Its about prejudice

Disabled people just can’t do most jobs

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


In the course of establishing the Disability Leadership Institute, and undertaking my year of Westpac Social Change Fellowship, I’ve talked to many people who have responsibility for diversity in large companies, across governments, and in the community sector.


Very early in my Fellowship year I realised that the prevailing assumption is that people with disabilities don’t do leadership. There were no programs, targets, or plans for developing disability leadership talent to be found anywhere. A startling discovery, but probably not that surprising to the disability community.


All apparent effort was, and still is, focussed on entry level positions. “Get a job” has been the policy, program and budgeting imperative of governments for over 30 years. The assumption is that people with disabilities must start at the bottom, and there are seemingly no plans for career development or gradual change at this stage. Of course, there are only so many entry level jobs to go around, but this also denies many highly qualified and experienced people with disabilities any real opportunity. It’s probably a contributing factor to why Australia stagnates at the back of the OECD pack when it comes to disability employment levels.


In a recent discussion with a senior state bureaucrat, responsible for all disability and inclusion policy for a State government, it became clear that these policies spring from deep rooted prejudice.


The relevant State minister had asked the bureaucrat to speak to me about the National Register of Disability Leaders and the recently launched Future Shapers program. We spent an hour on the phone discussing various aspects of disability, but it was almost impossible to generate a spark of interest in disability leadership.


This bureaucrat had been doing their job for some time and had reached a level of seniority where they felt they know their field well. They certainly spoke as though they were an expert in their understanding of disability and barriers to participation. Yet, I couldn’t get them to move away from talking about entry level employment and the astonishing amount of energy and resources that were being devoted to that in this State.


My struggle became clear when this person said: “there just aren’t that many jobs in the public sector that people with disabilities can do.”




Awkward moment, my brain starts whirling, and I didn’t say: “well I know quite a few disabled people who could do your job better for a start.” Best not, let’s keep it nice.


Its one thing to completely miss the potential for disability leadership, it’s another thing to actively deny the possibility that most jobs can be done by disabled people at all.


News flash!!


Every job, each and every job, everywhere, can be done by a person with disability. All of them. Every single one.


All jobs attract people who must be suited to them in various ways. All jobs require specialist skills, or physique, or approach, or qualifications. All jobs have a narrower field of preferred candidates than the entire population. That’s the purpose behind recruitment and selection processes.


Given the enormous diversity within the largest minority on the planet it is highly unlikely that there is no person with disability who could whatever job is at hand.


So, how is it that disability automatically rules someone out?


Prejudice, that’s how.


Until we address the underlying, deep rooted prejudice that insists on entry level work, within a limited range of positions, nothing will change.


It appears that the people who are responsible for making change may also be those who carry some of the greatest prejudice against the potential of disabled people. It’s those who “know best” that present some of the greatest barriers to the inclusion of people with disabilities.


Have you checked your prejudice lately? Have you been thinking there are some jobs that disabled people can’t do? Have you been assuming that disabled people can’t do leadership?


Think again.


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We should create the mainstream

We could solve inclusion tomorrow

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


It happened again this week. I was around yet another conversation about how the mainstream wasn’t working for disabled people. It feels like these conversations happen just about every day. On this occasion disability leaders were enrolled in a mainstream course and some were finding it very difficult to participate.


Traditionally, people with disabilities have been segregated. We were put in institutions so that the community didn’t have to see us or deal with us. More recently this morphed into “special” education, sports, transport and employment. Many of us still live in small institutions called group houses.


Then along came disability rights. Suddenly we had a right to be part of the broader community and they were expected to include us. Problem is they’re just no good at it. This means we spend a lot of our time and energy alerting people to discriminatory behaviour, exclusion and general ableism. Yet, it’s still somehow our responsibility to campaign constantly for access, attitude shifting and the right to participate.


This is particularly chronic with employment and leadership work. The only option we’ve had for a long time is to try hard to fit into the mainstream. It’s what most of us are doing today. Many influential people insist this must be the only option. Problem is the mainstream doesn’t cope well with us and we spend just as much time battling to make it work as we do using it and being in it. Let’s remember that overheard conversation again.


Right now, it’s all about us having to go to the rest of the world and asking to be allowed in.


What if we flipped it?


Sure, we should be in the mainstream, but how about we create that mainstream? How about it’s a mainstream that is built by us, that we then include the rest of the world in? What if we include them in our mainstream, rather than they include us in their failed version?


What would it look like if it was our safe space first, that we then opened the door to others for general access? Why is it us going to the rest of the world? Why doesn’t the rest of the world come to us?


One of the things I discovered during my Westpac Fellowship last year is that disability leaders have a strong focus on the individual – on making sure that any given environment works for each person in it. Its what we do best because we know that we are a highly diverse community and we want to make sure everyone is part of it. Disability leaders do inclusion instinctively.


Think about it. While the rest of the world is busting a gut to understand and do inclusion, most disability leaders are doing it all day every day as part of standard operations. We know what it means, what it looks like and how to do it.


So, if you want to run a program, consultation, department, big bank, festival: get disability leaders to run it! We’ll build the mainstream, and then we’ll open the door to the rest of the world to come inside. We could solve inclusion tomorrow. Just like that.


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Should I openly identify as disabled?

Without role models culture won’t change.

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


One of the perennial topics of conversation in the disability community is whether someone should openly identify as disabled in their workplace. It’s a thorny issue and for good reason.


So, many people with disabilities have made the decision to openly identify and then experienced serious consequences, even losing their jobs over it. Of course, you can’t be sacked specifically because of your disability, there is legislation in many countries to prevent this, but you can be made to feel very very unwelcome and decide to leave. Many people have stories to share about themselves or about colleagues in the disability community.


Employment rates are low for disabled people, retention rates aren’t much better. What can we do to avoid the constant recruitment trap? Losing staff and constantly needing to recruit is hardly the solution, there must be other ways to build disability workforce so that we are also building disability leadership.


Recently I’ve been talking with disability leaders about being role models in their workplaces. Given that most people with disabilities are not visibly disabled this is a big ask. Yet it’s crucial to have senior role models so that culture changes and so that new recruits can see what is possible for them in an organisation. This is the “be what you can see” strategy. This strategy has worked increasingly well for women and for Indigenous peoples over the last couple of decades. We need to start using it for employees with disabilities as well.


Unfortunately, this places enormous pressure on disability leaders when they have already pushed very hard to get where they are, and just want to get on with being another employee, not a crusader.


Why must individual disabled people put their careers and financial security on the line?


Being part of a network, having peers at your level, and being part of a broader professional disability community (like the Disability Leadership Institute) are all contributions to how you can be supported if you decide to openly identify. However, none of these will prevent discrimination or ableist responses. Networks may provide assistance in knowing you are not alone and help with sharing solutions, but they don’t change the attitudes of others.


Of course, many people do not have the option of choosing to disclose as we are readily identifiable. In some ways this makes it easier as we don’t live with the anxiety of being exposed or choosing to make the decision to be open, but in other ways it makes it much harder as the prejudice starts before we even get in the room. We are left out of invitations or excluded from new projects because it is assumed we aren’t the best and brightest. All without someone knowing anything about us, except that we are disabled.


There is no easy answer, if there was we wouldn’t still be having the conversation.


People with disabilities are all different. As the single largest minority on the planet today, we are not generic, we are incredibly diverse. Our community is highly intersectional. Our one common thread is our disability and the prejudice and exclusion that it brings. Unfortunately, many of the responses to disability in the workplace are generic, rather than built round the individual, and this compounds the barriers to achieving career success and leadership positions.


We can’t shift the culture until we have critical mass, we won’t achieve critical mass while the culture remains as it is.


We need disabled people in far greater numbers in the public domain to achieve the culture shift that is desperately needed. However, this won’t happen until we are in a wide variety of positions and fields in strong numbers and openly recognised for our contribution to local, national and global leadership. People with disabilities are already in many of these places but are not openly identifying as disabled because the risks are so high, and why should they?


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Stop Recruiting People with Disabilities!

Constant recruitment is just hitting the same nail with a bigger sledgehammer.

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


Throughout the course of my Westpac Social Change Fellowship year I met with many organisations, government agencies and global corporates. One common thread emerged from these meetings: all but two were struggling to employ meaningful numbers of people with disabilities and all were constantly working to recruit people at the entry level as a way of increasing their disability employment percentages.


At the same time all these organisations had a strong percentage of people identifying as disabled during their annual survey of staff. Yet the numbers showing up in the survey were not translating into people openly identifying as disabled on a day to day basis.




Case study:


Dianne works internationally for a global corporate as a senior partner. She is responsible for an entire division and has been with the company for 15 years. Recently, Dianne’s disability has become more pronounced and she is unable to conceal it anymore, so she’s started talking to her close colleagues and superiors about workplace adjustments. Dianne is still able to perform her role and to make the decisions required of her, but suddenly her company is not including her in key meetings and she is no longer being given responsibility for new initiatives. Her client load dries up. Dianne feels that she is no longer welcome, and she resigns from her position feeling forced out because she has no clients or responsibility anymore.


Case study:


Brian is a senior executive in the public sector with a long career of achievement and recognition. Following a recent break, he’s realised that he needs to be open about his psychosocial disability and the need to adjust his work hours more flexibly so that he can sustain his high-pressure position. There’s just a few things that he needs to be careful about, otherwise he’s fine to meet the demands of the job. It takes enormous courage to talk openly about his disability, but he’s conscious that he can also act as a role model for other staff in the department, so he goes ahead with his decision to be open. The following month Brian isn’t assigned a position when the department spills positions and shuffles the SES around as part of machinery of government changes. Despite being one of the most valued leaders until now, he suddenly becomes redundant. Brian realises that this wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t made the decision to be open about his disability.


People are not open about their disability in the workplace because it isn’t safe for them to be so. These are real case studies (deidentified) from leaders associated with the Disability Leadership Institute. Both case studies are less than five years old. They are not unusual stories.


If Dianne and Brian had been supported when making the decision to be open about their disability both these organisations would have retained leadership talent, had senior role models for junior staff to look up to (you can’t be what you can’t see), and would have increased their disability workforce percentage. More critically both organisations would also have had access to the innovation and perspective that disabled workers contribute at higher levels than non-disabled workforce, and this would have improved their efficiency and bottom line.


Rather than continually recruiting entry level staff with disabilities, organisations should be working hard to retain the existing numbers of disabled workers that they already have. The people are there, they just aren’t being open about their disability because it is clearly not safe to do so. If organisations focussed on changing culture their disability workforce percentages would increase overnight. More critically, retention of new staff coming in at entry level would increase because the culture was supportive, and disability was valued.


Focussing on recruitment provides a constant stream of junior staff who must then individually change the culture around them from a position of least power. Recruitment takes substantial resources and takes a long time to contribute to culture shift in a meaningful way. It also doesn’t address the revolving door of more senior disabled staff who have a contribution to make.


Focussing on retention of existing staff, by changing culture, shifts an organisation to a position of consolidation of existing resources. It offers role models, enhanced innovation, and through this builds an attractive workplace that people with disabilities will aspire to.


Constant recruitment is not the solution to low disability workforce numbers. It is simply hitting the same nail with a bigger and bigger sledgehammer.


Until culture is addressed, organisations will continue to experience far lower percentages of openly identified disabled workforce than the real percentages they are uncovering in annual staff surveys.



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The Disability Leadership Institute offers disability consulting to assist with culture change in your organisation. We will build a solution to suit your unique needs.




6 reasons why you shouldn’t hire people with disabilities

Why are you hiring people with disability?

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


Many organisations are working to hire more people with disabilities. Some have quotas or targets, others have procedures in place as they try to increase the numbers of people with disabilities in their workforce. A few organisations now have disability action plans outlining recruitment measures and processes as they work on building and retaining staff with disabilities.


As I’ve spoken to organisations over the last year I’ve heard many views on hiring people with disabilities. On why it should happen, and about why it might be difficult. I’ve also been asked to advise on disability action plans and trouble shoot recruitment and retention strategies. Every organisation is different, but it seems there are some stark similarities when it comes to disability recruitment.


Why is your organisation hiring people with disabilities, what is the purpose behind it? Here are 6 reasons that I heard in 2017:


  1. It’s the right thing to do


  1. People with disabilities have a right to independence


  1. We have an employment quota set by the Minister


  1. Our competitors are all doing it, so we’ve set a target too


  1. Its good for the confidence of people with disabilities to work


  1. We have diversity targets, so we should be doing this


These are all reasons why you shouldn’t be hiring people with disabilities.


Sure, you should be doing the right thing, and you should be concerned about the independence and confidence of people with disabilities. You should also have diversity targets, and even quotas for disability employment. Keeping up with competitor’s ways of doing business is very important, but is it really a very good reason to hire anyone?


Notice something else about these reasons?


They are mostly about how you behave towards people with disabilities, or about improving social outcomes. In some cases, they are statements about people with disabilities needing assistance or requiring a start in life. None of these statements is a good recruitment strategy, and none will ensure long term retention of people.


Would you want to be hired for these reasons? Would you feel valued in your workplace if this was why you were there? Would you feel like an equal team member?


Would you be open about your disability in a workplace that hired for these reasons?


Probably not.


So, why should you be hiring people with disabilities?


  1. Diverse teams solve problems faster, up to twice as fast.


  1. Diversity is very good for your business bottom line


  1. People with disabilities are more innovative


You should be hiring people with disabilities because it’s good for business. Because your organisation will be more efficient, and it will improve your bottom line. You should be hiring people with disabilities because you want to improve your innovation and problem-solving capacity, and through that improve your bottom line. You should hire people with disabilities because you want to increase your general competitiveness rankings by having a team that solves problems faster and is more innovative.


It’s not about the right thing to do – it’s about building a more robust organisation that can respond to issues with greater agility, by building better solutions faster, and more efficiently. It’s about wanting people with disabilities on your team because they contribute substantially to the outcomes your business or organisation is working towards.


Without people with disabilities you are missing out on a large part of the diversity equation and the benefits which diversity brings. Hire people with disabilities because you value what they contribute, and hire them because they will deliver what your business needs. Hire people with disabilities because its good for business and will build a better future. Hire people with disabilities because you can’t afford not to in an increasingly competitive environment which puts a high value on innovation.


More importantly, make sure you have people with disabilities guiding your organisation and making some of its key decisions. You need people with disabilities in your leadership team to really get the most from having a diverse workforce, and you need leaders with disabilities because it will help to shape your organisation more innovatively for the future.


Need help: The Disability Leadership Institute provides consulting services to organisations wanting to improve their diversity outcomes. Contact us today.


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Is Inclusion the problem?

Who should be driving inclusion? Are we approaching it the right way?

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


In examining diversity, and the structures to make it happen, one word keeps coming up – Inclusion.


There is a strong recognition that diversity won’t really be achieved, it won’t stick, without inclusion as part of the package. All of the collective wisdom is telling us so, and it’s one of the most popular buzzwords in conversations, yet for decades there hasn’t been any real shift in the numbers of people with disabilities being employed or ending up in leadership positions.


So, what’s happening?


Is inclusion part of the problem?


One of the biggest issues with inclusion, as it is practiced now, is that it relies on those with power to open their door to those without power. The excluded are outside knocking on the door and asking to be let in, waiting to be included. Ultimately this disempowers the already less powerful in the diversity relationship.


In examining the diversity sector over the last year, it seems that diversity practitioners aren’t very diverse. There isn’t a very strong presence of minority groups within the diversity industry. Is this part of the barrier to those minority groups, including people with disabilities, being included?


It’s time to disrupt the thinking about inclusion so that it becomes more effective as a tool. Are we relying on inclusion as a process, rather than aiming towards it as an outcome? Are we relying solely on good intentions about inclusion to make it a reality? Perhaps its time to redefine what inclusion looks like and shift its ownership to those being included, away from those doing the including.


The only way to shift power imbalances is to address the inequality that underlies them. This means having people from disempowered population groups in positions of power, so that they drive the inclusion, so that they control the door to be opened. This is particularly the case for people with disabilities who hold almost no positions of leadership, respect or authority within government, business or non-government sectors.


The inclusion of people with disabilities is being left to people without disabilities to drive.


How do we shift this?


Rather than focussing all available efforts, resources, time and goodwill on getting people with disabilities in the door at entry level – the least powerful positions with little capacity to open the door to others – it’s time to focus significant efforts on appointing people with disabilities to leadership positions across executives, boards, parliaments and community leadership.


A strong example of how this can be achieved is the Merit Trap as discussed by the Male Champions of Change who have recognised that simply looking for another person with the same skills and qualifications is a good way to overlook new thinking, innovation, and potentially the right candidate.


By appointing people from minority groups to positions of power and authority we will create “door openers”. By being wary of the Merit Trap, we are recognising that a person from a minority group, a person with disability, may not be the most obvious candidate for a position, but they may be the most innovative one to take us into the future.


So, inclusion isn’t the problem, its how we are doing inclusion that is the problem. We aren’t using it to shift power, we are currently using it to disempower the very people we are working to include. It is being used by those with power as a process, rather than ceded to the disempowered as an outcome


It is our approach to inclusion that is the problem, not inclusion itself.


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Diversity or assimilation?

Are we really embracing the value of diversity or just focussing on statistics?

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


What do we mean by diversity?

What is the purpose behind the growing diversity industry?

Why do we want diversity anyway?

Perhaps we are simply caught up in the latest trend, and if we say the word diversity often enough then it will become true. Perhaps we keep saying “diversity” in the hope that our good intentions will result in outcomes, but what outcomes are we looking for?

There is increasing evidence that diversity contributes substantially to the bottom line of organisations. A concept that once started as “it’s the right thing to do” has become a key factor in any business case for improving organisational outcomes and efficiencies. Additionally, it has become clear that diversity manifests in different ways – it’s not just population groups but also how people approach what they are doing.

The recognition of the importance of cognitive diversity is a game changer for people with disabilities and should become the pathway to valued inclusion in the mainstream workforce. Yet disability employment rates remain stagnant, and disability leadership is nowhere to be seen. Very few studies or articles about diversity mention disability, and very few organisations are embracing disability as a highly valued employment asset.

It seems that the work of building diversity has become lost in numbers rather than outcomes. By focusing on individual population groups, rather than taking an intersectional approach, we are yet to fully embrace the real potential of diversity. We have become focused on hiring people, but have yet to work out how to use the full potential of those recruits to achieve organisational outcomes. What’s the point of building diversity in our workforce if it isn’t contributing to what our organisations are doing?

After DLI discussions with many organisations and individuals, it seems disability is still on the outside of diversity thinking. While being uncomfortable is part of diversity practice, apparently people with disabilities still make people too uncomfortable to be fully valued as equal colleagues.

The DLI 2016 national survey of disability leaders identified that the majority are working in disability-specific organisations. The small percentage who are working in mainstream organisations have shared 2 common experiences with the DLI:

  1. I just put my head down and work, I’m not here to talk disability, and
  2. My other diversity attributes are welcome, but my colleagues prefer that I don’t mention my disability.

This points to a lack of valuing disability and what it can contribute to a team and an organisation. It also means the significant benefits of having a diverse workforce are missed. More critically, it raises a very uncomfortable question: do we expect our diverse workforce to become like us – to assimilate? If so, then what is the point of building diversity at all?

Are we really embracing the value of diversity, or are we so focused on statistics that the outcomes have been lost?

Diversity is exciting, has enormous benefits, and greatly enriches the workplace experience for everyone. It’s time we used our diverse workforce and valued the contribution that diverse qualities and attributes make to organisational outcomes. To do this we must embrace a disabled workforce, value the attributes of people with disabilities, and consider how they will contribute to more robust outcomes. Without this, we won’t have meaningful diversity and will continue to miss the full benefits of what diversity can bring to our organisations.