Develop, support, promote disability leaders

Tag Archive: disability leadership

  1. Not Like You

    A row of small white bowls on a wooden surface, each bowl has a different spice or liquid in it.

    By Christina Ryan DLI CEO


    Diversity means not like you.


    “Not like you” means people who approach problems differently, achieve outcomes differently, and who might look and sound different.


    Disability Leadership Institute members regularly report on ways that their workplaces insist they look the same, sound the same, approach problems the same, and work to achieve outcomes the same way as their manager or other team members. Sometimes this seems to be about “fitting in” and sometimes it seems to be generated by the manager’s discomfort with being around a disabled person, or in approaching work in a way that the manager isn’t familiar with.


    This is a form of discrimination and harassment. It is also an effective way to prevent the disabled person from working freely and productively. It is a very effective way of obliterating the diversity in the room.


    Somebody who stops being who they are and “fits in,” who works to change the way they work, is assimilating. Assimilation is not diversity, it is sameness.


    The point of diversity is to embrace difference and acknowledge its contribution to innovation and problem solving. When we put two heads together, we get a different outcome. When we put many heads together, we get a very different outcome.


    Why then do we have so much trouble embracing diversity in our workplaces? Difference, people who are not like you, makes for better decisions, better outcomes and faster problem solving.


    Many disability leaders report leaving their jobs because someone new comes into the team or into management. The most common reason is that the new person expects them to be someone they cannot be. They are expected to lose their difference, to become the person that the new person wants. To be just like the new person. To be not disabled. This is assimilation; you are welcome here so long as you look, work, and behave like me.


    Everyone is different. Every human is different. Yet, for some reason, disabled people are expected to not be different. We are expected to twist ourselves into being the same as other people so that we fit in.


    This is damaging, it is reducing the effectiveness and productivity of highly qualified staff, and it is preventing the realisation of inclusive and diverse workplaces where all are welcome.


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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. Expertise or Tokenism?

    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.

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

    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

  4. Carpe Diem

    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.











  5. Playing the substitute game

    The Substitute Game


    4 Blue Russian dolls of various sizes siting in a group.

    by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO

    If you were asked about your unconscious bias, or prejudice, what would you say? For many, it is a light touch to check on conditioned prejudice, and then attempt to change inbuilt habits. For others it is about denial and a claim that they aren’t prejudiced.


    All of us have conditioned prejudices. Assumptions that we make about “others” who are not like us. These assumptions are usually unconscious and based on decades, or centuries, of social norms and values that are part of the societies we live in.


    Checking our prejudice can be an uncomfortable activity. Turning an inward gaze to check on how inclusive or accepting we are can produce results that feel awkward.


    A nice little trick that can assist in checking where we land on inclusion and valuing of “others” is to play the substitute game. If you replace the diversity group you are talking about with another, would the sentence still sound okay?


    Some commonly heard assumptions for the disability community suddenly become statements of prejudice when we play the substitute game.


    1. “Its great to see you doing your company directors course, but disabled people aren’t good at being on boards.”


    Replace with – “its great to see you doing your company directors course, but people of colour aren’t good at being on boards.”


    1. “Don’t apply for your masters degree, you won’t meet competency because of your disability”


    Replace with – ““Don’t apply for your masters degree, you won’t meet competency because of your cultural background.”


    1. “You won’t be able to move into management. Its too demanding for disabled people.”


    Replace with – “You wont’ be able to move into management. Its too demanding for a woman.”


    1. “Disabled people can’t do politics and make tough decisions.”


    Replace with – “LGBTIQA+ people can’t do politics and make tough decisions.”


    Suddenly, these everyday common statements about disabled people become very unacceptable when applied to other diversity groups. All of these statements are real, some are actual quotes sourced from the LinkedIn posts of disabled people.


    Anyone can play the substitute game. Simply replace the diversity group you are talking about with another. It works best when you replace the “other” diversity group with your own. Would you accept being talked about like that? Would you agree with the assumptions if they were made about you?


    Prejudice and bias are uncomfortable. They are even more discomforting when we realise it is our own prejudice or bias. Until it is uncovered, though, it cannot be addressed. Very few people are deliberately prejudiced. Usually, once we realise that we have been conditioned to prejudice we are then able to address it and move towards the valued diversity that is a far richer way forward.


    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.