Many Disability Champions are Necessary

Normally an organisation has one Disability Champion – usually a senior executive. That’s okay if you are content that change will take place at a leisurely pace. But why would that be so?

In 2018 I attended the Australian Network on Disability (AND) National Conference in Sydney. The keynote speaker was Kate Nash, CEO of PurpleSpace, a UK based organisation dedicated to the establishment and support of Disability Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). At that time, I had been Chair of a Disability Employee Network (DEN) for 18 months.

Kate’s message shocked me. I had been a member of the DEN for over 6 years, and I had become accustomed to a slow process of change – not quite glacially slow, but not too far off that. 

Kate helped me see that making changes to ensure that staff with disability were included and afforded equal access to what they needed to give their best work should have a sense of urgency about it. An injustice should be remedied promptly, surely. It was okay to be impatient and to want to push an organisation into action. 

The legislation and policies that require and support disability inclusion and equal access don’t have a clause that adds “when you can get around to it.” And yet we would be forgiven for believing otherwise at times.

I am not naïve. I know that organisations have time and resource constraints – and changes do take time. But addressing the inequities experienced by staff with disability won’t happen unless there are people acting on an imperative that responds to legal and moral implications. Further, addressing such an imperative is either part of core business, or an optional extra. It can’t switch between either. And its certainly not an optional extra.

Early on I argued that responding to the needs of staff with disability should be a sub-category of work health and safety. That was not a popular notion. My logic was straightforward and simple. Staff with disability frequently experienced physical and psychological injury when refused workplace adjustments – or when requests were slow-walked through a needlessly elaborate process. Exclusion and discrimination cause harm – and remediating action should be prompt.

After Kate Nash’s wake-up call I got moving. I was blessed with the support of a truly exceptional Disability Champion, and she made me understand how potent a serious Disability Champion could be. 

In a presentation to my Board in February 2019 I observed that all executives had at least an implicit responsibility to ensure staff with disability were included and the means to do their work were accessible. The Board agreed. 

But why put the burden of ensuring this happened upon the shoulders of just one of their own? If one Disability Champion was a good idea why not enlist those senior leaders who acknowledged their implicit duty and are happy to make it explicit? I set what I thought was the bold objective of recruiting 30 additional Disability Champions in the ten months to the end of 2019. By 31 December 2019 I had doubled that number.

To be honest, not everyone who signed up walked the walk. But most did. A subsequent outstanding Executive DEN Champion helped immensely by developing an internal Disability Champions’ Network. But this faltered when he moved on. The potential had been demonstrated and the benefit had been proven. Running a Champions’ Network is not for everyone. But nothing should be stopping a community of Disability Champions from sharing the workload.

I stepped down from the DEN Chair role in March 2020, scarcely more than 12 months from that initial Board presentation. That presentation was a trigger point for a series of events that led to cascading change in attitudes – led by senior leaders. 

I have no doubt that the recruitment of multiple Disability Champions was a key factor. Senior leaders became more visible supporters. They began to attend the quarterly formal DEN meetings – because they were sent invites as Disability Champions. They were exposed to the discourse the DEN was developing.

This was a good beginning.

I am no longer employed in that organisation. I have had time to look back. I am content with what I achieved – but I barely tapped the potential to generate powerful change through an active network of Disability Champions.

As the DEN Chair I had a duty to convey the impatience of members for change that was their right to demand, and the organisation’s duty to deliver. I didn’t believe I was honouring my obligation if I was not being a ‘pain in the neck’ to the senior leadership. But I was always positive and civil. The leadership knew the problem – even with the best will, change is stubbornly slow moving.

We needed to create more points of action. Sixty Disability Champions can generate more change than one. That’s not a surprise. The amount of effort required to feed incentive to 60 or 120 or 240 Disability Champions is not that much. But it must be organised and focused – and in these days when time and resources are at a premium it can be hard to pull that energy together. It takes just a handful of Disability Champions to decide to make it happen.

The return on investment is subtle, but it is spectacular. It is not a thing in isolation, but a co-creative partnership with the DEN – and the many staff with good will across the organisation.

When I got seriously into promoting the DEN, I started to discover something I had never thought about, but which I knew intimately. I returned to work in late September 2019 after 18 months absence (10 in hospital and 8 at home doing physio) and walked into an embrace of boundless good will. I had some hard experiences with a few managers, but nobody else. This is a resource that underpins the fundamental decency of almost every organisation.

In healthy workplaces, staff look to leaders for clues about how to behave – often seeking no more than permission, or confirmation it is okay, to act with compassion and empathy. That’s most workplaces these days.

It will become apparent where the problem workplaces are – and here Disability Champions may need to address attitudes and values out of harmony with organisation’s values. But where there are problems for staff with disability you can be assured everyone is impacted to some degree.

Multiple Disability Champions who walk the walk are powerful engines for change. I’d like them all to be impatient, to know that its not okay that matters of justice, health and equity should be resolved more slowly than is reasonable. Some responses must be immediate. Disability Champions can make that happen. Other responses must take time – so long as things are happening, and the action request/demand not parked in a buried to do list. Disability Champions can get things moving and keep them moving.

A serious commitment to change cannot fall on the shoulders of a single Disability Champion. The burden of responsibility is too great. So too is the effort required to honour any commitment given by the organisation.

A Disability Champion is a personal affirmation of compassion and empathy. The legal and moral obligations are present regardless. It is the personal commitment of a leader in acknowledging the personal experience of a staff member with disability that makes the difference.

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