Develop, support, promote disability leaders

Category Archive: Article

  1. Expertise or Tokenism?

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    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)


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

  2. Gaps

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    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.


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

  3. Carpe Diem

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    Carpe Diem

    by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO

    2 big bolts of lightning are flashing down towards a city against a dark blue sky.

    In the wake of the Disability Royal Commission, many Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) members have been asking “what now?” Further conversations have recognised that the status quo is not an option, and that disability leadership is vital to the way forward.


    The federal government has declared its intention to establish a task force to examine the Royal Commission recommendations and develop a government response to them, but what will that look like?


    Had the Royal Commission report been released more than five years ago, things would be different, but a shift has since occurred, and we now know that disability leadership is widespread, available, and capable of leading the response and implementation processes.


    Disability Leadership Institute members have been discussing what disability leadership must look like during this critical period and have determined two key areas of focus for the disability community:


    1. Expect to be at the forefront


    Historically, disabled people have been pushed into politely asking to be included. Disabled people have tapped delicately on doors and waited to be allowed entry to decision making and agenda setting rooms. Often those rooms haven’t even been accessible.


    Beyond the Royal Commission it is now time to move towards “expecting” positions of decision making and leadership, including the expectation that the government task force is led by a disabled person and most of its staff are also disabled people.


    This expectation extends to other governments and their responses, plus a wider expectation that disability services and other industries (like health and education) also have disability leadership guiding implementation processes. For many this will involve building levels of disability leadership as an urgent priority.


    Centuries of conditioning have told disabled people that anything beyond politely asking is aggressive or rude. These are deliberate mechanisms used by those in power to prevent marginalised voices from gaining access to the centre of things – to preserve the status quo. It is now time to turn to expecting to be in the room as we disrupt the status quo and design our own future.


    1. Language


    One major theme of Royal Commission recommendations centres on ending segregation.


    Many conversations, opinion pieces and lobbying efforts in the public domain since the Royal Commission report was released have attempted to qualify what segregation is and have justified retaining it in some form. DLI members, alongside many in the disability community, have been clear about the importance of ending segregation and ensuring that this pivotal moment to do so is not lost. Some DLI members have formed action groups and others have used their public profiles to raise awareness about this central aspect of ableism. Noticeable for its absence in these circles has been any argument to continue segregating disabled people.


    A key plank in the segregation of disabled people has been the historical development of an entire lexicon of euphemisms designed to soften segregation’s harsh reality, to make its continuation more palatable to those who wield it. Words like special, specialist, and sheltered have become synonymous with disability services. Those words must now disappear.


    Now is the time to cease euphemising segregation and start calling it what it is – deliberate separation that keeps disabled people away from mainstream communities and which perpetuates damaging attitudes and fear of those who are different. It is one of the root causes of ableism.


    Disability leaders have a role to play in using the language of truth and being unafraid to do so. Its time to cease protecting the sensibilities of those who have created and perpetuated separation, and the world of patronising protectionism, and start naming the ableism that it represents.


    Disabled people have a right to be in the world alongside everyone else. Disability leaders expect to take the lead and must be in the forefront in building the implementation of the Royal Commission’s findings. Given that many have suggested the Royal Commission’s recommendations might be viewed as conservative, as they stem largely from non-disabled voices, they should also be seen as a baseline rather than something that needs further negotiation.


    The time for disability leadership is now as we move into expecting outcomes and expecting disability leadership. Our days of tapping politely on the door and asking for permission are over.


    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.











  4. The view from first base

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    The view from first base

    By Christina Ryan, DLI CEO

    A gold medal with a windblown red ribbon above it.



    The Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) has just marked our seventh anniversary. Apart from celebrating our survival as a small social enterprise, this gives us a great opportunity to reflect on what we have come to understand about the practice and development of disability leadership.


    Over seven years at the DLI our members have had numerous conversations about the many facets of disability leadership. This has given us an ability to consider what disability leadership is, how it’s done, and how disability leaders are reshaping the understanding of both work and leadership.


    Where is disability leadership up to?


    We are still near the beginning. Australia’s Disability Strategy mentions leadership once, in passing on page 33, so there are no outcomes under the Strategy attached to leadership.


    There remains very little research into the experience of disability leadership; how it evolves, what pathways are most effective, what training and resources are required, what disability leadership looks like and why.


    We are still facing an uphill battle to access the same levels of professional development as our non-disabled colleagues, particularly specialist leadership development. When all other diversity areas have specialist development, disabled folks are expected to hack it in the mainstream where disability is poorly understood, and ableism remains widespread. We know mainstream leadership programs aren’t working because we are still waiting for them to produce tangible results.


    We are still in a world where over 90% of organisations say that disability diversity is important yet less than 4% of those same organisations have specific mechanisms in place to achieve it.


    We still have a push by all governments on entry level employment, when we know that it is diverse leadership which results in a more diverse workforce, not the other way round. There is no such thing as trickle up diversity. This has been understood by diversity practitioners for decades, so why is disability still getting the old treatment?


    We need commitments from government and the broader community to building disability leadership so that the cultural shift happens, and inclusion becomes a reality. Disability leadership will require reportable targets and substantive long-term commitment. Otherwise it won’t happen.


    However, we may have reached a tipping point. Disability leadership is now firmly on first base. Seven years ago first base was yet to be built.


    Mainstream conference organisers have added disability leadership summits to their suite of offerings. Only a couple of years ago this would have been unthinkable. Summits that are run by non-disabled people who have realised that there is something happening in disability leadership, and they want a part of it. Consider the progress that this represents.


    When the Disability Leadership Institute first put the 2 words disability and leadership into the same sentence seven years ago, nobody else was saying it. Now it’s a term used by governments, diversity practitioners and increasingly the wider community. Disability is increasingly recognised as a part of the broader diversity equation.


    It has also become clear that people will openly identify as disabled if there is something in it for them. When the DLI has run in house disability leadership programs, organisations have been surprised at the numbers of people coming out of the woodwork to participate, when previously those people had not openly identified at work. Why, because only disabled people could express interest in participating. In other words, there was suddenly a benefit to being disabled.


    The DLI CEO internship program, which is now expanding into a broader executive internship program, is attracting strong interest from all kinds of organisations. Still in its early stages this program uses a co-CEO model to bring an executive ready disability leader into an organisation right at the top to work alongside an experienced CEO. We have started in the disability services sector but hope to expand it to any organisation that wishes to participate.


    A growing number of organisations use the National Register of Disability Leaders to source talent for a wide range of positions, as there is an increasing understanding of the value of real diversity in executive and board rooms.


    The National Awards for Disability Leadership are now in their sixth year and acknowledge the outstanding work of disability leaders. It is the first time there have been awards by disabled people for disabled people.


    The increasing power of employee disability networks is testament to the increased awareness of major employers of the importance of disability leaders in workplaces and the contributions they are making to cultural reform.


    There is some progress, there are glimmers of excitement and hope that we can celebrate. What will disability leadership look like in another seven years? How much closer to equality for disabled people will we be?


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

  5. No Business Case Required

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    No Business Case Required

    An old grey suitcase with  gold coloured snap closures. It is sitting on a luggage rack.

    By Christina Ryan, DLI CEO


    When working to improve diversity in board rooms and executive teams disabled people are told to make the “business case” for being in these rarified environments.


    Yet, other groups, most notably those who created these spaces, and have been there all along, are not asked to make any business case to be present. Rather, they continue to be appointed to positions based on “merit” – that is, whether they are in the right networks and “fit in” to the existing culture. In other words, people who look like the people who are already there.


    If a business case was required our parliaments, board and executive rooms would lose most of their current population. Yet somehow people from preferred networks continue to be appointed without any business case to prove their worth.


    Why, then, are disabled people expected to prove our worth before we are allowed admittance?


    The “business case” is another gate that disabled people must pass through to get to a world where we are equal. A gate that is kept by non-disabled people. An ableist gate which demands that disabled people prove we can operate in a space created by non-disabled people where they set the rules and can be comfortable, and face no challenges to their status quo.


    There is a wealth of research about the benefits of diversity; how it improves bottom lines, decisions made, productivity outcomes, and innovation levels. Yet each diversity group is required to prove its worth before being allowed admittance. Now, apparently, it is the turn of disabled people to prove our worth, to put our business case to pass through this gate.


    Business cases are reserved for those on the outside of the right networks, those who are hoping to be allowed in, not those who have the right friends and find themselves already on the inside.


    To require an entire diversity group to make a business case is systemic discrimination, otherwise known as ableism.


    To exclude an individual person because they are disabled is discrimination, also known as ableism.


    There are plenty of highly competent and qualified disabled people who should be appointed to boards and executive teams. It is not the lack of a business case that is preventing these appointments. It is the discomfort of those on the inside, those whose status quo is being challenged. Those who somehow feel that disability equates to incompetence and inexperience.


    Some of these people fear being upstaged by a disabled person who is more competent or qualified than they are. Unfortunately, many of these people also hold the keys to the gates of equality and they won’t let us in.


    No business case is required to advance equality for disabled people. Rather it is the willingness of those keeping gates to open them.


    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.