In this iteration of Practical Inclusion – a series of conversations with leading Diversity and Inclusion practitioners working to create change – I was thrilled to speak to Christina Ryan, CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, a professional hub for disability leaders.
When she was setting it up in 2016, Christina counted only six disability leadership programs, which were location-specific or pilot programs, targeted at disabled people over two decades. There were no sustained efforts to develop leadership in the disability space, prior to her work. “So, hello Disability Leadership Institute. Here I am,” Christina said.
It’s this action that gets to the heart of what Practical Inclusion is about – the steps we can take to create meaningful, sustainable change in organisations. Christina says, “I’ve always been an activist. I’ve always been a change-maker. It’s what I do, it’s what people in my family do. It’s sort of the family business!”
It was a privilege to hear Christina speak about her experiences and, in particular, I was struck by the inability of many to treat disabled people as leadership potential. We need to challenge our assumptions, biases and ideas around this to improve and foster Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace. Here’s what you can do.
“There is an endemic level of violence against disabled people globally. And this is not just about segregated environments, although a lot of it is, it’s an assumption that disabled people are worth less,” Christina said.
She notes that barriers to inclusion for disabled people are all connected to prejudice. She says, “One of the things that starts to become obvious is that people don’t see you as credible. It doesn’t matter how much of an expert you are at something, how much experience you have or how long your CV is – you are never good enough. People can’t quite believe that disabled people will be as good or better than they are.”
“Another barrier is the ‘can’t hack the pace’ thing,” she said. This is centred on false beliefs that “the minute the going gets tough they won’t be able to make difficult decisions or they’ll have to have the day off. When anyone who knows disabled people, particularly disabled women and female identifying folk, recognises that we’re some of the toughest people on the planet.”
Christina also explains that there are challenges around access, where creating change becomes the responsibility of the disabled person rather than the organisation. “It becomes another battle that you have to fight,” she said.
When it comes to Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace for disabled people, I don’t see a lot of action yet. Organisations might have an expired disability action plan, and intend to redo it, but that’s usually the extent of its efforts.
So, what can organisations do to create meaningful change? It’s simple: make sure you have disabled people in the room.
“If we’re not in the room, if we’re not part of the conversation, we’re forgotten,” Christina said. She also emphasised the importance of recognising that people communicate in different ways and that learning how to listen is crucial.
She continues: “I had this moment of clarity where I realised we need to get equal, and getting equal means being in leadership spaces, it means making the decisions, it means being respected as credible, equal members of the community. The only way you get to do that is if you get out there and participate in having an opinion, in being listened to and in making decisions, not just for yourself but for the broader community.”
“This is where advocacy comes in – [a disabled person] might have an advocate who assists them to be heard. There is no such thing as a person who can’t speak for themselves, only people who don’t get listened to.”
Research conducted by the Disability Leadership Institute indicates that advisory groups don’t contribute to cultural change within organisations.
“We discovered that advisory groups don’t work because when someone starts to say something a little bit awkward, it gets forgotten or sidelined. [A person] might get appointed to an advisory group but their voice is not respected or valued in the same way as it would be if that person was sitting in the boardroom,” Christina says.
“If they’re in the boardroom, they’re part of a collective decision-making process. Their opinion cannot be discarded in the same way that an advisory group can.”
“If you work for an organisation, there is no excuse. Don’t make up for the lack of [diverse] people on your board, executive team or at management level by having a bunch of people in the room next door that you speak to when it suits you,” she said.
If your organisation needs support in working towards inclusion for disabled people, visit the Disability Leadership Institute’s Business Directory. Here you’ll find expert consultants in disability leadership.
For more information about Practical Inclusion, follow me on LinkedIn or subscribe to my YouTube channel for updates. You can also revisit past conversations on my Practical Inclusion playlist on YouTube.
03 August 2020
26 October 2022
18 April 2022