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 I read on holidays

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


I read, a lot. Being on holiday really gives me time to dig a bit deeper and read a lot more than I usually would because I have a lot more down time while I’m up and about.


One thing I have always stuck to: I never read anything except fiction in bed. Its just how it works for me. Once I switch off I prefer to give my brain time to travel and I particularly love science fiction (got that from my parents), fantasy, and dystopian stuff.


I’m really privileged because my local public library runs a home library service for disabled people and others who struggle with getting to the library or getting around the library. Every month I drop in, with an assistant, and pick up a sack of books. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re awful, but there is always something in there that I never would have read otherwise and love. I’ve found some great authors this way and can’t speak highly enough of the volunteers at the Home Library Service. It’s like Christmas all year.


When I’m up and about and/or working I read a lot of articles that might be of interest to our members, but I also read heaps of leadership and management stuff that sparks interest for me. I got lucky this holiday with the new edition of Harvard Business Review arriving the week before I went away, so I got some great breakfast reading easily packaged.


Having more time for reading is a gift. It’s a great reminder why holidays are good for so many reasons. Here’s the list of what I read during my holiday.




The latest Harvard Business Review did this great series on how CEOs manage their time and how that reflects on their leadership:


  1. How CEOs Manage Time
  2. What Do CEOs Actually Do?
  3. One CEO’s Approach to Managing His Calendar



How to Prepare for a Panel by Dorie Clark in Harvard Business Review.


4 Questions to Ask Yourself on Your Next Vacation by Art Markman in Fast Company.


Do Your Employees Feel Respected? By Kristie Rogers in Harvard Business Review


The Other Diversity Dividend by Paul Gompers and Silpa Kovvali in Harvard Business Review


Creating a Purpose Driven Organization by Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakor in Harvard Business Review




Blue Ocean Shift by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne


Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre edited by Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan




I listened to this podcast about Quantum Computing on Westpac Wire


And because:

The Best Business Book You’ll Read All Year Will Be a Novel by Art Markman in Fast Company

I read fiction, and lots of it:


The Good People by Hannah Kent

Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley (he’s a Canberra boy!)

Obelisk by Stephen Baxter

Eternity by Greg Bear


I still ended up with a stack of reading that I wanted to get to but didn’t manage. That’s okay, holidays are also important for not being too structured and for getting caught up with unexpected fun things!


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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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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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