So, what’s the story?


Regular readers will be aware that I have been hammering away at a theme.  I am chipping away ideas that don’t deliver a satisfactory explanation as to why staff with disability are still not seeing the equity and inclusion promised. This is despite sincere affirmations of support.

It is not that there is a lack of genuine goodwill and good intent. It is that it is not translating into corrective or remedial action. Now, I have to remind myself, that while there are a lot of good things happening, it is still not enough. It’s not that there’s no good change. Rather that it is uneven. We can’t excuse a persistence of bullying and abuse in some areas because there are good things happening elsewhere.

My focus is on what is not happening, and why it is not happening. The question can be boiled down to “Why do good people let bad things happen?” The answer is “Because they don’t know they are doing that.” Why this is so is complex. This is what I want to discuss in this essay.  

Is this a right?

Across the globe there is powerful evidence of resistance to making the declared commitment to Disability Inclusion, and inclusion in general, a reality. In some cases, there is flat out refusal. In other cases, there is a leisurely process of adaptation – things are happening, but they are a ‘work in progress’. Really?

Disability Inclusion is the non-optional recognition of the rights people with disability to be accorded the same dignities as others. The 2nd General Principle of the NSW Disability Inclusion Act 2014 says “People with disability have an inherent right to respect for their worth and dignity as individuals.”

Now here it is worth pausing a moment. What is an inherent right? It is a right that is not granted. It is not a gift to be bestowed or withheld. It is a right that is intrinsic to a person. We can, in fact, take the words “with disability” out of the above principle and restate it as “People have an inherent right to respect for their worth and dignity as individuals.” But there isn’t an Inclusion Act. There is no discerned need for one.

What is it about disability (and other attributes of ‘diversity’ groups) that renders it okay that the “inherent right to respect for their worth and dignity as individuals.” is denied to people with disability, or assented to in a leisurely or non-urgent fashion?

Denial of inherent rights happens to us all at times. Our worth and dignity as individuals can be injured through carelessness or cruelty. The injury can be catastrophic, or something we shrug off. Our natural capacity for resilience can kick in – or get overwhelmed. This is part of who we are, and mostly we walk away, sometimes staggering, but surviving. Reality is tough.

We are more likely to affirm the inherent rights of those who are similar to us, and to offend against them when we engage with people who are not like us. This is hardwired into us. There was a time when this hardwired bias played a valid role in our survival.

The famous principle of Darwin’s theory of evolution – the survival of the fittest – merits thinking about in this context. The most fit, or fittest, means the most adapted, the most suited. That bias reflex, which once served us well, is now ill-suited to our needs. We no longer live in small communities in which the members are recognisably similar in appearance, conduct and capability. We live in large complex, pluralistic and diverse communities.

Public and Private Differences

The instinctive bias to include, or exclude, functions at an individual level, and is reinforced, or modified, by family, group (social, cultural, religious, employment) and community influences. Of those influences employment is the least subject to personal control – for important reasons.

Private businesses determine their customer based by choices they make. These choices can include operating with a bias to exclude or include certain people (like the poor or the non-hip). The larger the business the more complex the choice. A technology company or a bank may seek to draw customers from all segments of the community and strive to be as unbiased as possible.

Public sector agencies are under an obligation to be unbiased; and serve all members of the community equally. This creates an interesting tension between an employee’s individual right to be biased in their private life and their duty not to be biased as a public servant.

While we see bias as not a desirable attribute, we can’t impose a demand on an individual public servant to cease to elect to be biased in their private lives. In any case that would be futile. Our instinct to be biased is hardwired. The challenge is to help public servants to not exercise biases at work. That is a huge challenge for several reasons:

  • We are hardwired to be biased.
  • Our biases are unconscious.
  • Our biases may be reinforced by personal experiences and by influences outside work.
  • Our biases are very hard to shift – anti-bias training does not work.
  • We over-estimate our ability to be unbiased to a huge degree.
  • We may not have any motivation to cease being biased.

In Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald talk of “outsmarting” our instinctive reflexes to be biased. They say efforts at eradication do not work. They offer role models and systems as two ways of reducing the risk of bias influencing decisions and actions.

But before we think about how to outsmart our biases, we need to think a bit more about our personal responses – living with our own biases.

This is personal

I try to be inclusive, as, I assume, each reader does. I rate my performance as okay – selectively so. I am very inclusive sometimes and not so much other times. There are some people I don’t like. There are others I am uncertain of, and don’t feel comfortable approaching. And then there are those folk I really like; and feel very comfortable with. 

My public sector background has given me the opportunity to work with a wide variety of people with disability. I have friends and family members with disability too. Over the years I have developed a strong sense of professional inclusive conduct at work because of my work with people with disability. But I can’t swear that I do not exhibit bias toward, or against, members of the community. I do make an intentional effort not to be biased. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I can do at any given time.

I am okay about being biased on a personal level, but I am acutely aware that it can be inappropriate and unjust at times, and then I must work harder to honour my ideals. 

When I was chair of the DCJ DEN I realised that there was a risk that people who were discriminating against staff with disability may have a disability themselves. It could be the case that a manager’s adverse conduct toward a staff member with disability may be because of psychological injury. Blaming and shaming could injure the alleged offender – who we should be helping. 

In concluding that bias is a feature of being human, and not a bug, I see the way forward as a shared journey. It is one that begins with being comfortable with our own story of bias. In what could be thought of as a paradoxical way, the best ‘anti-bias’ move you can make is to acknowledge your biases; and feel comfortable with them. You don’t have to like them; or obey them.

Then you can choose when to be vigilant and avoid the risk of being unjust and unkind. Anti-bias training does not work because biases can’t be eradicated – only managed and outsmarted. To do either, you must be prepared to put in some intentional effort.

How much effort you put in is a personal choice. It comes down to that.

Thinking about role models

In Disability Inclusion there will always be people who are leaders, and whose conduct marks them out as great allies and champions. By leaders I do not mean those in formal leadership roles, but those who are workplace culture leaders.

It is essential that in any organisation those who are in formal leadership roles are also effective allies and champions – and preferably also workplace culture leaders as well.

Inclusion leaders should be encouraged in any organisation, with the one proviso that they are also supported to be effective.

Thinking about systems

There is compelling evidence that well-intentioned decision-making in areas like recruitment and complaints resolution is derailed by bias. The answer is to develop systems, guidelines and forms of accountability that reduce the risk of bias, and which increase awareness of those risks. There are substantial researched based options available. But responding to these opportunities  requires commitment at an organisational level in a significant way. 


We are changing how we live together in our communities. We have collectively chosen to end discrimination based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, and disability. These changes have been finding expression slowly for the past few centuries, picking up pace in the late 1960s. But we are operating on instincts that have been around for many tens of thousands of years.

We can choose to be leaders in driving an evolutionary change – and approach the opportunities and challenges that will come with insight, skill and compassion.

What do you choose?

Michael Patterson


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