Disability as an asset

Disability should be seen as one of the biggest assets an employee has.

Disability should be considered one of the most valuable assets an employee can bring to a team and organisation. Instead it is usually viewed as creating an extra burden on teams and team leaders, taking resources, time and energy from colleagues.

To address this a mythology has developed around disabled people that they are less prone to sick days and will be more loyal than other employees. Once again, disabled people are reduced to being present for reasons other than their ability to contribute to the success of the organisation.

For added emphasis all manner of feel good reasons are developed to tug on the heart strings, suggesting that employing disabled people will make organisations feel better about themselves, as though the function of disabled people is to improve the wellbeing of others. Common reasons such as:

  1. It’s the right thing to do
  2. People with disabilities have a right to independence
  3. We have an employment quota set by the Minister
  4. Our competitors are all doing it, so we’ve set a target too
  5. It’s good for the confidence of people with disabilities to work
  6. We have diversity targets, so we should be doing this

All of these reasons do not contribute to the good of the organisation, its bottom line, or its strategic goals. They are about the wellbeing of the people framing the question, or for externally driven factors like government targets. These reasons contribute to a perpetuation of disability being seen as an inconvenient characteristic.

Disability should be seen as one of the biggest assets an employee has, and one of the biggest assets for achieving diversity targets and the benefits they bring.

Rather than ticking boxes and achieving quotas in order to win diversity awards, organisations should be assessed on how their innovation has improved, or the greater capacity of their teams to solve problems, or a greater connection to their consumer base, or an improvement to their overall efficiency and profit levels.

These are all contributions that a strong presence of disabled employees will provide, they are all outcomes of greater diversity in the workplace, yet they are rarely acknowledged and are not the criteria for winning business or diversity awards.

Disability is still framed as a deficit, yet it has been proven to bring quantifiable value to organisations, improving decision making, and ensuring greater connection with the market.

Organisations often cite far greater numbers of disabled employees in anonymous censuses than openly disclose their disabilities. Disability Leadership Institute members make it clear that this is due to unsafe work environments where disability is not welcomed by colleagues. The more senior a person is, the higher risk open disclosure becomes, so people do not openly identify unless they have no choice.

When the benefits disability brings are considered, disability should be viewed as an asset, with specific targeted recruitment to bring it into the senior echelons of organisations in order to drive efficiency and innovation.

Once disabled people know they are valued they will openly identify as disabled and bring their full range of talents to the table.

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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person

Identifying disability

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

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


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


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


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


Here’s a question for you:


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


No, it’s not a trick question.


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


It’s the same for disability.


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


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


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


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


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


They will tell you.


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


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


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


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







Diversity through an intersectional approach

Intersectionality recognises population groups

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO
“We’re focussing on gender first before we move to the next diversity group”.


There are numerous population groups that make up the diversity soup that enriches our community: women, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, people of culturally diverse backgrounds, LGBTIQ people, young people, and old people.

So, achieving diversity in your workforce, boardroom, membership, or consultation group takes a lot more than simply achieving 50 per cent women. Somehow you need to recognise all of those diversity (or population) groups and factor them into your recruitment strategies, whatever the purpose of that recruitment.

Intersectionality recognises population groups, but it also recognises that many people in minority or disadvantaged groups come from one or more of those groups. Perhaps you are an Indigenous woman with disability, or a young trans culturally diverse man. Intersectionality is when different population groups intersect within the same person – the United Nations has also called it “multiple disadvantage”.

The catch phrase “pale, male and stale” recognises the need to step away from a very narrow recruitment pool into a wider group where women are present, in order to achieve gender diversity. However, if the group becomes “pale, female and stale” is it any different? Have we achieved success in diversity if everyone is an upright white person?

This is the next major challenge in the diversity field.

Approaching diversity through the prism of intersectionality assists us with bringing different population groups into our recruitment processes without tackling them one by one. It recognises that all diversity groups are present right across our population.

If your recruitment is targeting gender, remember that 20 per cent of women are women with disabilities, about 20 per cent will come from a culturally diverse background, 3 per cent will be Indigenous, etc.

If you are targeting Indigenous people for your recruitment, then about half of them will be people with disabilities, half will be women, and a percentage will be LGBTIQ.

If you are targeting people with disabilities, a little over half will be women, there will be Indigenous and CALD people, plus a percentage of people identifying as LGBTIQ. People with disabilities have a similar diversity to the broader population although there are slightly more women than men.

It’s critical to be aware of these intersectional factors, so that we can approach true diversity in the group we are building. It is also important to avoid tokenism. Population levels in diversity groups may not be exactly represented in the initial group you recruit, because recruiting on merit is also a factor in building towards the ultimate sustainable outcome.

The key is to recognise population levels, through an intersectional approach, while working proactively towards achieving those levels.

Working through an intersectional lens assists us to understand our targets for diversity, but embedding diversity demands the development of a strong inclusive culture that features both diversity and intersectionality. A “pale, male and stale” culture will not sustain a diverse and intersectional group; rather it will simply perpetuate the exclusion we are working to overcome.

When a critical mass of diversity is achieved through an intersectional approach, it can start to be perpetuated and sustained through a strong culture of inclusion. It’s the first step on the road to real diversity and inclusion for the long haul.

Christina Ryan is the founder of the Disability Leadership Institute, and a management consultant, speaker and writer who specialises in executive and team culture and coaching.

Where are disability leaders in the media?

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

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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