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The missing link in disability organisations

28 October 2021 at 7:54 am
Maggie Coggan
“I can’t see any other reason why it’s not changing, other than a lack of willingness” 

Maggie Coggan | 28 October 2021 at 7:54 am


The missing link in disability organisations
28 October 2021 at 7:54 am

“I can’t see any other reason why it’s not changing, other than a lack of willingness” 

On paper, Graeme Innes AM is without a doubt qualified to sit on the board of a charity.  

He served as Australia’s disability discrimination commissioner for nearly 15 years, has worked as a lawyer and company director, and sits on the board of disability charity Life Without Barriers. 

But despite all this, being born blind has meant missing out on a number of opportunities. 

“My disability is the reason that I’m not on a number of boards that I could have been on,” Innes told Pro Bono News.  

He said that while there had been moves in recent years to create more diverse boards, (particularly in the NFP sector), people with disabilities had been left out of the equation. 

“This is the same challenge that women faced getting onto boards, and the NFP sector really led the way in terms of having women on their boards and recognising the skills that they can bring,” he said. 

“But the sector is not taking that same leading role for people with disabilities.” 

A lack of diversity has it’s consequences

Of particular concern is the low number of people with disabilities sitting on the boards of disability organisations. These organisations range from charities, disability service providers, to regulatory bodies such as the National Disability Insurance Agency. 

In 2017, the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations criticised a decision by the federal government to not include anyone with a disability on the board of the NDIA. 

There are some outliers however. The Disabled Peoples Organisation Australia, an alliance of four peak disability bodies across the country – People With Disability Australia, National Ethnic Disability Alliance, First Peoples Disability Network, and Women With Disabilities Australia – requires boards of these organisations to be entirely made up of people with disability.

While there isn’t a whole lot of data on this issue, a 2019 report from People With Disability WA found that just 44 per cent of disability organisations in the state had board members with a disability. 

But as a person with disability, and from what she’s heard anecdotally,  Disability Leadership Institute CEO Christina Ryan, said that the problem is most definitely there, and that it’s having an incredibly negative impact on the effectiveness of disability services and programs.

“You’ve got people running organisations who don’t actually know anything about the services that are being delivered. They are not service users, and they never have been,” Ryan told Pro Bono News. 

“You have to fix the problem by actually doing what’s necessary to fix the problem, and that is appointing people with disabilities to the boards of disability organisations.”

“There’s also no shortage of disabled people with governance qualifications. Diversity produces better outcomes in conversations, and diversity means better problem-solving in organisations.”

Ryan drew a connection between the absence of people with disability at the top and the introduction of reforms such as the government’s proposed independent assessments scheme which advocates battled to shut down for a number of months.

“A bunch of people who are not disabled are actually making decisions about how disabled people live their lives, which in any other situation wouldn’t be ok,” she said. 

If there’s no will, there’s no way 

Ryan said that the lack of people with disability in these organisations was due to a single factor. 

“It’s basically prejudice,” she said. “These organisations will come up with almost any excuse to avoid electing disabled people to their boards and committees, or targeting disabled people to be on their boards and committees.”

She said it wasn’t a new issue, but one that disability advocates had been aware of and fighting against for a number of decades.

“I can’t see any reason why it’s not changing, other than a lack of willingness,” she said.

Targets must be set and action must be taken 

Innes and Ryan both said there were immediate steps that could be taken to ensure disability organisations had the diversity required to deliver good programs. 

Innes said that setting targets as part of strategic planning was a good first step. 

“Set a target to have 50 per cent of people with disabilities on the board, and then make plans as to how to reach that target,” he said. 

Ryan said that reaching these targets was something that the government could also step in with by making it a requirement in an organisation’s funding agreement that a certain percentage of the board was made up of people with disabilities. 

“So if you are a disability focused organisation… at least 50 per cent of your board should be disabled people,” she said. 

“Now if that was a funding requirement, I’m sure that these organisations would suddenly find an enormous number of disabled people coming out of the woodwork.” 

She said something else that needed to change was the methods that organisations (especially larger organisations) are using to recruit new members. 

“Some of these big service providers operate like corporations, which means they aren’t getting out into the community to find their board members, they’re far more likely to be doing it through recruitment companies, or their own networks, which is hardly going to be other people with disability,” she said.  

A future full of possibilities

Innes said that while there was a long way to go, the fight and the push to see true diversity on boards was a critically important one. 

“When I first joined the Life Without Barriers board and would go into one of its offices for the first time, the immediate assumption was that I was there as a client. There was never the possibility that I was either a staff member or a board member,” he said. 

“That was the culture that I was first met with, and that’s very different now. 

“One of the things that’s made a difference is the fact that I’m a person with a disability on that board, and other people with disability see that, removing their low expectations of what’s actually achievable.” 


If you’re interested in learning about how to improve your board diversity, check out these resources from Our Community.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

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

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One comment

  • Ewan Filmer says:

    Lets not forget that people with lived experience of disability can also be very useful on boards; particularly family members such as parents, siblings, partners and children of people with disabilities who walk every step with them on their journey.

    Is there a precise definition of disabled? A person who has a DSP? An NDIS participant? Somebody with neither but commonly seen as having a disability such as a person with an artificial limb who is fully independent?

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