Develop, support, promote disability leaders

The answer is disability leadership – article

The answer is disability leadership

A red background with 3 wooden people abstract figures







by Christina Ryan, DLI CEO


In late 2022, the federal government convened a forum to discuss the National Disability Strategy. The final panel examined the issue of “attitudes” – a regular topic of conversation amongst those wanting to see improvements in disability equality.

An unusual feature of this final panel was that the topic of disability leadership came to the fore. Leadership rarely gets mentioned as a way of shifting attitudes towards disabled people, and is mentioned only once in the national strategy, in passing, on page 33.

Disability leadership remains a vague and ephemeral concept to many in positions of leadership and decision making. Many refer to it as something they support, but it becomes clear that very few are doing anything to make it reality. At the national strategy forum disability minister after disability minister talked about how important advances in disability equality were, yet none were disabled people and none have made clear how disability leadership will contribute to outcomes they are working towards.

In other diversity areas leadership has been openly recognised for some time as a major plank on the long road towards equality. Banks have 50 per cent leadership targets for women on their boards and executive teams. Major corporates have entire business units focused on Indigenous work, run by First Nations People. Political parties have quotas for preselecting women and appointing them to leadership positions. Governments have Indigenous business procurement policies. Major corporates have sustainability and human rights requirements for their suppliers, yet do not mention disability except to support sheltered workshops (which pay low wages and are not run by disabled people).

These targets, quotas and strategies across a broad array of diversity areas recognise that leadership is the game changer that normalises the voices, expertise and competence of marginalised groups. It is also well understood that when diverse people are in leadership positions, they build more diverse workforces. Diverse leadership then acts as a catalyst to building more inclusive cultures in organisations because culture comes from the top.

No government or business organisations have strategies in place to build disability leadership. No political parties have preselection policies to increase disability representation in our parliaments. Very few disability service providers have any disability leadership, with even fewer having any intention to change that.

The statistics on disability have not shifted for decades. Employment levels remain stubbornly low. Political representation remains negligible – only 4 openly disabled parliamentarians across Australia’s 9 parliaments. Less than 25 per cent of disability services have any presence of disabled people in their board rooms, and less than 20 per cent employ disabled people at management level.

Despite the lack of progress in disability equality over several decades, leadership is mentioned only once on page 33 of the national strategy. It is not afforded a specific KPI and it is never discussed as a potential contributor to achieving outcomes.

Only recently have any Australian governments put disability employment targets (not quotas) in place for their public sector workforces. The National Disability Insurance Agency has recently admitted that it has no disability leadership strategy or targets. Governments and corporates have no disability procurement policies in place designed to support disability owned and led businesses.

Leadership is recognised as a vital contributor to equality for other diversity groups, yet it remains off the table in disability policy and strategy. There is no recognition that a presence of disability leadership will see an increase in disability employment, and the consequential shift towards more inclusive workplaces. Government strategies remain stubbornly welded to entry level employment, despite that strategy achieving no outcomes for several decades.

Once upon a time it was assumed that there were no women capable of moving into board rooms, parliaments or executive suites. Today it is well understood that this assumption was based on prejudice not reality.

The answer is disability leadership, yet prejudice is getting in the way.


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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.