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Putting Disability and Leadership in the Same Sentence

3 December 2018 at 8:56 am
Maggie Coggan
When disability advocate and entrepreneur, Christina Ryan, realised workplace programs helping people with disability into leadership roles were non-existent, she got angry. And then she started the Disability Leadership Institute, an enterprise that coaches, trains and supports people with disability into decision making and leadership roles. She’s this week's Changemaker.   

Maggie Coggan | 3 December 2018 at 8:56 am


Putting Disability and Leadership in the Same Sentence
3 December 2018 at 8:56 am

When disability advocate and entrepreneur, Christina Ryan, realised workplace programs helping people with disability into leadership roles were non-existent, she got angry. And then she started the Disability Leadership Institute, an enterprise that coaches, trains and supports people with disability into decision making and leadership roles. She’s this week’s Changemaker.   

With over 20 years experience and countless senior roles in sectors across the board, Ryan is as qualified as anyone to lead an organisation. But as soon as she enters a workplace with people she hasn’t met before, she notices the stark difference in the way she’s treated.

As Ryan puts it, she’s got a piece of hardware that comes with her you can’t miss her disability. But this means people talk about her like she’s not in the room, and think she can’t understand what they’re saying. It’s a painful level of prejudice that her and everyone else with a disability have to endure on a daily basis.

Workplaces across all sectors are attempting to bridge diversity gaps, but the largest minority people with disability aren’t getting a look in, especially at the top. This is what Ryan is fighting to change.

In this week’s changemaker, Ryan describes the fight to be heard as a woman with disability, explains why a world with disabled leaders would be a be a better place, and outlines the kind of world she wants her daughter to live in.

Was there a specific moment that sparked your activism?

I’ve spent 20 years or so working on violence against women with disability, and being extremely active in that space and doing a lot of work at the front end of disability advocacy. There were probably two things that really turned me into this space. The first was the second Four Corners report on violence against people with disability in their own homes which aired a year after the first one.

I remember when it aired, I was with my team at the advocacy organisation I was running at the time, and one of them turned to us and said, “Why won’t they listen to us? This is what we’ve been saying all along.”

It’s like no one had heard what we’d been saying for decades on the topic. Most of my team were people with disability so we get it. It’s really difficult to know that you’re busting your gut, you’re working yourself to the bone and nobody is hearing or listening to what you’re saying or doing. It’s actually something the rest of the world would prefer not to know about. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that it’s too hard for them to care. It became a really clear insight for me on that day as I listened to my team despairing about never being heard, and government not wanting to commit resources to this area.  

You now run the Disability Leadership Institute, how did that come about?

About six months after the Four Corners episode, I was invited to a COAG summit on violence against women. There were about 200 delegates at that summit, and out of 200 delegates there was three of us representing people with disability. We’re 20 per cent of the population, and at that summit, we were 1.5 per cent of the delegates. We spent the whole day trying to talk about violence against women with disabilities and what needs to happen. We were put in a group,  called the group of diversity with LGBTIQ women, men who’d experienced violence, and culturally diverse backgrounds. We had to battle tooth and nail to be heard in that space. After 20 years, that was just a heartbreaking experience. I came to realise something through that though. The problem with the appalling levels of violence people with disability particularly women live with, is that because we are so marginalised, and so unequal in our community, violence becomes possible. The only answer to it, is we need to be in the room for the decision making, we have to be the ones making the decisions, we have to be respected equals in the public domain, and visible, and understood as part of the fabric of our community and holding leadership roles.

I don’t need to point this out, but there’s not many of us in parliament in this country. We’re not on the ASX 200 boards, we’re not even on the boards of the community sector, which is doing the work that supports us. We’re not on the TV, or journalists, not the people driving public opinion. We just aren’t the ones making the decision and it will take an enormous effort to shift that, but that’s what the DLI is going to do. We must be in those spaces as equal participants. We’re not tapping on the door asking to be let in, we’re an expert and we should be in the room, and over time that will change.

Ryan delivering a talk at Defence Day

Even though you are a respected voice in the disability and NFP sector, do you still find you’re treated differently by people who don’t know you?

Of course, I’m a woman with disability! I come with a large piece of hardware, so there’s no hiding my disability. Within my own community I can speak up, and can be taken very seriously, and people actually listen to what I have to say. Yet when I go into the wider world and talk to government, corporate, and board directors, I’m a woman with disability, and I’m sitting down. The first thing that happens is I’m treated like a 15 year old, and there is a question mark hanging over my head the entire time of whether I know what I’m talking about or not, and whether I have any leadership credentials of any kind. The prejudice is quite profound, and there really is an incredible gulf of understanding about my leadership ability. It’s just not recognised that people with disability can be leaders. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve come up against in the last two years, and it’s been quite shocking. I knew there was prejudice, but the extent of it has shocked me.

When it comes to diversity in workplaces, people with disability aren’t really thought about, why is that?

Let’s not be polite about this, we aren’t thought of at all.

After I set up the institute, I applied for and won the Westpac social change fellowship. For my year of study I wanted to get an understanding of what had been done in other diversity areas, so that we could look at what we were doing in disability and how can we could do it better. On the very first day, it became very clear to me that disability was simply not part of the diversity conversation. There are a couple of our big corporates that have over ten per cent employment of disabled people. I spoke to five different public sectors during that year, and so many of them said, “we’re just doing gender first”. About half of them had been getting into the Indigenous space, most of them had LGBTIQ networks but not one of them had a focus on disability apart from entry level employment. There is an assumption that disabled people don’t, and can’t work, and what we need is to have our confidence built up, and just to be given a bit of a chance. It’s what you might call a pat on the head, or what Andrew Denton would call, a patronising bastard.

What I found was there wasn’t a single, disability focused leadership program, it was all focussed on entry level positions. It’s not even like Australia is lagging behind in this area, because no one is doing anything.

This isn’t just about giving people an opportunity. There’s a huge number of people with disability already employed who don’t feel safe talking about their disability. There’s a large number of people at the executive level, where the minute they talk about their disability, or seek workplace assistance, they are encouraged to walk out the door.

Ryan at a speaking event

As the disability advocacy voice gets louder, will a cultural shift happen for people with disability?

It’s a massive inbuilt prejudice in our wider community. The rest of the world doesn’t even see the profound discrimination that’s happening, and it’s difficult, because I would say the vast majority, genuinely mean well, and want to help people with disability. If you think back a few years, the most popular tax in the history of Australia was the extended medicare levy to cover the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The country rose up to the government and told them they needed to do it. It also means they are treating us like eggshells, and that we’re not actually able to speak for ourselves, we’re not able to do something difficult or make hard decisions.

Even though DLI aren’t into lobbying, we constantly promote the work of our members through all of our social networks, highlighting that this person’s off doing a writers festival, or delivering a workshop or assisting a company with their consulting or elected to boards. We do that and do it as much as we can. We also have our members sharing with each other their latest achievements. It seems like a weird space, where you are constantly talking about yourself and how good you are, but the people with disability are encouraged not to do that, and we need to so that we can show people we can be leaders.

How does it make you feel when you’re able to share stories of your members kicking goals?

I get out of bed for this sort of stuff! There are people with disability all over the planet, doing highly successful podcast series, getting themselves in the media, being writers and being signed up to the New York Times, how amazing is that! We had the Access to Fashion, as event as part of the Melbourne Fashion Week, by one of the first blind fashion designers, and they are a DLI member. I know they’re out there and they exist, but the wider world still gets very surprised.

Do you think there is positive change happening?

We are starting to see more people being asked to sit on boards, governments know they need to start having quotas for employment and for their boards and committees. The Victorian government is leading the way in that one they’ve just released a plan with a six per cent disability employment target. We’re still talking to them about leadership, but they’ve also got a program that we’re part of to get people with disability on boards and committees, in the same way that they’ve committed to having women.

There’s obviously still a long way to go though, in the community sector especially, who really need to walk the talk. How many organisations providing disability services, actually have numbers of disability on their boards? Not the token person, but numbers of people in their management team. We need that happening so that the culture of workplaces starts to change.

How would the world be different with people with disability at the top and in leadership roles?

Firstly we are the masters of flexible work. Flexible work isn’t just being able to work from home, it’s being able to work to your own rhythm in a way that maximises your own output. We have so many disability entrepreneurs, who hire disabled people and are incredibly successful. Part of that is knowing what it takes to get the best out of our team. That translated into the wider workforce is going to make a huge difference to everyone. If everyone is actually working to their capacity, instead of fitting into the nine to five box, I think we’d have much more effective organisations.

The other big outcome, is the increase in diversity which so much research shows provides greater innovation, better bottom line, and much greater problem solving right across your organisation. We want a more innovative, agile, switched on workforce that can confront some of the big intractable issues like homelessness, violence, some of the things that no one seems to know the answers for. If we actually had those diverse workforces with a good proportion of people with disability, we might start to see some of those really big problems shift. Australia slipped ten points in the global competitiveness index and if we want to remain competitive, be at the forefront of of how to actually move forward with climate change and life on Mars, we need diverse workforces.

How has this experience changed you?

I’ve been on my own leadership development, one that’s unique. One of the things about leadership development and training programs, is they often trek people off into the wilderness, and I look at that and think, well that’s not going to be any of us is it? The reason they do that, is because it’s pushing people to their limits and so they understand themselves better. In the disability community, we go through a process like that everyday, especially for those who are active being leaders in the community. We’re constantly having to reframe the world so we can operate in it. I’ve been learning that all the way through, that constant process, how to work with all sorts of people. I absolutely love the diversity of the NFP sector. Everyday you have to deal with people for themselves, you cannot operate generically. That’s one of the most enriching experiences and I just loved it. It’s also taught me to sit back and not make assumptions, to actually ask people what needs to happen, and not assume what they need.

One of the things we’ve all learnt collectively as a result, is resilience. That ability to just keep going, because often no one else will care, nobody else wants to look at our issues, and so we need to keep going and work a way around things.

What is the thing you want to see for future generations?

I had my first great niece last Friday, so I’m in a “new-baby-what’s-the-world-going-to-be like-for-her” mode. I don’t often put too much into this to be honest, but I look at her, and think, when she gets to be my age, I’d like to think that 20 percent of our federal parliament is disabled people. We actually would have people on those ASX 200 boards. It’s about getting those major companies and government departments being run by disabled people, simply because they are very good at doing it. People with disability aren’t just interested in disability, we’re interested in all sorts of things. My expertise is in executive management and government, and yet that’s not where I work.

It’s very much where women were at 40 or 50 years ago, I’d like to see that shift for disabled people in another 50 years. I think that would be a substantial shift to really know that we’re getting somewhere and we are being believed.    

I want to just point out, I’m not going to wait 50 years for that to happen because that will make me annoyed. I expect it to happen sooner. What I find funny, is when I put leadership and disability in the same sentence, people are quite surprised, mainly because it had just never occurred to them. A big part of it is just getting out there and actually putting the words in the same sentence, and that alone is shifting ground and making a difference.     

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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