Managing with Inclusion

DLI members share their thoughts on how managers can be inclusive.

by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO

This is the third article in a series about workplace inclusion.


Team leaders, managers, or supervisors play a pivotal role in making sure inclusion happens in an organisation. They are on the front line of implementing organisational policy, and the vision of the organisation’s leaders. Without their buy in, and strong commitment, inclusion simply will not happen.

The Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) asked our members about workplace inclusion and they identified managers, or team leaders (we use the term managers generically here), as being important in making inclusion a reality.

DLI members had several comments and suggestions for getting inclusion right across a range of workplace touch points. Many of these suggestions come from managers of teams, CEOs, and highly qualified disabled people struggling to find work. All the suggestions are from disabled people as both practitioners of inclusion and participants in inclusive processes.

Inclusion needs to start at the beginning, during recruitment, and continue as an ongoing focus for management and leadership every day. Complacency is not an option. Never assume your organisation is fully inclusive, nor that you have no further work to do. There is always more to be done, just as there are always more ways of being inclusive, because diverse people are diverse, and each person must be treated as an individual.

Managers, supervisors and team leaders should consider:

How they take organisation level policies and apply them at team level. It is managers who make sure teams are practicing inclusion every day. Strong supervision to ensure any bullying or harassment is nipped in the bud, cliques aren’t forming which leave people of diversity aside, and being open about the kind of organisation this is and its leaders’ vision for diversity and inclusion.

Managers should not assume that their direct reports know what is expected, nor should they rely on common sense. Neither of these strategies has worked in the past, and there is no evidence to suggest they will succeed. Regular proactive team leadership is required to bring inclusion into the team as an ever-present expectation and practice.

Ongoing conversations amongst team members which may lead to flexible work arrangements on where and how work is done. Managers need to be open about flexible work and what it means. Flexible work is more than working remotely, and it’s important to consider how team members who may be working elsewhere can be included in day to day work and outcomes.

It is often managers who approve flexible and remote working practices. This is enormous power to wield over team members which needs to be handled delicately within an environment of acceptance and trust. Without flexible work arrangements many disabled workers do not sustain employment or feel excluded, so they leave. How managers refer to flexible work, how it is approved, and how flexible work arrangements are discussed on a daily basis will dictate how the rest of the team accepts it, and whether it becomes part of how business is done.

Ensure regular activities like staff meetings and team gatherings are undertaken in open reflective ways. When inclusion and inclusive practices are part of an ongoing conversation there will be greater understanding and acceptance of them. Managers can ensure that inclusion is a regular item on team meeting agendas, including how the team is travelling, how inclusion is discussed, what the team could be doing better. Is the team fulfilling the vision of the organisation’s leaders? Are there any gaps and what is being done about them?

Managers are the gatekeepers to professional development for team members. Accepting all team members equally means ensuring that everyone has equitable access to professional development. A study conducted by the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) showed that disabled team members are far less likely to be provided professional development opportunities as members of the same team.

Additionally, managers have a key role to play in addressing bullying and harassment. The same IGPA study uncovered a rate of bullying that is double that for the broader workforce. Tackling this head on, by ensuring that all team members understand how unacceptable bullying is, must become second nature to managers of diverse teams.

Being open about reality and committing to a more inclusive team are part of a manager’s commitment to ensuring their team embraces inclusion and the broader vision of an inclusive organisation.

Managers, supervisors and team leaders are pivotal to building organisation inclusion. Without them inclusion will not happen, nor can it be sustained. Remaining open, not shutting conversations down, and being clear that the goal of inclusion is yet to be reached, can be part of bringing a team, and therefore a workforce, along with the management and leadership vision of an inclusive organisation.


Thanks to the many DLI members who shared thoughts and experiences for this article.

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Leading for Inclusion

Leaders have a strong role to play in creating an inclusive workplace.

Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) members recently shared their experiences of workplace inclusion. They identified that workplaces still aren’t getting inclusion right, with a continuing lack of real action, and despite many workplaces claiming that they are inclusive.


One of the key areas identified for action is leadership. Leaders have a strong role to play creating, and maintaining, an inclusive workplace. They are particularly responsible for ensuring that complacency doesn’t set in after one or two successes.


Leading by example seems an obvious suggestion, but its very easy to lose the time to be an example when the pressures of leadership take hold. Additionally, those in leadership positions often delegate to others without clear guidance on what exactly they are expecting diversity to look like, or how they would like to see it done. Be clear in your vision for inclusion and how it is done in your organisation. Share your thoughts regularly on the purpose of achieving diversity and your passion for it.


Another clear leadership example is to have disability leaders in your organisation. When disability is visible in the top ranks it is far easier for all your workforce to raise disability requirements or concerns. One of the biggest challenges faced by organisations is knowing they have a level of disability present, yet people don’t feel comfortable openly identifying as disabled. As with all diversity groups, senior leadership examples make a difference. The Disability Leadership Institute encourages disability leadership as a way of shifting culture.


Maintain an open conversation about gaps in inclusion and openly work to address them. Your organisation has a lot to do about inclusion, everyone does. So, talk about it. It’s okay not to be “there” yet. Be clear about what you know is missing, ask for information and suggestions about what could be done.


Share your plans for how your organisation with achieve the end vision, talk about it regularly in all communications. Make sure your team leaders feel licensed to share the organisation’s plans with their teams, particularly those who may feel more marginalised.


Nobody knows everything. No organisation is perfect. Maintaining a façade that you do know, or that your organisation is already “there” will only disenfranchise your workforce. Be comfortable in acknowledging the gaps and be clear in how the organisation is working to address them. Most importantly, don’t get defensive. Few organisations are yet to get it right, so you aren’t alone. Leaders who think they are always right are also very good at losing their people. An open culture of sharing shortcomings relies on you knowing those shortcomings exist and being open about them.


Commit resources to your plans for inclusion. Leadership commitment is the only way big outcomes will be achieved. If you are working to improve inclusion in your organisation you will need to openly acknowledge it as a goal, while also ensuring your leadership team and team leaders have the resources, they need to make it reality.


Many leaders have asked me if disability inclusion is possible by tagging it onto something else, or by just expecting it without having to commit more time and resources alongside their other diversity objectives. There is no evidence that this will work. In fact, there is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that this approach will fail, given the static disability employment and leadership figures over more than three decades. If you are serious then you will need to commit to making disability inclusion happen, and that means acknowledging that it will take time and resources.


Achieving disability inclusion is like any other business outcome. You don’t expect other areas of your business to just happen without a concerted plan and whole of organisation effort. So, don’t expect it from disability inclusion. To make this real requires real leadership from the top, and that means planning, vision and commitment. It means benchmarking and tracking so that you know you are achieving your outcomes, just as you would any other aspect of your business.


Good intentions are not good enough. Leaders must commit to disability inclusion, make plans and commit resources. Leaders need to be open with their teams and mean what they say. Create a culture of constant improvement so that shortcomings are identified, shared and addressed.


Leaders have a real responsibility to make disability inclusion happen. As with all culture shifting this big change must come from the top.


Thanks to the many DLI members who shared thoughts and experiences for this article.

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Meaning well doesn’t equal inclusion

Real inclusion takes action as well as good intentions.

By DLI CEO Christina Ryan

It’s unusual to meet someone who doesn’t think it’s a good idea to employ disabled people, or to be working towards an inclusive workplace.

So, why is it still so hard to find good workplaces that are inclusive where disabled people feel comfortable and stay for the long haul? Why have the statistics on disability employment stagnated for decades, or gone backwards?

Because everybody thinks they’re doing something, and very few are.

Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) members recently shared their experiences of workplace inclusion. They identified that workplaces still aren’t getting inclusion right, with a continuing lack of real action, and despite many workplaces claiming they are inclusive.

There is no doubt employers mean well, but is meaning well enough to get inclusion over the line? Unfortunately not. Meaning well doesn’t equate to action, and it is real action that is needed.

DLI members had several comments and suggestions for getting inclusion right across a range of workplace touch points. Many of these suggestions come from managers of teams, CEOs, and highly qualified disabled people struggling to find work. All the suggestions are from disabled people as both practitioners of inclusion and participants in inclusive processes.

Inclusion needs to start at the beginning, during recruitment, and continue as an ongoing focus for management and leadership every day. Complacency is not an option. Never assume your organisation is fully inclusive, nor that you have no further work to do. There is always more to be done, just as there are always more ways of being inclusive, because diverse people are diverse and each person must be treated as an individual.


  • Contacting people before their recruitment interview, or appraisal process, to ask what adjustments need to be made and then making those adjustments
  • Making sure interviewers can respond to questions about workplace adjustments at interview
  • Ensuring interviews are accessible so that people can focus on their interview and not their disability needs
  • Ensuring people are confident and comfortable asking for adjustment during the recruitment phase, this means having an accessible recruitment process
  • Providing questions before interview, meeting interview panel members beforehand, or not even having a formal interview process
  • Openly seeking disabled people for your workforce

Human Resources:

  • Ensuring there are disabled people working in human resources, and valuing the expert contribution of those staff
  • Asking all staff how they like to work/communicate and then creating shared profiles with that information, so everyone knows that everyone one else has particular strengths and preferences
  • Collecting data on diversity numbers and length of employment, including how many people openly identify as disabled


  • Taking organisation level policies and applying them at team level
  • Ongoing conversations amongst team members which may lead to flexible work arrangements on where and how work is done
  • Doing regular things like staff meetings and team gatherings in open reflective ways


  • Leadership leading by example, making sure all team members are checked on as part of daily routines to avoid exclusion and cliques developing
  • Maintaining an open conversation about gaps in inclusion and openly working to address those gaps
  • Workplaces claiming to be diverse should be planning, providing funding and seeking counsel for success in diversity, just as they would any other part of their business mission

Finally, and rather obviously: having more than good intentions by actually employing disabled people. Many organisations say that employing disabled people is a good thing to do, yet half of all disabled people remain unemployed.

Clearly good intentions are not good enough. Workplaces need to mean it and that means action.

Action starts from recruitment and continues throughout the organisation as part of daily operations. Action means policies, processes and an ongoing conversation about what inclusion looks like for this team.

Action also means management openly taking responsibility for addressing inclusion gaps as a leadership example.

Inclusion will look different for every team, because every team is different; however, there are some structural underpinnings that can be considered for any organisation that wishes to be inclusive, as well as being seen to be inclusive.


Thanks to the many DLI members who shared thoughts and experiences for this article.

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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.

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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