The view from first base
The view from first base
By Christina Ryan, DLI CEO
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.