It’s been over 9 months since I quit DCJ. I have had the leisure to do a lot more time into thinking about Disability Inclusion – a lot of listening to audiobooks and podcasts; a lot of reading articles and websites; a lot of talking; and a lot of writing.
I have expanded my focus on Disability Inclusion (DI) to look at the wider field of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) because it became very obvious that what was impeding progress in DI was impacting DEI as well. Disability isn’t special, it’s a subset – a specialised subset.
One of my treasured possessions is a t-shirt given to me by the DCJ DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT). On it are the words “Solve for One – Extend to Many”. Like all favourite t-shirts, it will become too tatty to keep wearing one day. But the words are eternal. They come from universal/inclusive design; and became the DEN’s/GAT’s motto. What is solved for Disability Inclusion benefits everyone – but we can’t ignore the wider field – where so much work is being done. This includes what works and what does not – and why it does not.
Dedication to Disability Inclusion is an absorbing passion, but it can’t be a fulltime role of any but a small few. However, inclusiveness itself can’t be a parttime value, attitude, or behaviour – it must become the core of who we are. So, for me, the chance to spend as much time as I want on Disability Inclusion has been a privilege. I want to share some key learnings with you.
We are Not Naturally Inclusive – and This is a Feature, Not a Bug
There is a mass of research in psychology available these days that delivers some humbling news about us. We are hardwired to be exclusive, discriminatory, and biased. This is built into our brains. It’s a feature of who we are as human beings. These instincts have been fundamental to our survival in the past. But now they are increasingly problematic as our world has changed – and our cultural and social values have morphed into a form of inclusive humanism. Our cultures have become more diverse and pluralistic – and it is no longer okay to exclude community members just because they are different.
For many, Inclusion has been a theme all of their lives. But for others there was a watershed time in the late 1960s that marked a transition to a new set of social values. If you were born around 1968, or later, you would think that Inclusion a natural part of our social discourse. But remember, Iris Bohnet’s What Works: Gender Equality By Design was published in 2018. That’s 50 years on – and we are not there yet.
But let’s be clear. Exclusion will still happen on personal levels. We can’t mandate ‘niceness’ and openness in a person’s private life. It’s just not okay in roles of public trust, and where public funds and functions are concerned. We have to demand inclusion and equity of public sector employees in their official roles.
Resistance to the change is natural. That desired inclusive spirit is a stretch from our instinctive natures – and some people will welcome the stretch while others will resist it. Such change is not easy and requires intentional effort at personal growth. Some folk will resist with serious determination.
You cannot force or shame people into being more open and compassionate. This is a stretch exercise for the whole community. So, if you are the vanguard that’s great. Be there with humility and compassion. Model the change you want, don’t preach it.
It’s Doubly Hard for the Public Sector.
Research into bias and decision-making confirms that for DEI strategies to be highly effective they require committed support from an organisation’s executive leadership. This support includes: awareness of DEI issues and challenges, modelling desired behaviour, ensuring visibility of the DEI theme, supporting and participating in programs and activities, and developing and implementing an overall strategic and accountable organisational plan.
The public sector differs from the private sector in one key respect. Private sector responses to DEI are business-based, whereas the public sector has a non-optional obligation to ensure an effective response to all community members. Ensuring equitable and inclusive service provision and access to employment to all community members is a duty, not a business choice. This places a far higher onus upon public sector leaders to address the resistance to change toward more inclusive and equitable behaviour.
It’s a good thing that a state or nation’s government makes a commitment on behalf of its community that all members will be treated equally. But that’s a huge call to impose upon the public servants – and expect them to muddle through and figure out how to do it all – on top of everything else.
To be fair, we are making a decent go of it. But there are still areas where much needs to be done – something annually acknowledged.
The Need for Leadership
Public sector leaders carry a burden of obligation and expectation that can be onerous. They are the ones who must ensure the goals of DEI are realised. However, the presumption has been that the stretch change is just about being ‘nicer’. It isn’t. It requires knowledge, self-awareness, insight, and skill. It also requires resources – time, support, and learning & development.
Nobody attuned to contemporary social values will dispute importance of changing how we engage with people who are members of minority or diversity groups. But belief in those values, and faith that they can be expressed by goodwill alone, are not sufficient. So, while we should celebrate the fact our culture is changing in such a positive way, we must not believe we will make progress by some kind of magical osmosis by which ‘niceness’ will infect more and more people. There’s a bit of that going on, but it has a real limit. Learning to be inclusive can cause an existential crisis, and can require serious effort.
Effective leadership is necessary – and leaders must be skilled and supported. Within organisations in the public sector that support must include accountability. These days a manager’s role is not just to focus on the ‘operational’ demands of a work unit, but also to be skilfully supporting staff. That’s a skill area that seems to be growing constantly, demanding higher levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence than in the past. However, it is an integral part of the job now. More (and better) effort must be put in to recruiting managers/leaders with the personal attributes, skills and knowledge needed to ensure that meeting DEI objectives is part of core business.
This is another ‘work in progress’. As workplaces are evolving and the demands on, and needs of, staff are being re-defined, the need for managers to develop new skillsets isn’t being recognised to the extent necessary. In essence, as DEI reflects an evolving set of values and expectations, so what is needed to reflect and strengthen them is also evolving. This process of adaptation is competing for attention with traditional core business. It is non-optional, so it must become core business if the DEI goals are to mean anything.
Effective leadership is essential, but so is recognising that leadership and management roles are changing and with that change there are new demands and skills which must be acknowledged, facilitated and supported.
Intentional Effort is Required at All Levels of an Organisation
What is happening at a cultural level is the equivalent of needing an upgrade to our shared Operating System (OS). It isn’t that the old one is bad, or wrong, just that it’s not fit for the new purpose we have set for ourselves. The new OS has new features, and that means unlearning old habits. That isn’t easy. I bought a new keyboard that has a few new keys where old ones used to be, and after 3 months, I am still to break the deeply ingrained muscle memory. I am making the same keying errors daily – less frequently, but still making them.
Some of us will take to adapting to an updated OS with ease. Others will not. This will apply regardless of where you are in an organisation’s hierarchy. Becoming an executive does not magically confer powers for faster adaptability – even if the role requires, or expects, it.
The problem is that adapting to an upgraded OS can’t be mandatory; but must be necessary. This is a potential dilemma for the public sector, where there isn’t an option to opt out of being inclusive. That’s pretty much a contract public servants sign on to when they sign a Code of Conduct.
An obligation for intentional effort must come with some form of accountability – and here the public sector struggles. This is because it hasn’t understood the nature of the challenge; and hasn’t devised effective responses to it. That is the most important intentional effort required at the most senior levels of public sector leadership.
What Can You Do at a Personal Level?
It can be a struggle these days to find the time to catch on a bit of reading/viewing/listening. But an hour a week can do wonders. Taking time to stretch your ability to be inclusive – including inclusive of those who resist adapting – will always pay dividends. We all have to learn how the updated OS works.
Audiobooks will not be everybody’s jam. I like them because I can listen most places – and even in 5-10 minute chunks. That way I can get through at least one audiobook a week – but, I have to remind myself, I don’t have a fulltime paid job, or a family to wrangle. The critical research from books is often summarised in podcasts or YouTube, and I will include a few links at the end.
Depending on the size of your smart phone and how good your eyes are, getting the Kindle app can be a really handy way of working through a book, or an article, in short bursts.
Always remember that stretching ourselves into an updated OS is always better as a shared experience – and routinely repeated one. Doing so as a solitary, and only now and then, is sub-optimal.
Inclusion is novel and it runs counter to our instinctive reflexes. That’s why it it is hard to do for some folk. We can reprogram those reflexes with choice and determination. Some will find it easy, and others will not. Building cultural change in the public sector and the community takes time supported by smart intentional effort. This requires informed and supported leadership – because key decisions about knowledge, skill and resources must be made to enable people at all levels to adapt to the upgraded OS.
- Melinda Briana Epler’s How to Be an Ally is my ‘must read’ at the moment.
- Melinda’s podcast Leading with Empathy and Allyship is a great source of powerful ideas. Checkout the podcast app on your phone.
- You can find plenty of content featuring Melinda on YouTube.
- The Centre for Inclusive Design has a podcast – With, Not For.
- Jackie Ferguson’s Diversity Beyond the Checkbox podcast is another good resource.
- Search YouTube for talks by these authors. They are not all on inclusion, but stuff that is part of understanding why it’s so hard at the moment:
- Daniel Kahneman
- Brene Brown
- Amy C. Edmondson
- Iris Bohnet
- Daniel Goleman
- Sarah Rose Cavanagh
- Hugh van Cuylenberg
- Dr Carol Dweck
- Dexter Dias
- Adam Grant
- Pete Walker