A Question of Identity and Community


I was asked to write something on ‘disability community’. I decided to add ‘identity’ as well.

I struggle with both notions as the basis for a discourse, but I acknowledge that there is something to them. How to engage with them in a useful way is something worth exploring.

I will discuss identity first, because it seems that it would be a necessary precondition for community.


I identify as a person with disability because it is evident that I have a disability, and because of that I will say “I am the tall guy with the blue crutches.” I probably don’t need to say “tall”, but I do. Both things are part of my identity.

My disability, and the experience of acquiring it, has transformed me over the past 13 years. I am who I am because it. While the physical side of the disability has seriously sucked, it has wrought spiritual alchemy upon me. I think I am a better person because of it.

I am intentional about saying ‘person with disability’ rather than ‘disabled person’. What is the nature of ‘person’ such that it can be disabled? One thing I think most people with a physical disability know is that they are not their body.

A few years back, before the NDIS was introduced the NSW Department of Ageing Disability & Home Care embarked on ‘person-centred’ service/support/ care philosophy for people with disability. To the extent that a person can be disabled, I imagined that might be through a psychological disability. But here I have problem with distinction between a disability and being disabled.

To me ‘disabled’ has a global sense of finality about it. This may be a cultural prejudice. I am used to reading of boats that were disabled – something that makes them completely non-functional. This is the problem with adjectives – they come to define the noun – person. 

Being person with disability puts the person first, and it makes the disability an accompanying attribute, not a defining one. So, I am not going to allow that a psychological disability meets the adjectival character of disablement. I have friends with psychological disability, and they are not defined by it – or disabled by it. They are functioning persons. Whatever ‘person’ is, I do not believe it can be disabled. But it can acquire an attribute – a disability.

In these days when identity politics can be a minefield, I want to be clear that the politics of disability inclusion has nothing to do with identity – for me. Inclusion is a common human need, and the challenge I see has a disability focus – for me. Disability is my lens. I am true to the ‘motto’ of Inclusive Design – Solve for one, extend to many.

So, in sum, disability is a component of my identity. It is part of what makes me who I am. It does not define who I am. As I have written elsewhere, I believe disability is something we all experience, and are influenced by in some measure.


This is tricky. Community is such a complex word these days. Where there are two, or more, of us gathered, there is community, albeit in embryonic form often.

Community is grounded in shared experience. There was a time when that shared experience included spatial proximity as the most substantial attribute. That’s no longer the case, courtesy of social media and greater mobility.

I grew up, for a time, in small rural town in western Victoria. It was a community that shared the spatial experience of living in and around that town. But it was internally diverse; and yet it functioned as whole because of a mixture of laws (federal, state and local) and cultural norms. One community contained many smaller ones. And the smaller ones shared members with each other.  But back then, we would not have used the word ‘community’ for the subsets.

Communities can be formed by shared experience that is profound and transformative. Veterans of military service have a shared experience because they begin in the community of their military unit, and then went to war together. The same is true of police, fire fighters, emergency services and others. Danger and trauma can create powerful bonds that are incomprehensible to those who have no experience of either.

The contemporary sense of community that is based disability is subtle. The experience is grounded in individual experience, and the bonds that make a community are where individual experiences intersect.

A few years ago, I set up consultations between staff with disability and my agency’s IT team. I ran separate consults with vision impaired and hearing impaired staff. There was a clear sense of shared experience as the staff in each group told of their experiences. It was the first time they had come together as a group with a specific type of disability being the qualifying attribute.

It was interesting to see that shared experience of a specific type of disability created a sense of community because of the common experience of exclusion to a greater extent than the shared experience of disability.

I have shared stories with colleagues who have disabilities impacting our mobility. They are bonding stories. They build connections. There are personal stories of an intimate nature that are shared only when trust and respect have been established.

The other shared experience is exclusion and inaccessibility, blended with discrimination that can be abusive, or verbal or written affirmations of care and support that don’t amount to anything – without determined advocacy. These are shared more readily, because the experience is public.

These experiences build Disability Employee Networks (DENs). In the spirit of my thoughts on identity, I want to think of these as Inclusion Communities. In fact, If In could go back in time, I would change DEN to DIN – Disability Inclusion Network.  It’s not just people with disability who belong to this sense of community. The public experience of exclusion means that everybody (including witnesses and perpetrators) are potentially members as well – if they self-identify.

The building of a sense of community predicated on what denied, but what should be given, is something I am okay with. Disability is the focus because that is the shared attribute (experienced or witnessed). Inclusion is the goal. Network is the means.

I see myself as a member of a ‘disability community’ in two senses:

  1. A shared experience of personal challenge conferred by the disability. It is hard and it is sometimes painful. Last week I was getting my crutches out of the back of my car in an accessible parking spot, and I caught the eye of a woman getting her wheely walker out of her car boot. We looked at each other and nodded. Yeah. This is shit. Then we smiled. But its our life. Just because we don’t winge doesn’t mean we are having fun.
  2. I have been lucky in the inclusion stakes. I have had trouble with people who would have been unpleasant regardless. I am 185cms tall and I am used to standing up for myself. But the reality I live in is astonishingly inaccessible and non-inclusive. There are a lot of people with disability who do not have my confidence. And because I know that disability inclusion will benefit everyone, I am happy to be a member of the disability inclusion community.


Identity and community are powerful and important ideas that can become debased and trashed in the current political climate, where there is a lot of passion and intemperate expression of views.

Inclusion is difficult for many reasons that I cover in this blog. Intemperate emotions and poorly thought through arguments do not advance the cause. And even when emotions triggered by genuine pain and frustrations might be justly expressed, the harsh reality is that they turn the focus away from the causes of the exclusion – and put it on the complainant. That makes us the problem. Making inclusion real is hard enough without giving an excuse to deflect attention from the real problem.

Patient, persistent and polite is necessary. If we can express identity and community in terms that include those whose ideas, feelings and conduct we want to change, we will succeed. A well-grounded sense of identity and community can be the most powerful foundation for change we can develop. We can use identity and community to divide – or to unite.

If we want inclusion, we must be inclusive.

The Conversation is Not as Hard as You Think

A Reflection on why something that should be easy isn’t


There are few public sector senior leaders for whom I have developed great respect over the years I have worked in government agencies – Commonwealth and NSW. I was fortunate that in my last department I needed two hands to count them.

One thing that distinguishes them all is what I call compassionate clarity. They have no tolerance for unkindness. They are not criticisers or punishers in response to conduct they consider unbecoming of a staff member, especially a leader. They act swiftly and firmly, and with clarity to address the matter. They do it in a kind way too.

Here’s a quote from a recent email from one such senior leader:

We have come some of the way, in terms of achieving a culture where reasonable adjustment is no big deal, but there are still a lot of gaps. It is the manager’s job to ask the questions about adjustment. It shouldn’t always be up to the employee with disability or illness … and as I have said 1000 times, the conversation is not as hard as people think, once the manager has the courage/decency get it started.

So, What’s The Problem?

Why is it that some managers can’t find “the courage/decency” to talk to staff member with disability?

Sometimes it is no more complex than the fact that they do not know what to say, or how to say it. This is because they have had zero exposure to disability – at an intimate level.

It can be daunting to start from a position of utter ignorance. And often the person with disability is no help either. They may have no confidence they will be heard, understood, or treated well. So, even with 2 people with the best of intentions there can still be a struggle.

What is also true is that some managers are incurious and lack the interpersonal skills and feeling to act in a compassionate and respectful manner. They are great on the task stuff, but lousy on the human stuff. I have met many over the years.

They are not unpleasant people. They are not uncaring. They just don’t do empathy outside their personal intimate circles of family and friends. However, while what they do on a personal level is fine, as a manager/leader in a contemporary public sector agency or major business empathy is pretty much a job requirement.

They should know that, and they should be self-motivated enough to adapt. Hence it is fair to say that what they need is “the courage/decency” to act. It’s part of their job. It’s not the optional extra many think it is.

How to Help

One thing that became evident to me over the past 5 years was that the leaders I admired were selected, supervised, or influenced by leaders I admired. Now and then they seemed to be in isolation, but mostly not. There was often a culture of quality leadership.

But even in that culture the incurious and unempathic leader could exist and survive. It’s not hard to make the right sounds and appear to be curious and empathic.

Quality leaders are self-examining, self-aware individuals who model those attributes. These are noticed and emulated by others who aspire to be quality leaders. And this is where things start to break down. They are noticed and mimicked, but not adopted, by those who do not aspire – and this is either not noticed or not considered to be a problem.

The uncurious and unempathic are not challenged sufficiently to motivate them to act. And this is a serious problem.

Demands on managers have changed over recent decades as staff are acknowledged to have entitlements to safety and wellbeing under legal and policy force. But the insights and skills needed to respond to these new obligations have not been emphasised to the same degree. Rather they are still considered to be second to operational requirements – and hence optional and non-critical.

A brief historical perspective is necessary here. At the beginning of the industrial age workers were considered disposable fragile components of a process. If they wore out or broke, they were replaced. 

The industrial scale conflict of World War 1 frequently involved committing thousands of troops in a single action with little care for the number killed. They were disposable. It is claimed that in the 4 years and 3 months or so of WW1 9 million troops died – 6,000 a day.

The idea that staff are disposable has been changing slowly over the past century. Now we have reached the point where staff are valued for their humanity, and not solely their utility. The commitment to disability employment is a powerful expression of this new value.

In the language of popular economic thought, we are in a service and knowledge economy. Bu our technology has not yet advanced to the stage where AI and robotics can take over the roles played by humans.

In the public sector, human employees are the critical tools, without which the services necessary to our collective wellbeing could not be delivered. There’s a clue in the new language being used. We are moving from ‘workforce’ to ‘human capital’.

In days gone by a manager would have been sacked if the plant and machinery they were responsible for broke down or had to be replaced for lack of maintenance and repair. If workers were injured or killed that was less important.

Now the staff are vital components – the ‘tools’ of a knowledge and service system. It will be this way until AI and robots evolve way more.

I am labouring this point because it seems to be poorly understood. Agencies are understanding that looking after staff wellbeing and welfare is critical. The obligations are as much about preserving the ‘talent’ acquired through recruitment as they are moral. We can assume that using the term ‘talent’ is just another instance of the HR industry’s inflation of its importance – or we can assume it is a genuine case of seeking talented people with the knowledge and skills needed. And they must be cared for when they are found and hired.

Essentially, these days, if you are not a ‘people person’ you shouldn’t be in management/leadership roles. But we know there are people who are not ‘people people’in these roles.

We need to help them become people people – or find something else to do. If we can do this, we can help them, and the staff they can’t help.

What Next?

This is the hard bit. In a perfect and theoretical world, the management and leadership hierarchy would be actively engaging in upgrading skills that generate greater self-awareness and empathy; encouraging managers and executives to devote some of their own time to self-directed professional development; and identifying current non-people people in management and leadership roles for priority support to make them progressively less and less dangerous to the staff for whose welfare they have responsibility.

In the real world that’s not likely to happen any time soon without a concerted effort. It’s not that the problem isn’t known, rather that it’s not known sufficiently widely.

For example, in NSW, the Public Service Commission created the Age of Inclusion Campaign in 2020 aimed at promoting disability employment. And yet the biggest problem impacting retention of staff with disability (incurious and unempathic managers) – and what to do about it – was not mentioned at all. It was if the problem did not exist to the people who conceived, designed, and approved the campaign. This is not going to get the state to its laudable goal of having a “world class public service” any time soon https://www.nsw.gov.au/premiers-priorities/world-class-public-service.

This is What Happens When You Have Great Leadership


Here’s a story from a few years back. I have permission from the DEN member to tell it. Her name is Pam. 

Pam works on a helpline in Liverpool. She has one leg and relies on Canadian crutches for mobility.  The Department had organised for the construction of an accessible toilet to be built over an accessible parking spot. It solved a problem, for which staff with disability were grateful. But the accessible parking spot was not replaced; and exacerbated an existing problem with parking. 

You Can’t Park Here

Pam says: At the time we had 3 designated car spaces. They built a toilet in the basement and took 1 of our disabled car spaces and did not replace them with suitable parking. There was not enough parking for staff with a disability. Because I started my shift in the afternoon it was usually me that missed out on parking. 

Most times I had to park in the visitor car park (if parking was available) it was on a slope and was really small. This made it really difficult for me to get in and out of my car. 

There was a lot more contractors and couriers coming and going and they had nowhere to park. The visitor car park was too small and it was difficult for them to unload their deliveries so many of them would park in designated disabled parking. 

There was one courier that would arrive just before me and he always parked in the disabled parking. He continued to do this even though I had asked him many times not to do that.

The Need for Intervention

Pam had tried repeatedly to have the accessible parking spots reserved only for people who needed the accessibility feature. She was not successful and contacted me. I contacted the Executive Director for the helplines. She was very receptive to the matter and promptly arranged a meeting with Pam her colleagues with disability.

As Pam says: Claire came out and spoke to staff with disabilities. As a result we were allocated 2 suitable accessible parking spots and they started to monitor who was parking in them.

The fuller story is that Claire set up a meeting with the managers and directors from the helplines, property areas, and the building manager. I was invited to attend via phone

This is what happened. All contractors and suppliers were warned against parking in accessible parking spots as they entered the building’s garage. Any commercial relationship with the helplines would be at risk if they did not comply. New signs were placed at the accessible parking spots warning staff who did not require them that they would lose access to the parking station if they parked in them. A new accessible parking spot was made to replace the one lost to the accessible toilet.  The meeting also realised there were a few other issues unrelated to disability it could address as well. It was a very productive meeting.

Problem solved. Pam and colleagues with disability could use the accessible spots without impediment from vehicles that should not be in them. 

Great Leadership

This is an example of what happens when careless and insensitive management meets great leadership: 

  1. The senior leader listened to me and understood the situation was not okay. 
  2. She promptly met with Pam and her colleagues to get the facts firsthand. 
  3. She called a meeting of the key decision makers who then decided what had to be done, made it happen and ensured the decision stuck. 

I don’t know what was said to the manager who did not understand that making this happen was their job. I am, however, confident that a conversation was had. That’s what a great leader would have done – and this was great leadership. 

What Went Wrong

I want to reflect a bit on what went wrong; because this is commonplace, sadly. 

Pause a moment and imagine the mindset of a manager who elects not to understand that an accessible parking spot is for people who need it because of their disability. There is a staff member with one leg and another who uses a walking frame – and still the idea that the parking spots designed for people with disabilities should be used by them doesn’t seem appealing.

Why, exactly, should a one-legged staff member have to seek assistance to obtain something that should be provided without hesitation? What was the manager who declined the request thinking? Clearly, they thought that it was okay to refuse to ensure that accessible parking spots were reserved for people who benefitted from the accessible features, and the proximity to the main entrance. 

Either they did not know, or they believed they were free to choose not to comply with legal and policy requirements. Pam’s request did not trigger an inquiry by the manager about what, if any, latitude they had. It’s difficult not to assume they chose to believe they could ignore the request and continue to place staff at risk of injury.

In contrast, great leadership saw immediately what the right thing to do was – and made it happen. But it is what competent leadership should have done – and what Pam dealt with wasn’t even that.


It is a sorry day when a leader just doing their job with clarity and facility is celebrated as providing “great leadership”. But the truth is that it is rare to witness. It may happen more often behind the scenes, but it should open (subject to confidentiality requirements), so staff can have confidence it is going on. 

It so stands out above the insensitivity and inertia of poor management and leadership it should be highlighted and cheered – especially if you are a staff member with disability whose work experience is improved by it.

Footnote 1

There is an unhappy footnote to this story. The accessible toilet was used by staff who had no need of its accessibility features, forcing those who do to wait, often for an extended time (time flies when you are sitting in a cubicle with a mobile phone). Requests to have the accessible toilet reserved for those who need it were ignored. 

Pam says: There were also issues with trying to access the disabled toilet. There was only one disabled toilet on the floor and many times able bodied staff would use the toilet while people with disabilities had to wait outside.

Not only were her requests ignored; she got into strife with her manager when she asked her colleagues not to use the accessible toilet. Pam has shown me notes and emails, and it is astonishing that such a level of insensitivity can be shown by managers.

Disabilities can impact bowel and bladder control, and the need to access a toilet can be sudden and reasonably urgent. People with disability who need the features of an accessible toilet tend to understand this. This risk of an accessible toilet being less available to those who need it, when they need it, is exacerbated by the popularity of people taking their mobile phones with them. It is not uncommon for a ‘sit down’ to take 20 minutes, sometimes more.

But this matter wasn’t raised at the time the parking issue was addressed. As good as great leadership is, it can do nothing if a matter is not drawn to their attention.

The toilet issue persisted well after the parking was addressed. The situation was, and is, in need of great leadership.

Footnote 2

I sent my draft to Pam for checking. She said I could quote her response in full. Here it is:

Hi Michael

I think it’s great and expresses the way I feel about living in a society that only seems to see the disability and ignores the person. 

 Many companies acknowledge that the person has a disability but they don’t want to do anything to assist in “providing a level playing field”  

They like to “mouth off” about how wonderful they are and they have policies but never follow them. 

Training staff and policies mean nothing if they are not implemented. I always say that it’s not only knowledge’s that is power. It’s the application of knowledge that counts.

Beautifully written.



A Reckless Story Putting a Poor Light on Disability Advocacy


On 19 November, a friend sent me a link to an ABC story taken from the ABC television show Q&A. It’s not a show I am a fan of. The story concerned a young woman with epilepsy who was sent home after experiencing a seizure at work – and was required, subsequently, to work at home. He wanted to know what I thought.

In my reply to my friend, I made an assumption that the employer was a public sector agency. I did this to frame my response in a hypothetical understanding of the context. The story provided no context, no details. 

What’s the Story?

A person with disability (epilepsy) is obliged to work from home by an unknown employer for reasons that are not known – beyond the fact that “she fell off her chair at work as a result of a seizure.” We are induced to believe that having a seizure at work is enough to trigger a requirement that the person works from home on an ongoing basis. But is that true? You won’t get that information from the article. Why not? Surely good journalism would require that?

So, for sure, a staff member with disability who prefers to be in the workplace will not be happy to be obliged to work from home. But was the decision to require her to work from home unreasonable or unfair? I don’t know the answer. But the ABC story is written such that the assumption of unfairness must be arrived at. It was unfair and discriminatory, we are told.

From the article we read that the host of Q+A asked the mother “if the workplace had given a medical justification for this position“? 

The mother said: “There’s been three reports from my daughter’s psychologist and at the moment we’re awaiting the final one and the employer will make a decision,

Then the article goes on with the following: “Disability advocate and musician Ms Hull levelled an accusation at the unnamed employer. “I see that as discrimination,” she said. “Just purely discriminationShe should be allowed to work there.”

There is more, but the damage has been done. Let me sum up the facts here. A young woman with epilepsy had a seizure at work and fell off her chair. The unknown employer required her to work from home for an unspecified period. During this time there have been 3 psychology reports prepared, and a third one pending before the employer makes a final decision – about what is unknown – but we may assume it is whether it is safe for the employee to return to the workplace and under what conditions.

The article opens with: “The reality for workers with a disability during the COVID pandemic was laid bare in Q +A in a case that panellist Eliza Hull labelled “pure discrimination”.”

For the ‘disability advocate’, Lisa Hull to call this “pure discrimination” is outrageous. For me this shows a lack of knowledge and tact that gives disability advocacy a bad name.

The employer has duty of care to ensure that their workplace is safe. While there are adjustments that might make a workplace safer for a person with epilepsy, if a person is at risk, no matter where they are in the workplace, adjustments may not be sufficient or reasonably affordable. The term ‘reasonable’ in reasonable adjustment refers to the cost imposed on an employer in making an adjustment.

The article described Ms Hull as a “musician”, which may suggest she is not familiar with office environments.

This is what I told my friend in an email.

In this case, what’s the agency’s response? It could simply be that there are too few staff working in the office to assure there is support due to COVID restrictions. 

Return to office is staged, with far reduced staff. It would be reasonable to believe that in the event of the staff member having a seizure, there would not be staff in that area to be alerted and to provide assistance.

Offices can be dangerous places if there is a high risk of a seizure and the person is not wearing a helmet to minimise risk of head injury. Is the woman using medication to control seizures?

A regular office has an abundance of hard and sharp edges. Anybody who falls 

may risk serious injury, even with the reflexes to avoid the worst. Because of my disability I am vulnerable to falls. I have had 4 in the past 12 months – but at home. I fall because my ankles don’t work, and the slightest trigger is enough to send me toppling. I wouldn’t want to fall in an office.

To what extent is she taking care to reduce the risk of injury – as is required under WHS legislation?

This is not an accusation. The employer must affirm the person is safety conscious and is aware of risks. None of this is covered.

The short answer is that we do not know answers to key questions, and despite of our ignorance we are invited to believe that this unnamed employer is at fault. It may be, but no evidence that it is was provided.

The allegation that the employer is engaging in “pure discrimination” is unfounded and reckless. 

There’s another dimension to the story that raises a warning flag of unexpressed complexity for me.

While many Australians may crave more flexible working arrangements, audience member Lisa Burns raised fears for her daughter, who has epilepsy, and has become further isolated from the world due to her workplace labelling her an OH&S risk.”

Saying her daughter “has become further isolated from the world” suggests a deeper dimension to the story. The mother goes on to say: “She no longer takes public transport and she doesn’t chat with her co-workers.” And then she adds: “She sits on the couch at home and works.” 

The experience of isolation from co-workers is something some of my former colleagues with disability are concerned about when they work from home, It’s a real concern. But it’s the sense of being “further” isolated that concerns me. I am not sure what to make of working from a couch, given the ergonomic implications. 

Something Doesn’t Add Up

I suspect there is far more to this story than this 520 odd word article allows. 

Two things bother me about this story.

  1. It makes out that a person with disability is a victim of unfair treatment – based entirely on the report that the mother of the person who is the focus of the story is unhappy about a decision made. We can all sympathise with this. But there is not the slightest shred of evidence that the decision was unfair. There is no indication that working from home is a long-term or permanent solution. In fact, it may be that the employer assessed that the risk was such that the only other solution may have been place the young woman on leave – and working from home was the best available immediate option. There are concerns possible about the lack of contact with colleagues through Teams or Zoom. This could have to do with the workplace culture or insensitive management. There could be discrimination here – but there is no evidence to back up any such claim.
  2. The ‘disability advocate’ does no service to the role. Disability Advocacy is a difficult role. But it is frequently intemperate and one sided – and this is a sorry instance of this. Sometimes the intransigence of employers makes extreme action the last desperate resort. But an advocate making allegations about an unnamed employer reeks of an exercise in sensationalism and leaves me suspecting that the allegation is self-serving. Of course, it could also be that key elements of the story have been excised by the author of the piece.

But Wait, There’s More

After writing the above, I checked out the Q&A show – The Great Resignation. I wanted to initially just react to the article. The part relevant to the ABC article starts at 46 mins in. This is what you wouldn’t know from the article:

  • The young woman has autism as well as epilepsy. (the mother said this)
  • She developed seizures as a result of anxiety and stress (the mother said this)
  • When the young woman fell from the chair, she hit her head. (the mother said this)
  • The mother sees the matter ‘very driven by OHS’. The HR Department is supportive, but ‘OHS’ is resistant. (this sounds like a fair balance of concerns and nothing to do with discrimination at all)
  • The family is still negotiating with the employer about return to the workplace. (So, it’s a temporary situation so far – pending subsequent decision)
  • The mother is concerned “If she is told she can’t work sitting on a chair, where can she work?” That’s an unreasonable and over simplified characterisation of the risk and the situation. This issue isn’t sitting on a chair. It’s the risk of a sudden seizure anywhere in the office. 

The article left out the key fact of autism. This adds a vital context that makes sense of the mother’s statements. It may explain the concern the employer has re WHS – and why a psychological report was requested. There are multiple other questions that may be asked about how the employer is viewing the risk equation, but there is no detail to explore them here. 

The ‘disability advocate’ was accurately and fully reported. So, I stand by my original assessment.

I am confident that there is no prima facie case of discrimination – rather a properly protective response to what is a complex situation in which the employer has a clear legal responsibility as well as social one.

If I have a possible criticism of the employer, it might be that it could have communicated more effectively with the mother to ensure she understood why it was acting as it was. This would, I imagine, have been the duty of the HR contact – to give balanced advice of desires versus risks and duties. This may have been done, and the family did not understand, or accept, the explanation.

The journalism is sloppy, because it takes a simplistic and inaccurate line on a complex human problem that deserves truth and informed awareness, not sensationalism and moralising. The article excised a vital piece of information.

The article carries the line – Help keep family & friends informed by sharing this article. In fact, sharing this article will misinform.


Discrimination against workers with disability is real and can, and does, have serious harmful consequences. Working from home has proven to be both a blessing and a curse for people with disability, and we need to know the difference. Protecting the psychological well-being of staff with disability is an employer’s duty. But that duty does not extend to assuring; or guaranteeing well-being. The best an employer can do is address reasonably foreseeable risks.

Misrepresenting a complex situation in a way that also pushes against a non-optional legal liability of an employer to ensure that staff have a safe workplace does no good service to anybody.  To do this is ignorance, or is disingenuous and self-serving.

The right of people with disability to have equal access to employment cannot trump work health and safety considerations. A combination of autism and epilepsy, with seizures triggered by stress and anxiety, adds a dimension of risk that requires careful assessment. By agreeing to place this young woman in its workforce the employer (I think almost definitely a public sector agency) must reasonably act to secure her safety by making the workplace as safe as is reasonably possible. Contemporary workplace safety legislation also places responsibility upon employees to act in a safe manner. In this instance it’s a fair question to ask. In fact, a failure to ask the question about the employee’s capacity to act safely would be possibly negligent.

For a ‘disability advocate’ to call this situation “purely discrimination” is just plain wrong.

You can find the original article here:


The Surprising Link Between Sleep and the Experience of Disability

The author of Why We Sleep (2018), Matthew Walker, is Professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a world authority on sleep.

Insufficient sleep can adversely impact a person with disability in multiple ways, including:

  • Impairing performance at work, and in life generally, thus adding a burden to what may already be a challenging daily routine.
  • Reducing opportunity for managers to stay abreast of policies in support of people with disability because:
    • Poor sleep reduces performance and leads a higher work volume because of reduced efficiency and effectiveness, leaving less time to read material often considered less important in any case – as its not core business related, and:
    • Reduces comprehension and recall of what is read.
  • Insufficient sleep can make managers less empathic, responsive, and ethical in their conduct. So, not only are they less aware of their duties to be inclusive, they are less inclined to be so, as well. This applies to everybody, of course.
  • People with disability can also be less inclined to stand up for their rights, and more inclined to endure non-inclusive and unempathic conduct.
  • Insufficient sleep can exacerbate adverse health conditions by increasing risk of some (sometimes in surprising ways); and lowering the effectiveness of the immune system for others.
  • Insufficient sleep can lead to the use of solutions that are either ineffective or dangerous (like sleeping tablets).

Walker says that sleep deprivation has become an epidemic in our culture because of lifestyle patterns, what and when we eat and drink, and the way we use tech like mobile phones, tablets, and computers.

If you are struggling to get through the day, or have difficulty getting to sleep, this book is a sobering opportunity to review what you are doing.

Sleep is fundamental to our lives, and yet we know so little of it. I bought the audiobook out of curiosity.

Now there’s a lot of things I am now going to do differently – or not all, or not so much.

Why We Sleep is exceptionally well written. I have the audiobook. It’s easy to listen to, though alarming at times when I am disabused of foolish notions and beliefs that are just plain wrong.

The book is readily available as an audiobook on Audible, as an ebook on Kindle, as a paperback, hardcover, or as an audio CD.



As I start writing this I am acting as an advocate for a person with disability who is fearful of losing their job if their matter is progressed. 

I sent an email last night to a senior executive I know to be beyond doubt a person of the highest integrity. Even so, my client is filled with fear. So much so that overnight they sent me a text asking me to withdraw the email. I complied this morning, and sent an email advising the situation. I promptly got a reply with assurances there would be no risk to the client’s job. I forwarded that email to my client and the matter is proceeding. 

The Cause of Fear

Three cases come to mind from the past 3.5 years. In each the individual experienced conduct that can only be called cruel. Significant emotional pain was being inflicted through deeply insensitive conduct. The resultant distress had become intolerable. As DEN chair, I was asked to intervene. 

In one case the problem was more a cruel system than heartless people. The individual was stuck in a dilemma. They felt under pressure from management and HR, and under threat, to solve a problem that was not of their making. An impossible choice had to be made. The risk/threat of medical retirement was made evident.

I needed to detail the person’s experience of their dilemma and the impact it was having to a Deputy Secretary before the matter could be resolved. That resolution required executive action to accept, and act on, a simple solution. The solution required a decision, and an agreement, and both came from the senior executive. There was a lack of empathy and flexibility at lower levels of management.

A willingness to ‘follow procedure’, despite the pain that doing so was causing, was a disappointing attitude to encounter. The people who should have solved the problem, which wasn’t complex, did not consider the emotional welfare of the individual a priority. For them, procedure ruled, even when it was not fit for human(e) purpose. The clear head of a Deputy Secretary was needed to quickly address the problem.

I shouldn’t have needed to go that high, but it was clear that nobody below the Deputy Secretary was prepared to make an agreement and come to a decision. They would have let the staff member suffer, and even be subjected to medical retirement – as a solution to their problem. Two years later that staff member remains employed and free from impossible decisions. (I am not saying what the problem is to avoid giving hints to the identity of the staff member)

Another case was an instance of a manager functioning with their empathy button in the off position. This involved a work from home request before it was a thing (and that was not so long ago). Here the individual needed a sensitive and flexible accommodation to be able to continue to work while their disability was throwing up serious problems. 

There was a procedure that could be followed, but it was not well known. There was also a policy that was sympathetic to the situation, and which could have been applied in a sensitive manner. Instead, the manager went cold, ultra-clinical and minimalistic. Empathy was absent. The staff member was not engaged with as a human being going through an awful experience. That matter was resolved by involving people who were empathic. They were brought in from outside the workplace; and they had the authority to require, and the power to bring, empathy and compassion in the decision-making process.

Again, the risk/threat of medical retirement was made clear. Loss of employment would have been devastating.

In both these instances the staff member expressed genuine fear that going beyond their manager – and outside the immediate management environment – would lead to punishment. That fear included loss of their job by forcing medical retirement. 

The idea that a manager, or managers, would conspire to force a staff member into a medical retirement procedure should be utterly preposterous. But it’s not. A former colleague, and now friend, told his story of being subjected to persistent efforts to medically retire him to his agency’s board. He had to finally take his harassers (there is no other word for it) to the Human Rights Commission. He won his case and was awarded compensatory funds to cover his legal expenses. I helped him escape that profoundly toxic environment. He is now in a safe and respectful workplace where he is flourishing. And yet he is haunted by memories. PTSD is a real thing for staff who experience severe stress through being persecuted by managers trying to force them out of their roles. 

Job loss through management misconduct is real. Where the medical retirement ploy does not work, there’s the gaslighting and intimidation tactics that slowly exert negative emotional pressure which forces the individual to choose between their psychological well-being or remaining in their job. They can’t have both.

Being Diminished

The third case concerned an individual who had joined the agency at a low level because, despite their educational attainment, their disability was an impediment to obtaining a position at a higher grade. 

This staff member was routinely subjected to attitudes that plainly indicated that their competence was not acknowledged, even at their low grade. Their manager had made a connection between their disability and an imagined level of diminished competence, and then proceeded to seek to validate it.

Once again fear was instilled. This time the fear was that complaining about the manager’s conduct would trigger a move to remove the individual on grounds of incompetence. That fear was not based on any belief that such a move would be justified, but that it would happen if any effort to address the manager’s attitude was attempted.

A confidential approach to an Executive Director addressed the matter. The staff member was directly assured their job was safe, and the manager was spoken to concerning their approach. The situation is now much better. The presumption of incompetence has gone away, and local management is now much more supportive. In this case the Executive Director made it widely known that failure to treat staff with disability fairly would not be tolerated; and invited any staff member who had concerns to contact them directly.

The presumption of incompetence because of a disability is a remarkable form of discrimination. Incapacity in one respect can be seen to contaminate the whole person. When I returned to work after an 18-month absence, and with newly acquired disabilities affecting my mobility and my manual dexterity, I was quickly subjected to doubts about my intellectual competence. I felt I needed to work flat out to prove I was mentally competent. The fact that I had completed a thesis during my absence was not evidentiary, apparently. It was left unfinished when I fell ill, and I did a major rewrite as I was recoveirng.  I was slow, but only in a physical sense. It is depressing to see that you are considered incompetent because of your disability. It is corrosive and demeaning.

Fear as a Tactic

I feel a need to regularly remind the reader that I am not alleging the issues I raise are at epidemic levels, but they are endemic to public sector agencies by virtue of being an expression of human behaviour. Just one instance of instilling fear in an employee as a means of controlling against lodgement of complaint is unacceptable.

Staff with disability are especially vulnerable because alternative employment is hard to get – and you could end up in a worse situation. Threats of medical retirement, or harassment to force resignation, are stories told by staff with disability to an alarming degree. They go unreported because that’s the tactic. My former colleague stood up to his harassers, and now his case is a matter of public record. He secured the right to remain in his job, but his subsequent experience was so toxic, his psychological wellbeing was taken to the edge. In fact it was to such a degree that I precipitated an action to have him placed in another division. There he remains as a respected contributor, and considered well suitable for promotion. I will write his story soon. We discussed doing that today.

Medial retirement is an appropriate option for an agency to have. Some staff to get to the point where their disability sufficiently impairs their ability to perform the inherent requirements of the role they are in – but they could be redeployed into other roles where they can perform perfectly well. This is the case with people in front line roles who may be able to transition to ‘backroom’ roles after acquiring a disability. It is only when they are unable to meet the requirements of any available role, should medical retirement be invoked. However, staff with disability generally understand when they can’t continue, and voluntarily quit. There are, of course, circumstances when the situation requires firm action by the agency. 

Resignation due to disability is not uncommon. But the underlying reason for the resignation is almost never explored.

Pushing a staff member to quit through what amounts to bullying and harassment is a disgraceful practice. However, the cases I am aware of show that it is a polished practice supported by well-rehearsed defences, and abetted by lax, or complicit, supervisory management. Staff with disability are not the only victims. Not all disabilities can trigger forced medical retirement. Members of other ‘diversity groups’ experience this too.

The Least Worst Option

For a person with disability losing a job can be catastrophic, especially when that job loss is under a cloud of medical capability, or questions about competence. Its bad enough navigating the uncertain territory of seeking new employment, but without an ability to get a reference from one’s previous employer, that journey can become a frightening prospect.

Shutting up and enduring insult and abuse may be seen to be the best of a limited array of potentially catastrophic outcomes – until the adverse health consequences of constant psychological stress take their toll.

Some staff with disability are really tough. Their experience of living with a disability that generates daily challenges to just get through a normal day breeds a steely determination. Adding a toxic workplace with an abusive management culture to that daily grind of challenges creates a harmful burden no agency should countenance.

But breaking one’s silence is a traumatic prospect to contemplate. If the outcome is loss of employment. It can be better to ‘suck it up’ and endure.


Ernesto Sirolli wrote of “the sun of love and the water of respect” as the two things people are inherently entitled to. That applies to our workplaces as much as life in general. Without these, we wither, and eventually die. Even if our bodies remain animated, our spirts are desiccated. Sirolli writes on helping people set up business enterprises using an approach he called ‘facilitation’. He based this method on the principles of positive psychology, with the tag line – “as if people really matter.” This should be the unerring focus of all public (human) service agencies.

Those who are responsible for instilling Fear are, I believe, people who have a disability – which denies them the opportunity to be compassionate and empathic. This is why I cannot argue for a punitive remedy. But I do hold an agency’s management culture accountable to support or reassign managers whose conduct is abusive and damaging. The obligation is moral, as well as legal.

Staff with disability must be enabled to work free of abuse, and free from fear of catastrophic consequences if they report it, when it happens.

A Reflection on the Idea of Inner Confidence


A few weeks ago, I was on Zoom hook up arranged by AND and PurpleSpace with an array of DEN representative from the public and private sectors. One of the things we discussed was the idea of “Inner Confidence” – a condition experienced by a staff member with disability in their workplace – if things happen the right way.

PurpleSpace has been a constant inspiration to me. In 2018 I encountered Kate Nash, the PurpleSpace CEO, at the AND National Conference, where she was the keynote speaker. The next day she ran a separate workshop on “Networkology”. The power of a well-thought through professional approach is extraordinary – if you trust the process. Sometimes just a few key words that dwell in a coherent framework can be enough to inspire powerful action. That was true for me.

And here it was happening again. “Inner Confidence” is a powerful idea.

What makes Inner Confidence?

First, let’s think about the ideal – a staff member with disability is empowered by the culture they work in to be open about their needs concerning their disability – it’s not a big thing – it’s just part of who they are.

Inner Confidence is something we should wish on everyone we work with. Not every need for an adjustment or an accommodation is disability related. But then maybe it is. It’s about not being able to do something the usual way, or the accepted way, for some time – short or long term – one off – or ongoing.

Inner Confidence happens when you know the people you work with, and the culture of the organisation, have no problem with responding to your needs in a compassionate and respectful way. It’s okay to be different. Not only is no one bothered, different is honoured.

There is no uniform ‘norm’ to be violated or measured by. This is because diversity is usual. What is normal is that human diversity will express itself in sometimes unexpected ways; and adapting to that diversity is what is expected of you, of everybody.

Of course, Inner Confidence can be won through adversity too. Continual struggle for equity and inclusion will craft a sense of certainty that may have to be asserted repeatedly. It is easy to get good at doing that. But it’s a harder form, born of necessity, not preference.

For some, disability confers struggle and pain that will not go away, even under the best of circumstances. While disability is on the spectrum of being human, not all expressions of being human are kind to the experiencer. For some, it can be hard enough getting through a day because of the nature of one’s disability – without having to navigate and negotiate non-inclusive attitudes and behaviours, and inaccessible systems, processes, situations, and places as well.

The ideal is the opportunity to express one’s Inner Confidence in an environment which respectful, responsive, and accommodating. In essence, in an inclusive, compassionate, and amiable work culture.

How Do We Make That Happen?

Sometimes we can be so focused on challenges that arise directly from our disability that we forget that what we want is not a solution to what is exclusively a disability related problem.

Disability highlights themes that impact everyone. It is just that our sense of exclusion, or experience of inaccessibility is so constant and obvious, there has been a concerted determination to change what is usual and normal. We want to make inclusion and accessibility real for everybody.

The themes of Bring your authentic self to work and Inner Confidence are especially meaningful for a person with disability who feels that, because of their disability, they can feel neither whole nor confident at work. But we know the same need for these attributes is felt by everybody at some stage in their lives – and always on spectrums of intensity and of time.

We define an array of ‘diversity’ groups – of people we agree are disadvantaged in some way by ‘business as usual’. This is a narrow band of what is normal – and hence what sets the parameters of design and social conventions – excluding those who fall outside the parameters.

We are very forgiving and accommodating of people who belong to our intimate groups of family or friends. It is natural not to be so open to those who are not intimates. Workplaces are a different matter.  In the public sector, we are bound, in theory at least, by legislation, policy and codes of conduct to treat the people we work with, and the community we engage with in a relatively novel way.

They are not our intimates, but neither are they ‘others’ we can ignore or treat in an offhanded way. A public servant has an unusual obligation placed upon them. They have a duty to behave well to the members of their community whose taxes pay their wages, and whose laws set the standards of their conduct as employees. Personal ‘business as usual’ is not okay.

For profit entities understand that the desired conduct is good for business, so they require employees to behave in a manner consistent with the business’ imperatives. That same business logic applies to not-for-profits too. The public sector goes a step further because it has an implicit moral obligation as well (backed up by legislation and policy).

Okay. That’s the ideal. The reality is that the public sector is rife with employees asserting the conditions under which they will work. They will respond to dignity and respect policies to the extent that this does not impose upon them a burden of self-reflective change. This leads to hidden reservoirs of dissent from ideals, which become toxic when leadership is weak and unaware.

This must be addressed in an active, determined, and intelligent way. There is no other way to ensure that workplaces are welcoming of people with diverse attributes.


I spent 7 months in a rehab ward struggling to recover the capacity for coherent movement. I also struggled against incompetent management of my case, so I escaped and went home. There I could, and did, do physio 6 hours a day for 6 months. In the rehab ward I was confined to 1 hour day, though I did get another hour as often as possible. 

I developed an Inner Confidence born out of adversity. I returned to work after a harrowing 18 months. My colleagues were wonderful. Management not so much. I came to understand that most workplaces are wellsprings of good will and compassion, hindered by poor management and leadership practices.

Getting and keeping Inner Confidence is, first of all, a personal challenge for a person with disability. It can then be embraced or attacked in a workplace. A toxic workplace culture is always the responsibility of managers/leaders. There is no mystery here.

Inner Confidence is what we hope everyone feels free to express at work (through their authentic self). Disability has brought a magnifying glass and a spotlight to a universal challenge. The solution we devise will benefit everyone.

Disability and the Misuse of Power


Staff with disability are more likely to be subjected to abuse of power than other staff because they may exhibit attributes that render them more vulnerable to managers who are inclined to be abusive.

While general material on abuse of power and bullying tends not to highlight disability as a point of vulnerability, those more familiar with disability see the danger signs clearly. Abusive conduct by managers is the single most common reason why staff with disability experience distress and even injury (physical or psychological. That abusive conduct can be intentional or inadvertent.

The duty of a manager is to ensure staff with disability are supported and included. In over 3 years of being a DEN Chair I can recall only one instance of advocating on behalf of DEN member that did not arise from a manager’s conduct.

Abuse of power is the abdication of a duty to treat staff with respect and fairness in favour of a personal agenda – whether conscious or unconscious. On the broad spectrum, abuse of power can include corrupt, incompetent, or negligent conduct by a person in authority. Here I want to focus only on abuse of power that becomes abuse of staff, and in particular, staff with disability. That abuse includes failures to address workplace adjustments, inclusion and accessibility needs, and forms of bullying that include threats of forcing medical retirement.

It is important to acknowledge that there is not an epidemic of abuse of this kind in NSW public sector agencies, but neither is it uncommon. There is an inertia in responding to concerns that comes across as an appetite for tolerating abusive conduct. There are two main problem areas:

  • The chain of responsibility favours inaction.
  • The perpetrators are motivated to conceal their conduct; and are often in a credible and influential position to do so.

The chain of responsibility has a weak link

Organisations naturally protect managers to a higher degree than subordinate staff. This can be seen in language that identifies managers as a class apart from and workers or employees.

If a manager has an issue with a worker, they can talk to their manager and a course of action can be determined – proper or improper. If a worker has an issue with a manager no such opportunity exists. Policies might suggest otherwise, but workplace culture and politics generally reveal a stark power and privilege imbalance. 

The hierarchical nature of most workplaces understandably means that subordinate staff do not have easy access to senior executives. This situation is exploited by abusive managers who will encourage the belief that executives are inaccessible. They, of course, will, have access, and use it to massage an executive’s perception of the subordinate staff. In some cases, managers and executives will have formed an alliance and will share adverse opinions of staff.

That hierarchies are self-protective is unremarkable. What is of concern is that they are protective of misconduct too.

Unless the abuse is flagrant, the abuser is generally part of the response to any complaint about that abuse, while the complainant is held at a distance – and subject to confidentiality requirements. There are sound reasons to ensure natural justice in any complaints process, but it must be understood that such protection also can become a method of concealing manipulations of processes.

In fact, a staff member lodging a complaint may quickly find the experience disempowering, with the focus of blame shifted onto them. They can become a target for subtle (and not so subtle) emotional abuse. A manager who is the subject of a complaint is motivated to make it go away; and has an established relationship with senior management – and hence the means to influence matters.  

There is a myth that complaints investigations are impartially and competently handled. While this may be genuinely believed to be the case by the people managing the process, it is rarely accepted as such by the complainant. External ‘independent’ investigators are selected and paid by the employer, so they are not truly independent. Besides if you want ongoing work, you deliver what the payer wants – and that is so often to exonerate the manager.

In my experience, the submission of a formal complaint is a last act of desperation, and rarely turns out well. Instances of truly abusive conduct, even when acknowledged as such, almost never lead to the responsible manager being held to account. I know of no instance in which a manager has been counselled or disciplined. I know of no ‘victim’ who has been apologised to; or been advised that their manager had been ‘spoken to’. In short, no evidence of acknowledgement of injury done, or responsibility taken. 

Having a disciplinary conversation with a staff member is famously deeply unpopular. It is hard to do. It is easy if they are seen as weak or vulnerable. It is easy if there is a reason to dislike or dismiss a person as ‘not one of us.’ This does not have to be a conscious choice. It can operate below the threshold of conscious awareness. 

These conversations are harder to have in a management/leadership team. There is a difference between performing a specific task poorly, and not managing well. The matter is exacerbated when the members of the management/leadership team lack contemporary training and don’t operate in a culture that values and demands professional management and leadership skills. In such a culture abusive management would not be tolerated and staff would have access to an effective remedy. This is the weak link in the chain of responsibility. 

Who are the perpetrators of abuse?

Abusive managers may exhibit psychopathic or narcissistic traits that impede empathic responses. They may also be psychologically immature individuals whose response to gaining power exposes unconscious emotions – such as suppressed anger and a desire for retribution acted out upon the less powerful and the vulnerable.

Power can lead to people becoming more impulsive, less aware of risks and less empathic. 

(Abuse of power at work, and how to stop it – Eve Ash (Psychologist) 21/11/2017)

Abusive conduct may also arise from a response to excessive pressure – being under stress and short tempered will reduce empathy.

And then we have unconscious bias. Objectively, managers are expected to treat all staff with respect and inclusively. Realistically this isn’t always the case.

Finally, management competence may be a factor. These days management requires an array of skills and capabilities essential to ensure that a work group or team can function at a high level. The influence of the manager is fundamental to work performance – not in terms of operational knowledge, but relational competence.

Any of the above factors is sufficient alone to be a cause of abusive conduct – which may or may not be intentional. But combine any, or, indeed, all of them and the problem is greatly magnified.

The vulnerability of the staff member with disability

Studies into workplace abuse show that staff with certain attributes are more likely to be the targets of abusive conduct from managers. Here are some from a checklist that may be especially relevant to people with disability (words in brackets and italics are mine).

  • Are you experiencing personal trauma like divorce, financial difficulties, single parenting and loneliness coupled with a lack of support systems? (include acquired disability, early onset and diagnosis of a debilitating disease or the worsening of a degenerative condition)
  • Does your appearance pose a threat to others? (some people respond adversely to forms of apparent disability)
  • Are you over 40? (age discrimination plus disability is not a good mix)
  • Do you stand up for the rights of other staff members? (people with disability may have a strong sense of what is fair or just – and say so)
  • Do you have difficulty relating to colleagues on an interpersonal level? (this can apply to a range of psychological conditions, autism, and sensory disabilities)

Source: Kathy Simmons – Workplace Abuse: Causes and Cures 

It is important to remember that disability is an additional risk factor for the wider problem of workplace abuse. There are common assertions that staff with disability don’t change jobs as often, don’t take as much time off, and worker harder than other people. These assertions are frequently held up as virtues and are cited as good reasons to employ a person with disability. 

But in fact, they must also be read as signs of anxiety. Leaving an abusive work situation is not easy. Enduring the abuse can sometimes be the best of a very limited array of very bad options. Being forced out is a real fear – and sometimes abuse is employed as the impetus to generate a reason to terminate employment – if ‘voluntary’ departure is proving not to be an option.

By the very nature of being a victim, a person is also often powerless in workplace self-defence. People who are disempowered are readily made into culprits. A person in a condition of psychological distress might violate social norms, and, as transgressor, be targeted as the person primarily at fault.

This may be a brutal observation to make, but it is a truth constantly reported by staff with disability. The victim of abuse becomes victimised when reporting it. The proper anticipation of empathy and respect is unfulfilled.

Perpetuation of the problem

Here is a couple of excerpts from Psychopathic Employees Thrive Under Abusive Supervisors, Study Finds from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Lauren Simon, assistant professor of management, and her co-authors — Charlice Hurst at the University of Notre Dame, Yongsuhk Jung at Korea Air Force Academy and Dante Pirouz at Western University in Canada — found that when working for an abusive supervisor, individuals who possess high primary psychopathic characteristics appear to have distinct advantages over those who don’t. 

The second study asked participants to rate their supervisors’ abuse using a variety of items such as how often the supervisor ridicules or is rude to the employee, gives improper credit for work, or puts the employee down in front of others. Results showed that high primary psychopathy individuals, compared to those who did not have psychopathic traits, felt more positive and more engaged in their work, as well as less angry, under abusive supervisors. 

Simon cautioned, however, that companies should be wary of employees who exhibit these extreme characteristics. 

“Many people leave their jobs when they work for an abusive supervisor,” Simon said. “If abusive leadership does not bother—and perhaps even excites—individuals high in primary psychopathy, then these individuals may be more likely to remain with the organization.” 

There is a clear warning here.  Abusive managers, if left unchecked, can create an environment in which potential future abusive managers may emerge – and toward whom the abusive manager may have a natural bias.

Here are some excerpts from Abusive leadership infects entire team citing a study by Crystal Farh and Zhijun Chen from the University of Western Australia:

Lead investigator Crystal Farh said supervisors who belittle and ridicule workers not only negatively affect those workers’ attitudes and behaviors, but also cause team members to act in a similar hostile manner toward one another. 

“That’s the most disturbing finding,” Farh said, “because it’s not just about individual victims now, it’s about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not.” 


Previous research has shown that workers emulate supervisors’ positive behaviors, she said, so it only makes sense they would follow negative behaviors as well. 


“Teams characterized by relationship conflict,” Farh said, “are hostile toward other members, mistreat them, speak to them rudely and experience negative emotions toward them.” 

Abuse breeds abuse; and perpetuates it. Individuals, teams, and the organisation are all harmed.

The need for a timely response

Workplace abuse can be extremely harmful to the victim – injuring their psychological health to a significant degree. That’s the bottom line. It is a form of assault, and the fact that the injuries are psychological rather than physical cannot diminish the need for a speedy and effective response.

Conventional mechanisms are not effective because:

  • They are often invoked very late (or too late), when the psychological harm has been done and remediation is no longer a realistic prospect. 
  • They are often predicated on quasi-legal logic that demands an adversarial approach – which is all too often converted into a performance issue about the victim. 
  • They favour the manager over the victim because of how the processes are designed.
  • They are not person-centred with a focus on the fact an injury has been sustained.
  • They are about objective and abstract concerns, rather than accountability and support for the perpetrator to mend their ways. Abusive managers must be held to account, but not in a punitive way.

The comparison with physical abuse is compelling. A staff member with disability who has evidence of physical abuse is more likely to be taken seriously because the injuries are plain to see. Psychological abuse is not so comfortably self-evident. It has an invisible quality about it, even when distress is evident. It simply may not evoke a sufficient level of empathic response to precipitate the needed urgent and effective action.


Disability can create a level of vulnerability few other people seem to appreciate or recognise. Where abuse of vulnerable staff is permitted, it is then justified and defended. In workplace cultures where an abusive manager is tolerated and enabled by the next level of management – and the next – empathy and compassion are no more than empty words that are a mask to conceal the absence of both vital feelings. 

Even if the abuse is not intentional, a workplace culture unwilling to acknowledge that the risk of cruel conduct is real will continue to permit it. And in so doing it also implicitly condones it. There are no acceptable excuses. 

Accountability is one of the core values of the NSW public sector, and it is more than a noble statement of an aspirational value. It should be an assurance of action – and yet it is so often missing in action when a staff member with disability seeks help. The exercise of power must be ethical and compassionate.

Talking Truth to Power

Back in May 2021 I was privileged to be asked by the current DCJ DEN Chair, Jac Duncan, to be part of a delegation to the DCJ Board. It was a moving experience for me. I had pioneered DEN presentations to the Board in 2019 (February and November).

These are not opportunities to be squandered. The are chances to talk truth to power. For a short time, we have the undivided attention of the agency’s senior executive leadership team. Getting an invitation to present before the Board is a sign you are being taken seriously. For the DEN it was a major milestone. We had worked hard for that recognition.

In May 2021 the lead presenters were Chair Jacqui Duncan and Communications Deputy Chair Sharon Bennett. At the time I was very impressed by both, thinking the DEN was in very good hands.

Today, Monday 1 November I got an email DEN newsletter from Sharon. I saw the embedded videos and my heart sank. I was so used to internal emails with links only to the agency’s intranet. But I had under-estimated Sharon (I should have known better). They were on YouTube.

The May presentation was done via MS Teams, and it was recorded. Now you can watch two deeply impressive presentations to the Board on behalf of staff with disability. 

Jacqui Duncan’s presentation:

Sharon Bennett’s presentation:

In my view these presentations are an object lesson in intelligent and sophisticated engagement with agency leadership. They are beautifully thought through, respectful, inclusive and absolutely committed to a shared response to the challenges that continue to confront staff with disability.