By Lesa Bradshaw

As a disability inclusion specialist working towards building a disability-confident economy, I share the concerns of many DEI and Leadership influencers that the topic of disability inclusion will be exhausted before a real impact has actually been made.

So many passionate change champions within the organisations with whom I have engaged feel that the same conversations keep being had over and over, yet little has changed in terms of lived impact for persons with disabilities who are endeavouring to navigate the multitude of barriers in education and employment which would lead to an inclusive and disability confident future.

The frustrating bit is that the best practice strategies are out there – they’re just not being implemented or shared at the level needed to become common practice. I have taken the liberty of putting together a few quick points to consider which might refresh your efforts to drive the agenda as a leader of change – I hope they add value:

  1. Ask, “Why?”

Why is disability inclusion important to your business?

The conversation of disability inclusion can be approached from so many perspectives: human rights, compliance, social welfare, diversity benefits, social investment, etc. All of these perspectives have merit, however for your business, it is essential to start by taking a frank look at why disability confidence is really important to your business.

Perhaps it is compliance-driven – you need to meet prescribed equity targets set by your industry or government. It could be client-driven – you are seeking to capitalise on diversity insights in your products or services, which will give you a competitive edge. It could be brand-driven – where your brand is strongly rooted in responsible and sustainable business practices.

No matter what the principal reasoning behind the ‘why’ is, make sure you can clearly, succinctly and consistently articulate this to internal and external stakeholders, not only in words but in actions.

  • Ask, “Who?”

Building disability confidence in a business cannot be achieved without leadership being “all in”.  In my experience, the involvement of leadership in crystallising the “why” referred to above and the strategies to implement and measure impact is critical. Leadership involvement must extend beyond the rhetoric, into actionable and accountabilities.

Also, be cognisant of the fact that leadership need to get it right! Despite best intentions, not all leaders are disability confident. They might be influenced by their own unconscious bias, or being given advice from resources who are not particularly disability confident themselves. So often, within the context of disability inclusion, we rely on ‘common practice’ to inform strategy – when so often, common practice is bad practice. Never ignore the broad insights of persons with disabilities themselves, those with lived experience who have personally navigated the barriers to employment, ensuring that they are heard from their perspectives as employees, future talent, customers, suppliers and influencers. Be intentional and consistent in inviting those who are often underestimated to speak, be heard and be promoted.

Capacitate and support the middle manager: I’m always empathetic of the middle manager, who is often responsible for converting strategic ideals into results-driven performance objectives. Left to address the realities of an often inaccessible, barrier-ridden operational environment, enabling and including persons with a disability can seem like a daunting task if not supported and capacitated. Access to inclusive leadership capacity-building resources, coaching mechanisms, proactive feedback structures, performance-based accountability measurables, and clear recognition and reward incentives all contribute towards delivering and sharing successes in lived practice within the organisation.

  • Ask, “How?”

Creating a disability-confident culture is not going to be achieved if it exists as an HR objective alone. An ecosystemic and consistent approach is needed if a sustainable culture shift is to be achieved. And it’s not as big a task as you may think. Consider the following ideas:

Allyship: Identify and back your allies. In my experience, successful and sustainable change occurs when championed by allies. Whether it is the middle manager concerned with the safety of an employee with a disability who is fearful to disclose, to a sales consultant who aspires to deliver an accessible customer experience, to a marketing executive with a disability who is driven by a passion to reflect an inclusive brand, allies who are given power to influence shift cultures. Give your allies a platform to influence – Employee Resource Groups are a great place to start, provided they have structure and the power to be heard.

Show and Tell: Change doesn’t happen with grand gestures alone. Sporadic, big events to raise awareness around disability seldom result in common practice change or a shift in culture. Change happens with conversations around the coffee station, consistent content in existing communication channels, stories of lived impact from internal and external stakeholders, and inclusive policy which supports DEI in common practice. This makes change relatable, and intrinsic to the DNA of your business. 

Community: Appreciate that barriers to inclusion for persons with a disability do not only exist in the workplace but within the entire societal context. More often than not, before an applicant with a disability has even reached your recruitment doors, they have had to navigate a myriad of barriers within their community, education system, family, transport system, environment, and skills development journey. If we want to build a capacitated, skills-aligned, meaningful pipeline of talent for your business, recognise your position of influence and use this to address change. Whether as an industry leader, community partner, etc, see how your network of influence could be leveraged to exact change. Sponsor with impact, and invest in initiatives which promote ‘equalised inclusion’ rather than ‘special treatment segregation’.

Invest intentionally in the future: Quantitative measurements are by no means an accurate reflection of inclusion – particularly when adopting a one-dimensional demographic profile. The qualitative impact of inclusion efforts must be recognised and entrenched in monitoring and evaluation methodologies. So what are the lived impact measurements you use to evaluate whether your skills programs are aligning to economic inclusion and independence? In our experience, there still remains a significant misalignment in this regard. If you want an inclusive economy, start by matching skills programs to the actual talent profile you need in your organisation – this ensures actual job opportunities. Take that a step further by evaluating the inclusion practices of those skills programs, the incubators within your organisation, and the nature of work within your industry that may be fraught with barriers that need to be identified and remedied in preparation for accepting this talent.

There is so much that needs to be shared on this topic – I am passionate about this conversation and hope to invite your interest in joining the allyship of change. The journey towards a disability confident, diversity rich and competitive organisation is an exciting one – it should not be arduous, but rather inspirational, it should not be mandatory, but rather appreciated for the significant return on investment it brings to our business, our industry, our economy and our unique world.

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