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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Culture Shifting

Its time to become truly inclusive and abandon advisory groups.

by Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


One of the perennial topics of conversation about diversity centres on how to shift culture. We need to shift culture so that diverse people will be attracted to an organisation and stay as employees or customers.


Recently I examined the ways that organisations globally have shifted to embed their culture to better suit their consumer group / target market. This global scan led me to wondering if we haven’t been coming at the whole culture conversation from the wrong angle.


Will we ever shift culture if we expect diverse people to come to us and become us? How is that diversity? Isn’t it more like assimilation? Won’t that just perpetuate the existing exclusion and marginalisation?


There are organisations that have changed their culture and embedded a more inclusive one. How have they done this?


Perhaps we are 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 employees as well as consumers, so that the conversation is authentic.


In an attempt to better understand consumers, many organisations have established advisory bodies of consumers which provide advice to be fed into the day to day operations of the organisation. This model attempts to bring the voice of consumers into board rooms and executive suites, 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 in Australia, and US insurance company advisory bodies (Anthem, United Healthcare, and Centene), which have clear structures in place that don’t necessarily translate into practice as a stronger consumer voice.


Organisations with advisory bodies then require a key person who acts as a 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 regime 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 then become tokens for publicity or marketing purposes and often 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 they are targeting their marketing towards. This shift has been underway for decades, primarily featuring gender and race diversity, and now also broader diversity groups including disability.


The newly released Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage features robust data on the economic and marketing benefits of having good numbers of target market demographic within the workforce of an organisation.


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 slippage in their intentions because the change is about what is being done “to” the consumers not “with” the consumers.


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. See “A Blinding Flash of the Obvious” which highlights why having your consumers in your executive team and boardroom is critical. 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.


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. This provides for a long-term sustainable culture shift that is not reliant on a named process or specific key people.


It is time to question the continuing use of advisory groups and token consumer voices. The evidence from other diversity groups strongly suggests that the only way to speak to a target market in a sustainable way is to include people from that target market throughout all levels of an organisation, and to commit to shifting culture through “becoming” part of that culture, rather than standing outside expecting the culture, and its consumers, to come to you.


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Your 2019 leadership development plan

How will your leadership grow in 2019?

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


As the year draws to a close it’s a great time to reflect of what you’ve achieved and what you plan for 2019.


How did your leadership grow in 2018? Have you added new skills, grown some specific attributes or personal qualities, gained confidence or built knowledge in a new area?


What’s your personal leadership development plan for 2019? Here are a few tips:


  1. Identify a skill that you’d like to build. Just one. It might be improving your networking, getting sharper at messaging, or building your meeting effectiveness. Maybe you’d like to get better at public speaking or doing media. Only you know your leadership goals, so identify a skill that will assist you to get there and spend the next year focusing on building it and gaining confidence in using it.


The purpose of focussing on one skill is to make sure you can do it! Sometimes we give ourselves big lists and create high expectations that we then get too busy to fulfil. Make your one skill an achievable one that you can keep coming back to without going off track too much.


  1. Which personal quality or attribute are you growing in 2019? I spent 2018 practicing receiving – allowing myself to accept gifts and compliments from others. It was a tough haul sometimes, but after a year of focussing on this its easier now than when I started.


What will you focus on? Will it be patience, generosity, responsibility, or risk taking? Perhaps you would like to grow your self-awareness or emotional intelligence? Each day remind yourself that you are doing this and when you have an opportunity to practice your personal quality, notice it and note how you use it. Over time it will shift, and you will find it easier to use consciously.


  1. What will you be curious about in 2019? Select one area to avoid overwhelming yourself. Will it be Artificial Intelligence, governance procedures, successful team leading, change management? The Future Shapers are diving deep into what defines collaboration. Your subject could be anything. Find a subject that sparks your interest and read about it. Go outside your usual reading networks, check out the local library, and get online to find more. Ask your peers what they know about the subject and whether they have any favourite books or articles. Dive right in and build your knowledge!


Don’t forget, this is about how you do things, not what you are doing. So, keep it manageable, keep it specific. Enjoy your learning!


There’s your 2019 plan!

  1. A skill to build
  2. A personal quality to grow
  3. A subject to know more about
  4. Your DLI networking group to bounce off and grow with


Perhaps 2019 is your year to step up and focus on major leadership development by doing the Future Shapers or undertake intensive individual development through coaching. Contact me directly if 2019 is your year to push your leadership development.


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So Many Assumptions

disabled people can’t do leadership

By Christina Ryan, DLI CEO


Its kind of strange, when you work alongside such impressive people every day you forget that the rest of the world still assumes that disabled people can’t do leadership.


Then there’s the assumption that we are all still at entry level and just lack confidence and training, that’s why we don’t get jobs or land board positions.


DLI member Jeanette Purkis highlighted some classic assumptions in a recent daily meme: “I have been told that as an autistic person I will always lack empathy, that I cannot have ‘proper’ friendships, will never feel love and will have to live with my parents for the rest of my life … and that was from the non-bullies!”


Then there was the conversation in the Future Shapers intensive workshop about a participant being sent off to “proper leadership training” after this if they were up for it. This to someone who was currently undertaking the same leadership development work that is compulsory for senior Federal Police teams.


What about the disability minister who referred me to the Paralympics Committee if I was looking for disability leaders to participate in the Future Shapers program. I wasn’t, I was suggesting that this minister might consider sponsoring someone from their jurisdiction to undertake the program, but apparently the only disability leaders they could envisage were elite sportspeople.


Oh, and the state bureaucrat who told me that “disabled people just can’t do most jobs in the public sector”.


Several leaders have contacted me recently after doing a well-known governance course. Their access needs hadn’t been well supported and they struggled to complete the training. It was assumed that they could manage if they just tried harder to overcome these access barriers, if they were genuine about their leadership development.


Then the Doing It Differently report noted that employees with disabilities are passed over for professional development opportunities while colleagues in their team are fast tracked for leadership, identified for development, or strongly encouraged to apply for senior positions.


Seeing a common thread here?


It appears that a major barrier to disability leaders achieving their aspirations is the attitudes of those around them, not a lack of ability or expertise or capacity.


Many people assume they are being inclusive, yet they are still making assumptions about disability leaders that act as real barriers to their leadership development.


Meaning well isn’t a solution, although it’s important, and it won’t overcome unconscious bias. For that we need disability leadership to be recognised and supported. Disability leadership is a thing and it is impressive and powerful and must be given the opportunity to flourish.


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Hostile Environments?

Learning workplace flexibility from disability entrepreneurs

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


Learning workplace flexibility from disability entrepreneurs


Recently, I had the enormous pleasure of speaking at a forum on disability entrepreneurship as part of the Victorian Small Business Festival. Thanks to AFDO for pulling it together. It was a wonderful event bringing together a panel of disabled entrepreneurs, in a room full of disabled entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. The event sold out in a day and a larger room was found, which indicates enormous interest in the subject.


Apparently people with disabilities are more likely than the general population to become entrepreneurs, yet curiously there are no programs to support this and no real recognition of this entire sector. Of course, the Disability Leadership Institute has many entrepreneurs as members and provides support for them to do their work, including peer groups.


Something quite interesting happened during the first panel event of the day – several of us realised that we were now in better shape than we’d been for a long time, despite working the long hours that entrepreneurship often demands. Entrepreneurs talked about being in less pain, having better mental wellbeing, sleeping better, having fewer down days, being able to reduce medication, and much more.


I wondered what this was about. How was it that so many disability entrepreneurs were finding their general health and wellbeing had improved, even though they were working harder than ever?


It seems to come down to 2 key factors:


  1. Being able to work flexibly and to your own rhythm.


Organisations still haven’t quite nailed flexible work and what it looks like. Having to turn up at an office between certain hours is very restrictive, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Disability entrepreneurs at the forum talked about napping in the afternoon before doing a few more hours before dinner; or using their middle of the night sleeplessness to best effect by talking to international colleagues or doing website updates; or starting early or late depending on individual biorhythms.


We are all very different and running our own businesses means we can work to our own beat and in our own way.


The upside of this is that you can work more hours because you can work when it suits you and when you are at your best. Those who have big peaks and troughs of energy / being at their best, were better able to push hard when they could and better able to manage downtime rather than trying to work through it to damaging effect.


It raises the question: is the 4 day week more effective for other reasons. Part time isn’t necessarily less capacity, it might actually create more.


  1. Not being subjected to hostile environments


It doesn’t seem to matter how much you love your job, or your team, the wider world is still an inherently hostile environment for most disabled people. Doors are too heavy, equipment is often not quite right, things happen unexpectedly to confront your equilibrium, and (awkwardly) there is a constant undercurrent of not quite appropriate commentary or inquiry about your disability.


Even at the most inclusive workplaces it can feel difficult to ask for something to be repeated yet again because a colleague forgot to face you during a meeting, or the background noise overrode what they said.


Asking for assistance, generally, can be very difficult and often doesn’t happen. Equipment takes months to arrive and then isn’t quite right, or your supervisor becomes obsessive with getting it right and you feel an obligation to be grateful while wishing they’d just let it go for a bit.


For those who are not openly disabled the pressures are even greater as they attempt to conceal their disability or minimise the environment’s impact on it.


Those in team leading positions often cite the need to gloss over when they aren’t feeling well to maintain team morale.


So, it doesn’t seem to matter where you work or who with, it grinds you down over time. This leads to poorer health and wellbeing, greater pain levels, less mental equilibrium and greater difficulty in sustaining peak performance.


Of course, the answer isn’t for everyone to become an entrepreneur or to work from their own location, that’s an unacceptable return to segregation for people with disabilities.


What becomes clear, though, is that we can never assume that the workplace we offer is “safe” for someone, or that it will work. We are still a long way from fully inclusive workplaces that are physically and emotionally safe for people with disabilities.


Complacency must be avoided as we learn valuable lessons about genuine flexibility, and what “safe” looks like, from disability entrepreneurs. As technology continues to take us places we never expected there are so many options arising for workplaces of the future and how they might operate. Flexibility has a long way to go and it means a lot more than just “working from home”.


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What’s with the entry level language?

People with disabilities need training and confidence building.

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


“People with disabilities need training and confidence building.”


I hear this one all the time, and its rubbish. Disability leaders are everywhere, but are regularly shut out of key opportunities, career paths, and even consultation processes. Not because we can’t do what’s required, but because of the assumption that we aren’t up to the job at hand.


An assumption that doesn’t reflect reality.


Recently, a key diversity organisation held a panel event about inclusive workplaces, and on face value this looked like a must-see event. On closer inspection, though, the language was all pitched at “get a job” entry level recruitment, and how to make sure your new employee was settling into the workplace. Sigh.


At a meeting last week, I was part of a conversation about getting more disabled people onto boards and committees. Great stuff! Once again, though, the conversation meandered into governance training and entry level board recruitment. Actually, plenty of disability leaders have formal governance qualifications, about 40 per cent of the National Register of Disability Leaders, we just can’t find boards that trust our expertise.


A roundtable I attended a few months back talked employment, but only in the context of entry level recruitment.


Then there was that bureaucrat I talked to recently who insisted that people with disabilities just can’t do most jobs in the public sector. I personally know 4 people who could have done their job without any trouble at all.


Sure, half of people with disabilities don’t participate in the labour force, but that means half of us do, and we haven’t just arrived, we’ve been there a while. So, why aren’t we doing better at finding our way to leadership positions?


Perhaps because the focus, and all resources, remains almost entirely at the entry level, and on training us and building our confidence. The continuing assumption that we need support to get going, to start, to find our way, is acting as a systemic barrier to our advancement within the organisations we are already in.


All the action plans, employment strategies, publicity campaigns, television series and conversation, talk entry level. I have yet to see one, and I’ve read lots, that goes beyond and recognises our career paths, expertise and value, which talks about leadership pathways or board room diversity.


Once you get us, you forget about us. That’s the message behind your entry level language.


Being stuck on entry level means there is no attention being given to career paths, targeting leadership talent and celebrating role models.


It also means the mainstream remains a lonely place and few disability leaders feel safe openly identifying in the workplace. Entry level language demeans disability leaders and homogenises us into a common stereotype as just starting out, unskilled, and requiring support. It might be good for your sense of charity and doing a good thing, but it doesn’t get us into the c-suite or the board room.


Mind your language. Address your unconscious bias about entry level and start talking leadership, career pathways and role models. If the assumption remains that we are all at the starting line, we will never get beyond it.


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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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