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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What would allies really do?

How do allies really support marginalised or intersectional communities?

Reflection on International Women’s Day 2019 by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO


Just coming down off that cloud which is International Women’s Day (IWD). Its one of my favourite days of the year (well it’s a whole week really), because it gets me in touch with the women’s community, with my business women’s networks, and with the mainstream in a way that my usual work doesn’t.


The other thing about IWD that I love is that it is about women. That might sound a bit strange, but in the disability community our international day is often spent celebrating the contributions of allies, rather than focussing specifically on disabled people and our achievements. So, just talking women for IWD is a breath of fresh air that I don’t take for granted.


I’ve been preoccupied since this year’s IWD functions in considering what is an ally? How do real allies work to support marginalised / intersectional communities?


At one function this year I asked a panellist a question. I know this person, and we have enormous respect for each other, so it was possible to push the boundaries a bit. The talk had turned to intersectionality. This is one of my favourite areas of discussion and something I have a reputation for shifting ground on. This was known to the panellist who also loves talking intersectional feminism. We were both in clover to be able to have a conversation about intersectionality, even if half the room had no idea what we were talking about. Who cares?


Our panellist had shared the story of talking about intersectionality with a senior government figure. I noticed that they were both privileged white people talking intersectionality and asked if it had occurred to them during that conversation that they should bring more diversity into the room? Apparently not.


So, even though both people are allies and consciously working to address marginalisation and exclusion they didn’t reframe their conversation, or who they were talking with, to include people from the communities they were taking about.


I don’t know if the conversation happened on the sidelines of something and was very rushed, or whether it was a scheduled event in both their diaries, and they could then have controlled who was in the room. My consternation arose when it became clear that they hadn’t considered bringing anyone from a minority group into their conversation.


This conversation was between diversity allies. This panellist and the senior government figure are both passionate diversity advocates who understand that diversity is intersectional. Both also champion the rights of disabled women to be part of the solutions. Yet both aren’t practicing what they preach. I came away from the function not even sure that they noticed the absence of minority women as participants in their conversation.


How do we shift this?


How do we get intersectional people into that room to have that conversation about intersectionality, so that we aren’t leaving it up to those without lived experience?


I’ve been carrying the Diversish video around in my head the last month and it seems suddenly relevant. Everyone says intersectionality, disability inclusion, diversity is important, yet the privileged white people in positions of power and influence are not including diverse people in their conversations about how to change who has access to power and influence.


Is it possible to be an ally when that only equates to recognising your own privilege?

Shouldn’t those who recognise their privilege also step aside to ensure minority voices are the ones being heard?

Wouldn’t true allies step back and out of the way?

I’m looking forward to next International Women’s Day. Lets make it an intersectional one.


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Disability Leadership & Lateral Violence

Everyone in the disability community can take some responsibility to respond with respect and care.

What is it and how do we deal with it? 

This article is about something which can be a huge issue for people in the Disabled community – status anxiety and ‘tall poppy syndrome’. These issues relate to people attacking others or making uncharitable statements about people within the community who they perceive are somehow doing better than them.

The basis of this is often a combination of insecurity and also responding to the oppression that we face as Disabled people by attacking someone within the community rather than ‘fighting the power.’ Oppressed, intersectional groups often face this issue which is known as ‘lateral violence’, where anger at disadvantage and discrimination is turned inwards and results in jealousy and undermining others. Sadly our community is not immune from the issue. In fact I see it quite a lot.

I think a lot of people are not even aware this is an issue for them. A ‘lateral violence’ response is a broader social issue than one individual being snippy with a well-known person in their community.

Lateral violence essentially involves instead of fighting oppression, oppressed people turning their anger against others in their community and these others tend to be people who are perceived as somehow more successful. So not only is attacking other Disabled people because of their success really unhelpful on an individual level, it is also deferred anger which would be much better used to address issues in society and to fight ableism. Leadership in the community should help enable people to see beyond rivalry. In fact this is an area where everyone in the community can take some leadership and responsibility to respond with respect and care, not lateral violence.

This is not a criticism or attack on people who feel jealous. There is a lot driving that thinking and behaviour and it goes beyond individuals. Lateral violence, while very unhelpful, is an indicator of oppression of itself and happens across most communities that face disadvantage. So while placing blame is unhelpful,  it is important to be aware of what it looks like and some ways to address the issue.

I am an autistic advocate and these days I have quite a big profile. While the primary function of my profile is to get my message to an audience, I am sometimes criticised for being well-known. The idea that I am focussed only on making money is one criticism – evidenced through people complaining when I have a book published and promote it. I am a very honest and straightforward person and take words on face value so it has taken many years to work out that people saying ’Jeanette just wants to make money with their books’ is actually almost certainly being driven by jealousy rather than any high ideals of socialism! I meet people who are inexplicably rude to me and it takes me some time to work out that it is due to a ‘fame thing’ on their part rather than anything unethical or unpleasant that I may have done or said. I often get quizzed by people who seem to want me to say something ‘wrong’ or to disprove whatever I am saying. It’s exhausting!

I can guarantee that the people considered famous within the disability community and those in positions leadership have their own struggles and challenges which are not solved by media appearances or book deals or other accomplishments..

Some strategies include:

  • Being in a position of leadership can exacerbate this issue and lead others to criticise and blame. It is important to respond in a way that demonstrates leadership and not react in a personal, defensive way (although this can be hard)
  • See it for what it is. It usually has nothing to do with the person who is apparently ‘too successful’
  • Take responsibility for your thoughts, words and actions
  • Use your position of leadership to help address this – call people on it if you can and demonstrate respect and inclusion in your own expression
  • Remember that many people have impostor syndrome. People may not see their own value but instead feel intimidated by the actions and the ‘success’ of others
  • Share information on lateral violence with others. If you can, be a champion of addressing and calling out lateral violence. If we all did that it would be much less of an issue.

Addressing status anxiety and lateral violence is essential if we want to make a better world. Just imagine if all that energy people spent being jealous and insecure was directed instead to addressing the bigger issues that Disabled people face. Our leaders play a key part in achieving that aim.


Guest blog by Yenn Purkis:

Yenn (formerly Jeanette) Purkis is an autistic and non-binary author, advocate and presenter. They are active in the Disabled community, have published six books, facilitated a women’s group since 2011 and given a large number of presentations, including one for TEDx Canberra. Yenn is also a Disability leadership Institute member.

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