Things change slowly, but they change more slowly if there is no sense of urgency, and no energy applied to drive the change. What is it about inclusion that prompts the excluded to want it and others to offer it slowly – as if it is an inconvenience and a privilege?
I joined the ADHC Disability Employee Network (DEN) when it started in July 2010. Around 6 years and 4 months later I became Chair. During that time there were quarterly meetings and little else besides. That was normal, and still is. Quarterly meetings are perfectly fine if things are happening in between.
In July 2010 the one thing I wanted to see happen was the development of a workplace adjustment policy. I had returned to work after an 18-month absence in September 2009 after contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome. I had an acquired disability and there was no guidance on how I should be treated. There was guidance for return to work with a disability caused by a work-related incident, just not otherwise.
These were days when the idea of a DEN was fairly new, and the organisation was coming to terms with the need to address inclusion and access issues. Nothing was happening quickly. That disappointed many DEN members – who then became passive again. The initial enthusiasm for the DEN waned over the years because there really was no evidence of significant change, and a lot of people were suffering discriminatory conduct and inaccessible tech, processes, and systems.
Even now, addressing many of the inclusion and accessibility concerns does not happen quickly. But consider this. If what is under consideration is a work health and safety matter, how promptly would it be addressed?
Why are issues of dignity, inclusion and psychological wellbeing not given the same level of urgency? This is what I want to explore here.
Why Is It So?
How long should it take to write a Workplace Adjustment Policy? The 5 years it took the for the first effort? Why not 5 months?
Bureaucratic procedures are drawn out. The business of researching, consulting, drafting, and review prior to submission for approval is necessary. How long this may take is down to a question of priority and resource allocation. In a complex organisation there will be multiple priorities being worked on at the same time. All kinds of unknowns may intrude to delay progress. Some things can go only at a certain pace – slow. Whether this is true may be disputable, but it’s the entrenched wisdom, so fighting it can be a waste of time.
What is missing from this equation is a purely human process using agreements in principle and discretion. The question to be answered is “What should happen while the formal process is working out?” The answer should not be “Nothing.” However, it is often the response. Why is that?
Developing policy is one thing. Responding to a staff member’s needs is another. In relation to workplace adjustments, the most common complaint, even when there is a policy, is that a manager fails or refuses to act. And when there is an effort to address that problem there is often inaction from key parties.
Facilitating a workplace adjustment should be easy for everybody. Sometimes it may be necessary to bring in professional expertise, such as a physiotherapist, but often it is a matter of making a decision; and making it so. When a manager fails, or refuses, to act what happens? Who does the staff member talk to? Who talks to the manager?
This, surprisingly, seems to be a tangled mess of uncertainty. Nobody has confident knowledge. Staff, generally, have no clear idea what to do when their manager acts in a manner not consistent with their assessment of what is necessary for their wellbeing. They often do not have confidence they can go to their next manager up, or higher.
A reason for that lack of confidence is that often going to the next manager up does not resolve the issue; and it risks a backlash from the unresponsive manager who does not appreciate being by-passed.
In the NSW public sector, staff have policies and processes they can turn to if they need to submit a complaint. But that’s not the best solution first up. If there are no agreed recourses available prior to submitting a complaint, there is often a deterioration in the relationship between team member and their line manager that will lead to a complaint being lodged. Such an action is driven by despair; and can end badly for the complainant.
There is often an absence of proactive leadership that is committed to ensuring that a staff member with disability who requests a workplace adjustment has that need addressed promptly. Instead, there is a muddle of unaccountability that ignores the welfare of the staff member.
What to Do?
I am conscious of a certain repetition of themes in my writing – leadership quality and speed of response to acknowledged need. I am reminded of an observation that there are only 7 themes in storytelling. Whether a movie is set in ancient Greece, in Victorian times, or 2,000 years in the future the stories told will be some combination of those 7 fundamental themes.
In disability activism there are only 4 themes – who we are, what we need, why we can’t get it, and why it takes so long. There are thousands of stories, and they are told in one of more of those themes. It’s all about overcoming resistance.
A story that does not have peril is hardly worth telling. Disability confers adversity upon the individual in two ways. The fact of the disability itself, and the exclusion or inaccessibility that arises through interacting with the environment (physical, cultural, work etc). Stories also have morals and outcomes – triumph or defeat.
Few people are unaware of disability rights and the commitment to inclusion and accessibility. Certainly, no manager or executive in the public sector can claim ignorance as a defence. So why are disability stories that have environmental peril and defeat in them still being told?
What is the defence of those who do not act to uphold a person’s rights, and preserve their dignity? How can we remove peril and defeat from the story? In public sector employment there should be no such stories still being told.
Michael Coutts-Trotter, the former Secretary of the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, let staff know they could contact him directly if they had any concerns they could not resolve. That openness is so often taken as just form. It wasn’t. Every senior executive should let it be known they are approachable and responsive to a failure by their leadership team to ensure there are no stories about environmental perils and defeat being lived out in their business area.
Every executive should see that being an active disability champion is a vital part of their job. This is what is missing. It is the human dimension of modelling sound leadership through relationships with staff in their business area. There should be no nook or cranny that can hide managers who neglect their responsibilities to their teams. Senior leaders react with surprise when they hear of a staff member with disability experiencing discrimination or abuse. But it is rarely asked why this has happened, and action taken to ensure such an experience is not repeated. Neither is there an exploration of the cause.
Executive leaders reasonably expect their leadership team to lead responsibly and justly. And they are told this is happening, even when it is not. I recall listening to a podcast in which an organisational leader confessed he worried about whether his managers were lying to him. That’s a rational fear. It does happen, and on critical matters. Lies should be expected.
The solution is to make the welfare of staff a genuine agenda item at all meetings, to communicate a genuine message of openness to issues caused by managers, and to ensure there is real accountability for managers who demonstrate a failure to be responsive. This would eliminate the most egregious behaviours that are the cause of most complaints by staff with disability. It is not difficult.
Very early on with the DEN I argued that responding to the needs of staff with disability should be treated like a Work Health and Safety (WHS) matter. It was not a popular notion. In fact, the idea was resisted, politely, but firmly.
The resistance made it clear to me that even though there was a genuine commitment to disability inclusion and accessibility, it was seen more as a rights and values concern than one of welfare and safety. Staff with disability are, in fact, subjected to serious risks to their wellbeing – physical and psychological – when their need for a workplace adjustment is not addressed.
Response to such needs is frequently not considered to be urgent, and may be left unmet for months, and even years – with no sense of shame or remorse, even when the outcome of inaction is serious harm. What should also be alarming is that a staff member with disability who advocates for their needs is often targeted for bullying and abuse by the very people who declined to respond to them. Advocacy is seen as an offence against an established order. This is true, even when that established order does not conform to policy or law. Worse, there is often a perception that managers ‘close ranks’ protectively. In effect they are enforcing inaction as a norm.
And still, the inertia is normal. Stories of peril and defeat are still being told.