Key concepts in Inclusion


It is remarkable what 11 months of dedicated inquiry has done to my gut feelings about what is necessary for effective Disability Inclusion. The shift from knowing something was right to being able to frame a theory of what inclusion is, and why it is so hard, has been liberating.

The development of a theory is critical for one vital reason. Overcoming the resistance to inclusion must be intentionally and methodically undertaken if success is to be expected. The evidence is quite clear on this. Below I have listed the 6 key ideas that have helped me frame a theory of inclusion. I will discuss each briefly.

  1. The illusion of inclusion
  2. Bias and our biological and social instincts
  3. Psychological safety
  4. The value of allyship
  5. Cognitive and emotional demands
  6. Changing values and the evolution of cultural values

The illusion of inclusion

We are mostly folk of good will who want to be inclusive – and we are to a fair degree. But we are all too often convinced that wanting to be inclusive, and thinking about inclusivity, is all it takes. 

It’s not that simple. Intentional effort is required – and that’s where the trouble starts. Without it, exclusion goes underground – and can become unconscious. We can end up with a surface appearance of inclusiveness, while real struggles against real harm continue.

Bias and our biological and social instincts

Bias has a bad rap, and that’s unfair. It has been misunderstood and made the culprit in well-intentioned, but misguided, efforts like anti-bias training.

The Neuroleadership Institute is blunt – if you have a brain, you have a bias. A bias is, essentially a short cut form of cognition that saves time and energy. But the founding premise must be valid and current – and the conclusion must be appropriate.

Bias is natural and mostly harmless. I grew up in a culture where there was a bias toward Ford or Holden cars. Aside from the odd drunken fight it didn’t do a lot of harm. But biases can also be toxic and damaging. This is especially true when they concern religion, race, sexuality, gender, or disability – and they arise in the workplace – or the community.

We develop biases easily, and we can change them – provided we want to and know we can. However, such change requires effort and energy, so motivation is important.

Bias is multilayered. At its foundation are instinctual reflexes that are deeply rooted to a biological logic that sustained our ability to survive, reproduce and thrive. Other biases are implanted in our family of origin, or our culture. Yet others are born from our life experiences.

There are two questions to be asked of biases. The first is whether the data on which they are formed is accurate and relevant. The second is whether the bias in an appropriate influence on our decisions.

We have deep instincts for inclusion and belonging. This is maybe our most fundamental need. For this reason, brain researchers say that experiencing exclusion activates the same part of our brain where pain is experienced. Exclusion is a threat, and it causes pain. But exclusion was also an ancient survival mechanism – when we looked after our own as a priority when life was dangerous and energy hard to come by.

Things have changed, and this is nowhere more evident in the contemporary workplace. We must modify exclusionary biases based on a threat response when mere difference is not a threat. We must expand our inclusionary biases to bring others into our embrace of belonging, even though they are not like us.

Psychological safety

This is a more complex area than it first seems. If you want to reflect on biases in a work context it is important that you do so in an environment where you feel safe to ‘talk truth to power’.

But contemporary writers like Amy C. Edmondson remind us that so often leaders are either unaware they are creating threat environments in meetings, or they do so intentionally. Hierarchy is a problem because we defer to authority status – and others use it for their own purposes.

Psychological safety can’t be faked. There will be leaders who assure that this is what they want but they are unaware that nobody trusts or believes them. Others may think they want it, but they have no idea what it entails. They may not be open or authentic people.

Psychological safety depends on authenticity at a personal level. We are highly sensitive to social threats and will react quickly to any hint of betrayal of trust. A leader who does not understand this will not easily recover trust once their actions violate it. The product may be a pretence that what they have is a psychologically safe setting – only nobody believes it.

In this context, it is important to also realise that we all have multiple dimensions to our identity. Several of these may be reasons to be anxious and trigger reluctance to be open. Psychological safety cannot apply to only one aspect of personal identity alone – like making it safe to talk about disability alone. Religious, age, gender, sexuality, and racial themes may also cause concerns.

The ideal of bringing your whole self to work means that all aspects of personal identity can be safely expressed (in an appropriate manner of course). In this ideal setting damaging biases are not operating, and individuals are free to express curiosity, concern, doubt, and disagreement.

Psychological safety is an essential, but complex, theme. It is easy to reduce it to a simple demand for tolerance or the delivery of inauthentic assurances that frankness will not be punished.

The value of allyship

Inclusion is not a solitary or heroic struggle. If you want change, you need allies. The more psychologically safe a work environment is the more allies will stand up and speak up. Allyship magnifies actions for inclusion.

Allies can be enlisted by Disability Inclusion activists as well as executive leaders acting as Champions. The difference here is instructive. There is a risk associated with becoming an ally in response to a call from a person with disability or an activist. There is a potential reward in the choice to become an ally in response to a Champion.

Allyship should be seen as a skilled activity. There are learnable ways of being a highly effective ally.

Cognitive and emotional demands

There is an interesting perspective from contemporary brain science that can be summed up in – we move away from threats, and we move toward rewards. But the threat sensing is stronger than the reward sensing. And here’s the problem at a very basic level. Change is often felt as a threat. How do we make change rewarding?

Change can place high demands on our cognitive and emotional capacities. The evolution of more inclusive workplaces is only one kind of change you may be experiencing. Organisational restructures, new work processes, new roles, new staff, new work challenges – all these accumulate as ‘threat’ responses demanding cognitive and emotional energy. Add to this change influences in our private lives.

Being inclusive, if it means undoing a bias, can be felt as just too much at times. For leaders, addressing issues about bullying of a staff member with disability by a manager might be a difficult conversation they don’t need to have now – and end up never having.

While change is necessary, how it is managed in a workplace will determine whether it is resisted or embraced. If staff are close to being overloaded with cognitive and emotional demands, unintentional resistance can derail what should be a desired and positive change.

Being inclusive includes including those who struggle to change. We need to remember that.

Changing values and the evolution of cultural values

Depending on how old you are, you will have a very different take on how the Australian culture has changed. Older readers will have a keener sense of change than younger readers, for whom what was radical change to older readers is now normal.

Let me put this into a technological perspective. Here are some watersheds – the introduction of remote controls for TVs, colour TV, touch dial telephones, fax machines, plain paper photocopying, and mobile phones. More recently we have the development of smartphones and social media. Each one of those technological milestones will either trigger a recall or leave the reader unmoved.

Our culture has changed in equally radical ways, but with markers that are far harder to see. Events post World War 2 have progressively transformed Australian culture – and not always to every one’s taste. We developed multiculturalism and introduced anti-discrimination legislation for a reason. We have had to give inclusion assistance to get going, and stay moving.

Inclusion is part of the trend of ongoing adaptation to emerging ideals and demands for fair and equal treatment. We are not only increasingly diverse from a cultural and racial perspective, the drive for diversity, equality and inclusion is also internal – growing in our shared cultural values. Disability Inclusion is a focused area of inclusion that really kicked off in the late 1980s. Thirty plus years on and the job isn’t done yet.

Our cultural values are changing faster than our instincts and biases can adapt without intentional effort. We are all under the pump in terms of keeping up. The older one is, the more likely that looks like a long history of change. The younger you are the more likely you are born into times when some inclusion issues are no longer part of a culture war.

Still, youth and seniority are not determinants. You can still be raised in cultures that resist our goals for inclusion because of religious or cultural traditions. And older folk may have been pioneer activists for inclusion.

Regardless of age or background our response to the demands of changing demographics and cultural values can be complex and challenging. A genuinely compassionate religious person can still have a hard time accepting transgender people as okay.


Disability Inclusion sits within the domain described as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as a uniquely specific field because it adds the dimension of physical and sensory factors in relation to accessibility and inclusion. 

Outside specific cultural markers (like turbans and veils) physical markers of disability convey a signal of ‘can’t’ that no other diversity group conveys. Intersectionality draws our attention to the multiple ways that biases and discrimination can impact an individual. But mostly these impediments to inclusion are psychological and cultural – not physical or sensory.

Adding psychological and cultural discrimination to physical and sensory exclusion deepens the Disability Inclusion challenge. Some disabilities do trigger psychological and cultural discrimination as deep-seated biases are activated. Other times intersectional attributes may also play a role. How do I know whether the hard of hearing Moslem woman is experiencing discrimination and exclusion just because of her hearing disability?

We must understand the challenges to inclusion at a deeply rational level if we are to make real progress in a reasonable time. Cultural evolution, unassisted, is slow. Good will, while widely present, is neither uniformly distributed nor equally disposed to action. 

We must nurture that good will by feeding it reasoned arguments. We must also protect it from ill-advised expressions of frustration that wrongly assign inaction to moral failings, and also from inauthentic assertions of inclusiveness. We must also ensure that leaders do not self-exempt themselves from a responsibility for accountability in leading and promoting inclusion.

This last point consistently shows up in assessments on why inclusion has stalled. Leaders have unequal power and influence. One person can influence many in a positive or negative way. The value to an organisation in addressing the adverse impact of one toxic leader should be self-evident. But leaders can see themselves as a class apart and can become self-protective. This remains as the single most problematic issue in moving inclusion forward. Hierarchy adds a level of complexity to leading inclusion that is inadequately understood. 

To counter this, inclusion advocates must use contemporary research to make compelling arguments for strategic and accountable change where it matters most.

These six key concepts are what I believe Disability Inclusion advocates need to understand and work with to make their work as fruitful as it can be.

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