Develop, support, promote disability leaders

Author Archives: Christina Ryan

  1. Expertise or Tokenism?

    Leave a Comment

    A close up picture of the face of an owl with big yellow and black eyes and very brown and white spotted feathers.


    By Christina Ryan, DLI CEO

    Leadership diversity without tokenism remains an inconsistent achievement for many organisations. References to appointments made on “merit”[1] continue to dominate conversations, yet tangible outcomes for disability leadership diversity seem elusive.


    Recent conversations with highly experienced disability leaders have revealed a disturbing common thread; our substantial qualifications and expertise are what gets us into positions of senior leadership, but once we are in the room our disability apparently becomes the dominant factor for those around us.


    It seems that highly qualified and experienced leaders, despite their levels of ability, still face significant ableist barriers even when they hold senior positions. Additionally, these highly experienced leaders have been told they are appointed on merit, yet they are the first to go in restructures or when budgets become tight. The Disability Leadership Institute has heard many stories, across all industries, in the last year alone.  Is this merit, or tokenism?


    Somehow people struggle to recognise us as experts, even though they insist that we have been appointed on merit. With so few openly disabled leaders in senior positions this is a problem. Why would someone openly identify as disabled if it results in tokenism, or when they will be first out the door during restructures or redundancies?


    The road to disability leadership diversity is paved with good intentions, but while the roadblocks continue the end of the road will remain unreachable. Appointing disability leaders is one thing, keeping them when times get tough seems less important.


    Disability leaders will do things differently, which means they often don’t fit the culture that they are entering. Perhaps it is these different methods of operation that make others uncomfortable. Senior disability leadership is still highly unusual and remains confronting for many others in senior leadership positions to accept. DLI members have heard colleagues ask: how can someone who is disabled also be the most competent, qualified, experienced person for the job?


    Like anyone, disability leaders work hard to achieve senior leadership, yet it appears that many of their senior leadership colleagues and peers think their disability was more of a factor in their appointment than their expertise. This is unconscious bias writ large. The assumption that an appointment is token provides a convenient solution to those who feel threatened by the competence and expertise of disability leaders. After all, how could a disabled person possibly be the best person for such a senior position?


    Focussing on disability to avoid recognising the competence and expertise of disability leaders is both ableist and patronising. It acts as a significant barrier to appointments.


    The lack of tracking data to monitor how organisations sustain senior disability appointments is also troubling. It means that disability leaders can be last in first out when restructures or redundancies occur and there is no way of noticing that it is happening.


    There remain substantial barriers to achieving disability leadership diversity, and without diverse leadership organisations lose productivity, struggle to build a diverse workforce and are in danger of going the way of many other dinosaurs.


    [1] “merit” is a dubious concept which implies that people are appointed entirely because of their qualifications and / or expertise. Avoiding The Merit Trap (Champions of Change, Chief Executive Women 2016)


    Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

    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.

  2. DLI members in the news – December 2023/January 2024

    Leave a Comment

    Melissa Hale – Melissa Hale is changing the game for deaf women in cricket

    Lisa Stafford – Disabled Travellers Face Discrimination: Seeking Change and Redress

    Shane Hryhorec – Glenelg’s accessibility beach mats open 24/7 across the next two weeks

    Lisa Stafford – Travellers with disability often face discrimination. What should change and how to complain.

    Lisa Cox – Representation shouldn’t be rocket science (paywalled)

    Shane Hryhorec – Beaches that roll out welcome mat for the less mobile

    Caroline Bowditch – Alter State igniting hope through Disability Leadership

    Shane Hryhorec – Disability advocates call for government investment to improve Australian beach accessibility

    Lisa Cox – Diversity in advertising and the high fashion glass ceiling 

    Shane Hryhorec – First-ever all-inclusive & accessible membership-based gym opens in SA

    Shane Hryhorec – Australia’s first inclusive gym opens in Port Adelaide


    December 2023

    Megan Spindler Smith – CEO internship, a first of its kind learning experience for all

    Kate Taylor – Speed dating with an inclusive twist

    Gemma Smart – CAPA board passes motion removing SUPRA voting rights

    Frances Kupke- Smith – Beyond barriers: Advocate sheds light on the challenges at disability expo

    Christina Ryan – The Drum

    Akii Ngo – Birthday party part of the search for inclusivity


    Jane Britt – Things I wish I’d known before an emergency — Notes on the Brisbane floods from someone who’s deafblind

    Disability Leadership Institute – Disabled voices leading the national conversation

    Tricia Malowney – Kinetic invests in enhanced accessibility in Melbourne

    Carol Taylor – The rise of adaptive fashion

    Disability Leadership Institute, Christina Ryan – People with disability recognised for making an impact

    Disability Leadership Institute – ABC features stories for, by and about Australians living with disability

  3. Recipients announced! National Awards for Disability Leadership

    Leave a Comment

    The Recipients of 2023 National Awards for Disability Leadership are:


    Lesley Hall Award for Lifetime Achievement – Ben Clare

    Rights Activism  – Heidi La Paglia Reid

     Inclusion – Akii Ngo

    Innovation – Robert King

    Social Impact – James Parr

    Change Making – Sarah Joyce

    Arts – Natalia Stawyskyj

    The Team DSC logo




    The #DisabilityAwards2023 is proudly supported by Team DSC, Australia’s leading training, conference and consulting group specialising in the NDIS.


  4. Gaps

    Leave a Comment

    A river flowing through a gap in two steep cliffsGaps

    By Christina Ryan, DLI CEO


    Organisations striving to improve their disability diversity want to achieve substantive outcomes. Many are now attempting to measure inclusion.


    Unfortunately, inclusion is a highly subjective concept so measuring it is challenging. What exactly might measuring inclusion look like, and how can it be compared to inclusion in other organisations so that benchmarking across industries becomes possible?


    Rather than measure ephemeral concepts, organisations could achieve more tangible outcomes by measuring gaps. Disability diversity is either present or it isn’t. Measuring gaps across a range of key areas will indicate what progress an organisation has made towards inclusion, while also indicating specific areas for improvement.


    Openly identifying

    Most organisations run an annual staff census to gauge workforce sentiment across a range of areas, including whether people identify as disabled. These surveys are usually anonymous which means people can safely share information that they otherwise would not.


    For at least the last decade most of these workforce surveys return results showing a level of people with disability that is around twice that of people who are known as openly disabled in that workplace. In other words, approximately half of the disability workforce in most organisations is not being open about their disability. This gap is a key indicator of inclusion because it points to the level of psychological safety that is, or is not, present.


    Comparing anonymous reporting levels to openly known levels is a key gap to monitor. The target outcome is parity between the two figures.



    How many disabled people apply for jobs with an organisation, compared to how many are recruited? This gap speaks to styles of recruitment, advertising, and interview processes; all of which can be adjusted to be more inclusive. Advertising often includes specific requirements which exclude disabled people, and which are often not necessary for the position concerned. Interview processes are held in inaccessible locations or present barriers which do not necessarily produce the most competent person for the job, for example speed writing exercises or rapid problem solving. Adjusting interview processes to reduce barriers has the potential to increase the numbers of disabled people who get recruited.


    Measuring the numbers of people who declare their disability prior to interview, with the numbers of disabled people who actually get a job is another key gap that can be measured over time. The outcome to achieve is application and recruitment levels equivalent to population density.



    A key workforce diversity building block is diverse leadership. It has long been understood that diverse leadership leads to a more diverse workforce.


    Organisations can measure the levels of diversity in their senior leadership teams and on their boards and work to build greater levels across all diversity cohorts. These levels should reflect the population levels of the various diversity cohorts unless the organisation works in a specific diversity area and then the levels would be expected to be much higher for that diversity cohort. The gap between population levels and leadership levels can be addressed through targeted recruitment and career pathway strategies.


    Another element of monitoring leadership is to understand the presence of disability in the broader workforce and whether that is reflected in the presence of disability within the leadership of that organisation. Is disability present across all levels of the organisation or is it clustered at more junior levels? For example, if an organisation has 5 per cent disability levels in its workforce, are 5 per cent of its leadership also openly disabled people?


    Monitoring gaps can provide substantive measurable indicators of how inclusive an organisation is. Monitoring these gaps over time will also indicate whether an organisation is improving. These indicators are not subjective, rather they are based on specific empirical evidence and can be used across a wide range of organisations and industries.


    Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute. 

    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.