A reflection on what’s holding Disability Inclusion back


I have been reading widely on the psychology and psychobiology of Inclusion. This has included a survey of our biological imperatives and how we evolved from groups with powerful needs to protect their own and to avoid the unfamiliar – anything that does not look, or behave like, kin. Bias and selective exclusion are part of who we are – just by being a human being.

This is in comparison to what many would see as distinct humanitarian values – in the sense of identifying with people, regardless of who they are, in a response to a sense of common purpose. This is becoming more and more evident in the work of inclusion advocates. 

There is, then, a tension between heritage and aspiration.

I think there is need for a deeper consideration of the idea that being inclusive is a ‘stretch opportunity’. I wrote about this a short time ago. But it seems to be such a fundamental thing to understand that I want look into the ideas more deeply in the context of a practical response by senior public sector leaders.

Why is it important?

Since mid 2019, when the NSW Premier’s Priorities were announced, the level of employment of staff with disability has not trended upward toward the 2025 target. It’s not that nothing has been happening. Some very good progress has been made in some areas. It just hasn’t been reflected in improved employment numbers.

There is no instinctive rationale to act in a coordinated and effective way.  This is new stuff for a workforce or a work community. It is historically unprecedented. It is important to understand this.

The presumption has been that simply by espousing inclusive sentiments good things will happen. The presumption has been that people expressing the inclusive sentiments can make it happen. Inclusive sentiments are good, and are necessary, but they are not sufficient, not by a long chalk.

There is abundant research showing that equity and inclusion efforts routinely fail to meet their stated objectives. There are annual acknowledgements by executive leaders that ‘more must be done’ and ‘we must try harder’. They seem to be grateful for incremental improvements. The hope of rapid improvement seems to have been abandoned completely.

But I don’t think the work that must be done to achieve Disability Inclusion is understood. And the effort required is profoundly under-estimated. The Neuroleadership Institute talks of change in months, not years. But intentional effort is required.

We have not understood the novelty

The objectives of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are essential in our contemporary culture. A vast number of demographic, cultural, political, and economic changes since the early 1960s have transformed the Australian community to be something unimaginable a century before. This is a very new situation.

But we are operating on legacy systems of instincts and cultural values and beliefs. I have earlier talked about the need to update our Personal Operating Systems (POS). It is still the best metaphor. To behave differently we must install updates to our POS. Unfortunately, it’s not like we can plug ourselves in overnight and wake up updated to POS 2.0. Maybe one day? It requires intent and effort – and more for some than others.

This is the bit we struggle with – not everybody wants to update; or be updated. Some folk are perfectly okay with continuing the way they are. They may also be in a community – cultural or religious – which just isn’t into updating.

Most of us do want to update – but require different levels of intent and effort. The result is that there is a very uneven response to the expectation of inclusive behaviour. And this is met with a ‘one size fits all’ effort to stimulate change – and it does not work.

A reaction from some of the more active and passionate advocates of DEI is to take a moral perspective and assert that a failure, or refusal, to update one’s POS is wrong because the conduct supported by the old POS is now wrong. It’s not that simple.

Options for persuasion

DEI is widely accepted in principle. But so are many other things that don’t turn into modified and improved behaviour universally. The question is, “How do you persuade yourself, and others, to act in conformity with comparatively novel values?” Here I mean ‘novel’ on an evolutionary scale. These values have been present and espoused in our culture is small ways for millennia. Turning them in to mass social values is another matter. The history of the abolition of slavery is instructive here. In Britain that took around 60s years from the 1770s to the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1933 via a very bitter fight. It wasn’t abolished in the USA until 1865 – and even so de facto slavery persisted long after that. The legacy of the resistance to efforts to abolish slavery can be found in the persistence of institutional racism even now – 250 years later.

Persuading oneself to change behaviour can be a struggle, as any former, or current, smoker knows. What has driven a reduction in smoking more than anything else has been the increase in cost of cigarettes and tobacco. The unpleasant advertising has helped too, as have the adverse health effects. The change in attitudes toward smoking since the 1960s has been powerful.

Change on a mass social level is very different from the individual level – which can be hard enough. Some people quit smoking overnight. Others, despite being highly motivated needed nicotine patches and counselling to make the change. I was lucky. All it took me was 3 months in an ICU, paralysed, and being physically incapable of holding a cigarette. Up to that point I was failing to quit.

Persuading people to update their POS to reduce instances of discrimination, exclusion, and bullying will require a similarly combined approach:

  • Assisting people to update their POS on an individual level
  • Changing cultural attitudes to reduce acceptance/tolerance of undesired behaviours
  • Engaging with those powerful people who are not motivated to support the changes actively to turn them into champions
  • Effectively engaging in zero tolerance of undesired conduct in certain places

Of these the last is the most problematic.

The politics of zero tolerance

The paradox of a government desiring the expression of DEI principles across its public sector is that it finds itself between two incompatible demands:

  1. A demand for equity and inclusion, backed by legislation, to ensure all community members and employees are treated with equal dignity and respect.
  2. A demand to avoid employing mechanisms of enforcement against those who are noncompliant or reluctant in compliance.

These two demands clash in a zone of contradiction, where those subject to discrimination seek to invoke the assurances of equal dignity, which are affirmed in speech and in writing, but not in action.

This clash arises for a very simple reason – a failure to understand the challenge; and make provision for avoiding the appearance of a paradox which leads to inaction despite widespread affirmation of commitment to DEI objectives.

An articulation of zero tolerance countered by an appetite for abuse can be resolved by asserting that change takes time (which is true). However, this is also a misunderstanding of the challenge. Discriminatory and abusive conduct toward staff with disability is not subject to the ‘work in progress’ logic. 

Changes to systems, policies and processes do take time, and sometimes more time than can seem reasonable – such is the nature of bureaucratic systems. Violations of anti-discrimination, human rights and work health safety laws require immediate action.

There is no ‘paradox’ of incompatible conflicting demands between individuals exercising rights under law and the enforcement of compliance with those laws to ensure those ‘inalienable rights’ are enjoyed.

What does the data say?

The 2021 NSW State of the Sector reports notes that 2.5% of staff report on agency HR systems that they have a disability, but then goes on to note that “These increases are encouraging, but a large amount of work is needed to reach the Premier’s Priority target of 5.6% of the workforce identifying as having a disability by 2025.”

The 2021 PMES report for the whole sector offers a few useful clues as to why “a large amount of work is needed”

  • The response for diversity and inclusion records that 76% have a favourable experience, but that means that 24% did not. That’s 1 in 4 staff members. 
  • Grievance handling score the lowest of all assessment categories with a satisfaction level of only 46%. 
  • Satisfaction levels with recruitment were marginally better at 48%. 
  • Staff with disability were the 2nd most discontented demographic group, with low scores in 8 or the 9 areas assessed. 
  • The sector-wide report of the proportion of staff with disability is 5% on the PMES (ranging from 2% to 12% by agency). That means that only 50% feel safe recording that they have a disability. And there’s another 5% who prefer not to say. Potentially, 75% of staff with disability are not prepared to report their disability on internal diversity data records.

The low level of satisfaction with grievance handling and recruitment is across all demographic groups, but we know that these are two main areas of concern for staff with disability. Inaction to, or adverse consequences arising from, registered complaints is only part of the problem. Fear of submitting a complaint is another area of concern, but not one that is assessed in the PMES.


Staff with disability do not feel safe saying they have need of a workplace adjustment or accommodation if they are subjected to discriminatory and abusive conduct. And they may fear to complain about that discriminatory and abusive conduct because doing so may result in retribution. 

The single most problematic factor is the failure to require compliance with law, and to act, in the face of non-compliance. This is one thing that the sector can be in control of. Done competently it will have immediate positive consequences. The 2021 PMES report says 14% of staff experienced bullying. Over 24% of staff with disability reported being bullied. Global data on bullying says that most bullying is perpetrated by a manager or senior manager. This means that the people charged with monitoring the conduct of managers are also part of the problem.

There is an appetite for abuse in an organisation where senior managers engage in bullying. Senior executive leadership must be engaged in enforcing the zero tolerance assertions.

If the sector cannot think through the complex, but not insurmountable, issues concerning DEI, it will continue to fail to make progress in meeting disability employment targets.

There are three important steps that can be taken:

  1. Recognise that DEI is an evolutionary stretch that will be responded to different ways – from enthusiastic embrace, through slow compliance, to determined resistance – and support a more innovative approach to solutions
  2. Clearly articulate what the sector’s appetite is for accommodating resistance to change, and refusal to comply with law and policy
  3. Establish mechanisms for taking effective action. There is abundant evidence that failing to hold managers and executives to account for not conforming to required standards is one of the most destructive factors retarding positive change. Done well, this alone has the potential for generating rapid positive change.

These are comparatively simple steps, but they will make a powerful difference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *