Where are the leaders with disabilities?

Almost one in five Australians have a disability. Among them could be leaders with vitally important skills in decision making, strategic thinking, communication, trustworthiness, motivation and more. So where are our leaders with disabilities?

By Christina Ryan
Monday, May 1, 2017

Australians with disabilities sit on boards, lead teams, run organisations, and represent our communities from the local level right up to representing our country in international forums and at the United Nations.

Yet, when seeking diversity for our corporations, our board rooms, and as community leaders, disability is often forgotten. Some suggest that there are no leaders with disabilities; that the skill base is simply not there. Leaders with disabilities are rarely in the room, so they remain invisible. Few disability leaders are known. Even fewer are appointed or recognised.

People with disabilities have almost no presence in politics, high levels of business or government, or as members of boards or advisory groups. Often it is assumed that there are simply no people with disabilities qualified to operate at these levels, or that people with disabilities can only be experts in disability related areas.

Take a moment now, close your eyes, and name five Australian leaders with disabilities.

Now take out the Paralympians.

Not because Paralympians aren’t fantastic and aren’t leaders, far from it. But in Australia today, this is the only structured route to leadership if you are a person with disability.

How do we support leadership development for people with disabilities?

Australia has never had a cohesive ongoing program to identify, support, and develop leaders with disabilities. Discussions with colleagues in the disability rights movement could only identify five short-term, geographic-specific leadership projects for people with disabilities in over two decades. There are leadership programs for women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and people from culturally diverse backgrounds. In many cases there are also targets or quotas to improve the leadership presence of these other diversity groups, including the LGBTI community, but disability remains forgotten.

In 2016, the Disability Leadership Institute undertook a national survey of disability leaders. The outcomes were stark. Survey results clearly illustrated a lack of any systematic approach to disability leadership development across Australia. There is no likelihood of disability leadership at eighteen per cent, in proportion to their presence in the population, anytime soon.

The majority of survey respondents were undertaking leadership work using their own resources. While a small number were employed by organisations, the majority were undertaking leadership work in their communities without funding support. Most were working in disability related areas. Australia has one of the lowest disability employment rates in the OECD, and about half of all people with disabilities live below the poverty line, so cost is a major barrier to participation.

Many established disability leaders are regularly mentoring several emerging leaders simultaneously to ensure some continuity for leaders with disabilities over time. It is widely recognised that this is the only real development opportunity currently available.

There was little executive management training and support; most had been gained on the job. Training and development for leaders with disabilities is ad hoc, with no consistency in training received by anyone across governance, management, or community representation roles. No specialist disability leadership training was mentioned by survey respondents.

It appears that neither public nor private sector employers have targeted people with disabilities as leaders, or provided training or leadership coaching to progress their careers. Over 55 per cent of respondents to the DLI survey said that any training they received had not actually led to any leadership opportunities, or was irrelevant to the work they had subsequently undertaken in both leadership and representative roles.

Over 70 per cent of survey respondents had experienced barriers to undertaking leadership opportunities and development due to a lack of accessible format documents, discrimination, lack of reasonable adjustments including flexible hours, transport or travel difficulties, the extra hours required alongside regular commitments to achieve recognition or appointments, cost (most respondents were self-funding), the assumption that people were only experts in disability matters, and continuing suspicion that people with disabilities can’t make tough decisions. Respondents had been asked to deliver conference papers from the floor when accessible podiums were not provided, to pay for their own accessible format documents, to self-fund extra travel costs associated with interstate or international commitments, amongst other barriers.

There's more than one way to lead

A particular barrier for disability leaders is the ableist expectation that leadership is only possible within the current paradigm in which it sits. Leaders with disabilities were expected to operate without consideration that they might do so in a different way to existing norms, not just to accommodate their disability requirements, but as a result of viewing the world through a disability perspective. The 2016 survey showed that this lack of cultural awareness caused many leaders to abandon training or leadership opportunities due to discrimination and ableism. The term “exclusive” was used by several survey respondents.

Australia cannot continue to exclude 18 per cent of its leadership potential. It cannot continue to hope that disability leaders will emerge fully formed to take their place alongside the rest of the community. The few disability leaders there are have arisen by accident, rather than by design, and this is unacceptable. Alongside other diversity groups in our population, disability leaders require specific, targeted, culturally appropriate, ongoing development and support until critical mass is achieved. This support and development has never existed in Australia. It appears that it hasn’t even been considered.

If mainstream programs were working we wouldn’t be having this conversation — they aren’t, they haven’t yet, so it’s time for some specialist work to support one in five of Australia’s population to reach their potential, and to be seen as equals. The Disability Leadership Institute has been established by leaders with disabilities, for leaders with disabilities, to address the diversity imbalance. It’s time to change the way leadership is understood.

Christina Ryan is the founder of the Disability Leadership Institute and has been a leader in the Australia disability rights movement for over two decades. She is a 2017 Westpac Social Change Scholar.