Develop, support, promote disability leaders

Embracing Discomfort

Half lemons and limes sit on a bed of ice cubes.

by Christina Ryan DLI CEO


Many government agencies in Australia now use external recruitment companies to fill high level statutory appointments. They pride themselves on recruitment happening at arms length from decision makers. Unfortunately, most of these recruitment companies have little experience in disability leadership and even less understanding of the career paths of successful disability leaders.


Even when disability leaders are shortlisted for senior positions, recruitment panels and processes continue to use outdated “merit” based recruitment strategies which frequently overlook highly qualified and competent disability leaders in favour of those with no background in disability and no competence in the nuances and political sensitivities that have become vital to delivering the high pressure big budget outcomes now dominating disability policy and program areas.


When governments choose to do so, they seem able to find highly competent and qualified disabled people to fill positions, but they rarely choose to do so. They are not really seeking people who understand disability and the delicate politics of disability. Rather, they prefer to perpetuate the status quo of plodding ableism which misses the importance of consultation and codesign and imposes convenient solutions on the disability community. Solutions which keep the existing power structures in place and ensure the discomfort levels of those inside those power structures are minimised.


Change is often uncomfortable, and allowing disabled people into the rooms of power and decision making seems particularly discomfiting. Disability leaders often operate differently, and that difference causes discomfort. Disability leaders also know disability through lived experience, and that experience remains awkward, even threatening, to non-disabled people who have worked their way to the top through traditional means. Those inside the rooms of power deny access by suggesting that disabled people do not “fit” into the existing culture. What they mean is “the change you bring makes us too uncomfortable, so we are keeping you out to avoid that discomfort.” They have even changed the meaning of lived experience to include non-disabled people who have relationships to disabled people in an attempt to address this discomfort.


Culture comes from the top. Not having disability leaders in decision making rooms, means culture change isn’t happening, and the status quo is perpetuated. Non-disabled people continue to succeed in these “merit” based recruitment processes, poor policy and programs continue to be rolled out, and discomforting culture change is avoided. The Disability Leadership Institute continues to see eminently qualified disability leaders overlooked for positions, including disability related positions which require substantial disability expertise – many are not even shortlisted. Why? Because they do not have the same career paths as non-disabled candidates, and/or their expertise in disability is not valued and its certainly not welcome.


To succeed would be to confront the ableist power structures and create a culture change that governments say they support but continually fail to prove through implementation. So, disability leaders are kept out and the comfortable status quo remains.


Historically, disabled people have been seen as less than, as not as intelligent or competent, unable to face pressure or be resilient. In some cultures, kings who became disabled became ineligible to rule. Only the strongest and fittest were accepted as leaders. While these outdated ways of thinking rankle today, they still form the core of most of the cultural assumptions about disability and about what disabled people can do. They still form the core of the ableist power structures that dominate our society.


Leaders create and hold the culture of organisations. This is why it is crucial that governments and others actively appoint disability leadership to their senior ranks. Without a deliberate proactive campaign appointments will not result, and the culture of organisations will remain exclusive of disability. For organisations centred on disability policy and programs this has resulted in a catastrophic shortfall which perpetuates bad policy and delivery.


The continuing lack of disabled people in senior positions proves that existing recruitment processes are unable to produce an outcome that will change the status quo; a critical mass of disability leaders. The concrete ceiling will remain firmly in place unless specific deliberate directives are made by governments, ministers and agencies that disabled people will be the result of any process. Without such commitment, nothing will change.


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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.