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Putting intersectionality at the heart of governance


3 March 2023 at 2:56 pm
Danielle Kutchel
Ruby Susan Mountford has plenty of lived experience in often-marginalised communities, and is now channelling this into action on boards. They are this week’s Changemaker.


Danielle Kutchel | 3 March 2023 at 2:56 pm


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Putting intersectionality at the heart of governance
3 March 2023 at 2:56 pm

Ruby Susan Mountford has plenty of lived experience in often-marginalised communities, and is now channelling this into action on boards. They are this week’s Changemaker.

Ruby Susan Mountford sits at the intersection of multiple communities.

A proud LGBTQIA+ and disability advocate, inclusion consultant and presenter, they’ve worked extensively to create a more inclusive world for often-marginalised communities.

After studying communications at RMIT, Mountford volunteered at Joy, the LGBTQIA+ radio station. They began on the front desk before moving into newsreading. It was a formative experience for Mountford, who used their journalism skills to cover the same-sex marriage plebiscite, diving deep into the strategies of the Yes campaign.

Soon, Mountford began hosting the station’s first radio program with a focus on bisexuality. 

“That led to me meeting some other very passionate bi+ folk and founding a small volunteer incorporated organisation called Melbourne Bisexual Network,” they told Pro Bono News.

Mountford was diagnosed as autistic and with ADHD at the age of 25, and was struggling with “marrying” that part of their identity. Meeting other autistic people helped them become comfortable with discussing and understanding their disability and was an important step in their career. They became a peer researcher in a Deakin University research project focused on LGBTQIA+ people with disability. In turn, this led to work with Thorne Harbour Health as a disability inclusion coordinator. Mountford has now cemented a career in inclusion in health.

Mountford is also on the board of global LGBTQIA+ federation ILGA Oceania. Having been on a few boards and committees, they were inspired to apply for a scholarship for disability leaders, run by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) and Australian Network on Disability (AND).

“As we’re moving in towards bigger issues, and especially [with] the data that’s coming out around just the lack of people with disabilities in spaces like that, I really wanted to kind of formalise my knowledge,” they explained.

Why did you apply for this scholarship?

I’ve done governance training, I’ve had a lot of governance education, but I wanted to see and understand what AICD thought we needed because they’re… pushing out the fellowship a lot. The organization as a result has done a huge amount of work in disability inclusion. I feel like that kind of inclusion and LGBTQIA+ inclusion are both suddenly areas where there’s a lot of interest and a lot of understanding. It’s complicated because it does take so much time for cultural shift.

What I’m hoping to gain is a more grounded knowledge base and more confidence in navigating these kinds of spaces, especially as I’ve moved into spaces that are now looking at international projects and that really do require a lot of provenance, but also because the small group I helped set up is now getting bigger, we’re handling bigger projects, and we’re getting more folks who’ve come from a more formal corporate background, which I have not. So I suppose it is that sense of wanting to be able to understand best how to build a team in that kind of space, how to navigate from someone who’s done all the things to being able to support other people to do those things. And also,  just to get to meet other people like me who are doing this kind of stuff.

You said you don’t come from a corporate background, but you’ve got plenty of lived experience, which is often what boards need or don’t have…

You’ve got to be able to channel that lived experience into action. I think that’s part of it. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how my lived experience fits within structural and attitudinal  barriers, and understanding how to identify and dismantle those barriers. Then I learned to go further, how to unpack my experience and move beyond it to recognise barriers that would be compounded for other people.
But beyond lived experience as a skill, a lot of people with disabilities are very qualified to sit on boards and be in positions of leadership but [organisations] won’t see that because [they will] really fixate on the disability and think that’s too hard to accommodate.
I’m hoping that this scholarship program provides AICD and their members with an education as well. [The AICD] talks about how mentorship should be co-learning. Our absence as disabled people has not been because we lack skills and talent. In fact, our absence is very normalised. And for that to change, it can’t just be us getting skills. It has to be them learning how to make a bit more room at the table and inviting us in.

Can you explain how intersectionality can benefit both the LGBTQIA+ community and the disability community?

For me, I think it would be much harder to find pride in my disabled identity without having found it as a queer person, because when you’ve had to find the path from shame to pride before, often by having to seek it out because you’re not in a family that really reflects your experiences back at you, you can find it again. And also, you often have already found the people who can help you find it again.

Intersectionality benefits all of us because it does allow us all to see ourselves as people first and to stay curious about each other. I think it’s when curiosity dies that that we start to cut corners and we start to close things out because we assume we know exactly what’s going on for somebody. And of course, everybody is intersectional. Everyone has had a huge swath of lived experiences and belongs to a huge number of communities, whether it’s things that we’re born with or part of our culture or part of our background or our religion. It is that sense that we can recognize just how complicated people are. 

The benefit is that often there are people in the room who would have liked to have had elements of the environment changed but didn’t feel like they could ask about that because we don’t want to ask too much. What I’ve learned from being in LGBTQIA+ spaces and starting to talk about access is that it’s not just folks who identify as disabled who find [access] incredibly beneficial. It really does just open up a lot more space to peel the shame away from our needs. It allows us to see that and to recognize the things that would make us more comfortable. 

I also think intersectionality benefits [communities] because without it we only get a narrow insight into a narrow kind of experience. And that impedes our progress. It really does. Because what works for a gay man who is in a wheelchair is not necessarily going to work for an autistic deaf trans person. But they’re both intersections. It’s a benefit because it is a reminder that disability and LGBTQIA+ identities exist across all class, all races, all spaces, all geographical regions. And we are everywhere. There is that sense of acceptance and celebration of what we bring… it brings questioning, it brings a breaking down of barriers, it brings new ways of looking at things.

What challenges would you say face these two communities in the current climate and what can we do to overcome those?

Honestly, one of the biggest things that’s happening is that there is a very strategic pushback against progress. We’ve seen in the United States the rolling back of Roe vs Wade and the swath of bills that are coming out against LGBTQIA+ people, particularly trans people, looking to ban trans access to therapy and to medicine. That’s a problem. And we’re seeing that here, too. We’ve got neo-Nazis propping up at drag shows. That’s the tip of the iceberg of what is a greater kind of cultural pushback, which is always what happens in history. And yet it’s always a surprise, right? Progress is always met with a big pushback. The issue I see is that a lot of people, both within and outside of those communities think, oh, we’ve done it, and so aren’t keeping their eye on the creep that’s coming back in. And this is particularly difficult because for LGBTQIA+ people with disabilities, particularly people with intellectual disabilities, people in residential homes, the gatekeeping that can come in from those spaces is absolute and can really shut people off from access to help.

And we’re seeing a lot of the rhetoric that is coming out from this new push against trans people… is using language to imply that trans young people have been groomed. We’re seeing society’s doubt in our ability to make our own decisions weaponised by this movement, trying to claim that we’re all being coerced by this agenda, this sinister cabal of LGBTQIA+  people, which is old rhetoric but in a new direction. So I see that as a pretty serious problem. Also, anything that starts to impact on women, on people of colour and on… First Nations peoples, there are people who are living in those spaces who are also disabled, who are also LGBTQIA+ who are then having to try and [balance] that, because often when there is a crisis… [these] groups really are the ones that tend to be left behind first.

When our economy slows down, we  look for ways to cut spending. And unfortunately, accessibility is often one of those things. We’ve been framed as a financial burden, We’re looked at through this framework of profit and loss, spending and saving, and people with disabilities are not seen as a worthy investment.

So how do we overcome that? Because that’s a pretty huge cultural barrier to shift.

I think that’s happening. That cultural shift is happening. 

A friend of mine who works as a sustainably consultant told me the most important factor for surviving climate catastrophe is community resilience. I recently became part of the Relationships Australia Neighbours Every Day program, which has that sense of knowing the people you’re living around. People would be much less afraid of disability if it was more in the public eye.

It’s also just a matter of, if that change is what people want to have, who are they bringing up to talk about it and how much time and effort are they putting into it? It takes a long time to change culture. I do it in workplaces and it takes years, even if you have all the best policies. But if you’re not being accountable and being transparent and giving it time, it’s very difficult. And a lot of disability and especially LGBTQIA+ projects are funded for about a year or so. There isn’t really enough time to build [it up]. 

Also, on the practical level, at the very beginning of anything — any project, any revamp, any plan — accessibility and disability needs to be at the beginning, not something that is suddenly thought of at the end when all the money’s gone.  

What about barriers in the workplace?

There’s a really great toolkit I helped on called Employable Q which… has a lot of those steps about accessible recruitment, making a disability inclusion action plan or an accessibility action plan for your organisation. You are going to have to bring in trainers and pay money to make that space right. As well, if you’re hiring and people with disabilities are encouraged to apply, be very sure that you have the supports in place before they rock up, because if we go into a space we’ve been told is inclusive and it’s not, we won’t stick around and we’ll also let people know because that’s dangerous for us.

But it’s a step by step thing. What [employers] should do is to start looking into a lot of the disability people’s organisations that exist across the country. They all have a lot of great resources in this area; start researching, give it time and start to put a plan together about what [inclusion in the workplace] might need to look like. [Think about] recognising it as a holistic thing from recruitment, but also the kinds of jobs you think we could do — whether you want us there to talk about our experiences or if you want us there for our skills and expertise; if you can see us in leadership, if you’re hiring us with the idea of investing in us or if you’re hiring us because you think it would be nice to do. We don’t need charity, we need solidarity. And I think that goes for everybody.

It’s from the moment someone walks through the door, if they can see signs that people like them are celebrated and recognised in that space, in the images, on the websites.

[Another] really important part: beware of thinking you understand, without including us in the journey. You need training. Also, if folks feel comfortable to ask questions in their workplace [about inclusion], there’s a good chance you’ve got a few folks there who are very keen as allies or as people who are already queer to work on that [area]. And if they do that, listen to what they say and if they’re working extra time, accommodate that. 

Where does your passion for this work, and these issues, come from?

I hope I’m passionate! It has become my whole life. My brother is also part of the LGBTIQA+ community. He’s gay and we both grew up in the early nineties… we had a really hard time. We had a really, really hard time and I almost lost him. This is not an uncommon story, and I was furious.

My mom has a cousin who’s gay and he and his partner went to Scotland for a civil ceremony (because they couldn’t legally marry here). So i was  aware that things didn’t just become fair when we left school.

So that’s why I started getting involved with Joy Media, because I was just angry. This was before my diagnosis, but it turns out injustice sensitivity is a neurodiverse trait. Volunteering at Joy Media, I ended up reporting on the postal survey for marriage equality and got to see how we were changing things. I was very fortunate I got involved in activism then. I got to see the win and understand what we had done, what the community’s efforts had come to, and to recognise the significance of communal work.

And if every time you share your story, you’ve got people saying, ‘I’ve never heard that before’, at a certain point, you do have to recognise that… our society hasn’t really let people like me into spaces where we can be happy and healthy and loved.

And I think that’s still kind of what keeps me going because we would be so much better and we would have so much more, all of us, if every person had the space and the support to to be their full selves and to grow their capacity. When I think of the things I’ve been able to do since my diagnosis, and how many years I spent deeply unhappy and therefore really unable to contribute, to be part of a community or multiple communities, to see how my skills could fit into making the world better and just feeling so cut off and alien… I think we see this with a lot of movements and a lot of people who try to create change. It is this belief that if people could just recognize that everybody has something to offer if they’re given the right conditions, we would be in a much better place. And we have to get to that place because the other option is our own annihilation, and I refuse to accept that.


Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on danielle@probonoaustralia.com.au or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.


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