you don’t normally engage with, it’s about stepping outside your comfort zone.

There isn’t much point, though, in appointing disability leaders to your board or committee if they aren’t valued for their contribution. This seems like an unnecessary thing to say, yet we’ve had many stories come to us at the DLI from board members who are never sent the papers in a format they can read, or aren’t given time to hear what is happening via their interpreter, and even highly experienced board members who are never given the opportunity to speak and share their views. They are, quite literally, token appointments.

Diversity is also not assimilation. There isn’t a lot of value in finding people of diversity to be on your board and then expecting them to think and act as you do. You want to be taken outside your comfort zone, sometimes you will hear perspectives that make you fidget, and this is exactly what you want, no matter how awkward it makes you feel.


A further interesting element of the recent Deloitte report was that they identified that appointments are usually made based on confidence not competence. This takes us right back to the merit trap and the path required to be considered qualified.

To avoid the merit trap we need to start thinking about how we source our people, both board and staff, and how we measure “merit”. This is where competence comes in.

Nobody is suggesting for a minute that you should not be recruiting competent people who are the best person for the job, including on your board. Problem is, merit isn’t finding those people for us, so how do we go about it?

Alan Joyce from Qantas is an original member of the Male Champions of Change. Qantas decided to achieve a gender balance amongst its pilots. The usual route to becoming a pilot is through the engineering division, apparently, so Qantas started making sure that its engineering division intake was skewed towards women. At one point 100% of their intake was women. Many questions were asked, but they stuck with it.

The aim of the program, and target, was to get STEM minded women inside Qantas and then work them through to becoming pilots, including international pilots. Nobody will argue that competence is a key driver here. Qantas isn’t going to risk its reputation on recruiting token women, rather they recruited women who had a strong STEM background and who could be trained in aircraft engineering with a view to becoming pilots. This is certainly not the “merit” based route, yet it will result in a large number of highly skilled women pilots joining the Qantas workforce. These pilots will be as good as any other Qantas pilot that came before them, and Qantas will also have achieved its gender balance goal.

Using competence to recruit is about not listening to the loudest most confident voice, nor is it about falling into the “merit trap” of appointing the person with the CV that contains certain qualifications and previous positions.

Competence is about recognising the skills, expertise and abilities that the position requires and recruiting for those. Increasingly business is recruiting people from outside their field because this gives them the diversity of thought and experience that helps them to be more innovative.

While people with disabilities may not have undertaken management positions or completed the Company Directors Course (although many have), there are certainly plenty to choose from who have significant expertise, skills and competence in the skills that governance requires. For example, I was talking to a DLI member last week who has no formal qualifications in risk management, yet they have significant expertise which allows them to identify and judge levels of risk in given situations. This has proven to be a strong contributor to the boards that they sit on. Many disabled people are very good at risk because we are making constant risk-based judgements about our own safety on a daily basis.

There is also an increasing body of research that shows that disabled people are 10% more innovative in the workplace, have strong lateral thinking and problem-solving capacities, and are highly collaborative and inclusive. These aren’t generic qualities, but they are significantly present amongst disability leaders.

Why would you risk missing out on that?

Pulling all this together:

  • we want people with disabilities in our board rooms and management teams because its good for our business, particularly if we have any ambition to be serving disabled people in our day to day work.
  • To reach better levels of diversity we need to throw merit out the window as an outdated concept and start recruiting on competence.
  • Our boards and executive teams should reflect the people that we are serving, our target market.
  • Boards must take ownership of inclusion by having policies and monitoring systems in place to ensure their organisation is welcoming diversity and sustaining it.

Thank you.

Is public life worth it?

Is this how to achieve diversity in our parliament?

By Christina Ryan – CEO, Disability Leadership Institute

There are very few disabled people in public life anywhere. Most of what is out there is confined to disability specific spaces like running Disabled People’s Organisations, being a high-profile activist, or being a Paralympian.


This absence of disability in the public domain means that the few individuals who are out there are literally putting themselves on the line being trailblazers, so that disabled people have the same opportunities as the rest of the community. It’s a high stakes business and requires huge levels of resilience.


Disabled people in the public domain risk being judged, are subjected to scepticism and doubt about their disability, queried about whether their disability is real or not, and are treated like they have no right to be doing what they are doing.


Australia is currently in the grip of a federal election. Once again there are very few candidates with disability, who openly identify as disabled, and who can wonder why when candidates are treated as fakers and rorters?


The situation is even worse for women candidates. Not only are they undermined because of their disability, but also because of their gender. The intersection of disability and gender creates a space where violence is a daily experience for many, and it appears political life is no exception.


The recent attempts to undermine Dickson candidate Ali France by using her disability to imply she is dishonest, or even that she isn’t really properly disabled, are a classic example of the bullying tactics used against disabled women.


Another classic tactic is to suggest that disabled women can’t hack it, that we are snowflakes who won’t be able to stay the distance, or who will crumble at the first tough decision we have to make. This is gaslighting. It implies that disabled women are feeble human beings who aren’t in public life because we’re not up for it.


Similar tactics were used against me the last time I engaged in politics: I stumbled across a group of campaign workers sharing rumours about how I wasn’t up for the job and wouldn’t be able to hack the pace. The candidate they were working for is still a member of parliament. Fortunately, my electorate was redistributed, and I haven’t had to call this person my local member for a number of years. I had forgotten this incident until last week and like to think the intervening decade has shown just how “not up for it” I’ve been.


Women with disabilities are at high risk when entering public life. It is not a matter of if, but when, bullying will be experienced. It is highly likely that a disabled woman will have her disability questioned, her integrity undermined, and her intelligence ridiculed.


She won’t just be attacked because she is a woman. She will be questioned because of her disability. Not only will everyone think they have a right to her personal disability details, they will then think they have a right to comment on how she lives with disability.


Worse still, it’s also necessary to have acquired your disability through “worthy” circumstances. A great deal of the rhetoric about Ali France last week implied that she shouldn’t be attacked because she had acquired her disability as a result of defending her child. What about if she’d been a foolish young person who had sustained a spinal cord injury because she didn’t look before jumping into a river? Would that make it okay to attack her?


The public domain is one of the most hostile work environments disabled people, particularly disabled women, can enter. Small wonder so few of us risk doing it.


Is this how to achieve diversity in our parliament?



Christina Ryan was the first woman who uses a wheelchair to run for any Australian parliament – running for the ACT Assembly in 2001.

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