I started writing this on 10 June 2022. That’s exactly 12 months since I exited the NSW Department of Communities and Justice – Disability Inclusion team. This matters to me because I walked away from my unfinished Disability Inclusion journey, but this was not due to a lack of passion. There are just times when you know you have to go – and this was my time to go. I didn’t leave with any adverse passions, just a sense I had to do something different in how I approached Disability Inclusion.
I have several times posted essays on my progress in reframing my understanding of Disability Inclusion. I have wanted readers to understand that the blog is a journey of discovery.
Some good news
I was forwarded an email from the DCJ Secretary acknowledging DCJ’s success at the recent Australian Network on Disability (AND) Annual National Conference in Melbourne. The department was given two inaugural awards:
- Disability Confidence Award – DCJ was awarded this in consequence of its participation in the Access and Inclusion Index in 2021. To quote from the email “We were the only organisation to top the index in three different areas – commitment, career development, and workplace adjustments.”
- The DCJ DEN won the first Disability Employee Network of the Year Award.
The email went on to mention the DCJ Disability Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP) in a positive way.
These 3 things (the DEN, A&I Index and the DIAP) were the focus of my passion and efforts in recent years.
The advantage of having time
I have had free time over 12 months to focus on whatever I cared to. I have listened to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts on inclusion and organisational psychology.
As well as the audiobooks and podcasts I consumed online articles and did hours of internet research. In between I talked with people who share my passion. I was on a mission to fill in gaps in my understanding about how and why Disability Inclusion works – and fails.
I was astonished at how much there was to learn. I thought I was doing okay before. In fact, Disability Inclusion, and Inclusion more generally, is an evolving science that synthesises the efforts of psychologists, brain scientists, business researchers and Inclusion advocates. Knowledge and practice are being refined continually.
The danger of comfortable niches
If we don’t continually upgrade our knowledge, we can get stuck doing stuff that was good practice some time ago, but which didn’t work as well as hoped or imagined.
We can become comfortable with being ineffectual and believe that the struggles we face to overcome resistance are normal. While the struggle to overcome resistance is normal, being ineffectual should not be.
I have been impressed by the claims made by the Neuroleadership Institute, whose stated mission is “Deliver change in weeks not years” That’s a bold assertion to make. I haven’t been fully sold on that proposition yet, but I am feeling more comfortable with it as I discover more about its work.
The Neuroleadership Institute also introduced me to the idea of a Growth Mindset. That’s a theme of an essay I posted on May22nd.
Who is responsible?
On a sector/organisational level I want to distinguish between an individual’s capacity to research more effective methods and what should be provided to support that individual staff member’s inquiry. These days the amount of information is significant. Asking a motivated staff member to troll through available information and discern what is best and most useful is unreasonable.
In many organisations Disability Inclusion is an add-on – as if it is a free service to be provided by staff whose time and attention is already taxed. It must be part of core business for which resources are provided. But unless senior leaders are aware of this argument, they won’t support it. And how are they going to become aware if they do not have access to contemporary ideas and data?
It does take doing a research project to become aware of what is available. This is what has been made clear to me over the past 12 months.
The importance of knowledge
The famed management consultant, Peter Drucker asserted more and more contemporary employees are ‘knowledge workers’ and this includes public sector employees who are using their education and skills to design and deliver services to the community.
The extent to which knowledge is the focal factor in so many roles is profoundly under-appreciated – especially in fields where there is constant discovery and innovation. The situation is not helped by an aversion to what is called ‘Life-Long Learning’. There is a resistance to learning and responding to demands for upgraded skills that is innate in many of us. We are change resistant by nature. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a reality which is disposed to accommodate that resistance, so there is always a tension between how we behave, and how it is thought we ought to behave.
While L&D teams strive to create more effective ways of upskilling and increasing knowledge, the budgets to support them are not as strong as they could be, and the intended recipients of the learning are not necessarily enthusiastic consumers. This is the reality we live with. It’s not going to change in the foreseeable future.
On a sector level, when it comes to Disability Inclusion, and Inclusion more generally, I think there are compelling arguments for the development of
a ‘clearing house’. This can curate and disseminate contemporary thinking on the theme – books, podcasts, and articles – that will assist individuals at any level in an organisation to get up to speed with current thinking and practice.
But for this to have any value and impact there must be an accountable requirement by organisations that their staff become informed. There’s no point in setting up a service on the basis of something being ‘nice to have’ – ‘must have’ is a smarter foundation.
The I work for NSW website carries a commitment asserting, in relation to people with disability, that “We are committed to building safe and inclusive workplaces for all NSW Public Sector employees.” And it goes on to add “We are doing this by … building a culture of inclusion across our workforce.”
However, between mid 2019, when the Premier’s Priority to increase disability employment to 5.6% by 2025 was announced, and mid 2022, there was no growth. The reason why is plain. There was no planned, strategic, or coordinated effort across the sector.
Put simply, if public sector staff are required to become aware of contemporary ideas and practices in Disability Inclusion it is worthwhile the sector investing in such a service. But not unless that requirement is tracked and accountable.
You are not going to develop inclusive workplaces without knowledge, skill, planning, coordination at the pace that is desired and necessary.
Efforts at promoting Life-Long Learning in the public sector have failed. The need is routinely testified to, but there has been no effective response – no discernible strategy at a sector level. The private sector has competitive pressures and rewards, whereas the public sector has neither. Things happen when you add incentives.
This means that without this intentional and committed effort, Disability Inclusion will evolve only by accident, dependent on individual commitment by people who are already have their time and attention taxed.
Obstructions to an accountable public sector
Over the past 12 months I have refined my ideas about why Disability Inclusion fact does not match the sentiment. It’s not that I don’t believe the sentiment is real. It is sincere, but it is also clueless – and this is down, in large part, to the want of knowledge.
The chief problem is the belief that Disability Inclusion will happen because people want it to happen. But not only is the ‘problem’ mis-identified, the ‘solutions’ are misconstrued. It isn’t that the ‘solution’ is difficult, just that the pathway to it is complex. We don’t like complexity, which is why we fail at solutions so often in the public sector.
In the private sector things are very different. Apple is the massive corporation it is now precisely because it dared to engage in crazy complexity. Watch Steve Jobs on YouTubetalking about the first iPhone in 2007. You will see vision, commitment, and determination. This is what is absent in the public sector.
The curse of complexity
Disability Inclusion is fiendishly complex. You must fuse organisational psychology with individual psychology – and then add the politics of organisational hierarchies. This blends organisational cultures with personal passions and ambitions. Then we need to understand how our instincts and brains shape our biases.
What we believe about ourselves, and others, will determine how we frame our vision for inclusion. There is compelling evidence that we hold inflated views about our strengths overly negative assessments of others – especially those we see as members of outgroups.
We must avoid imagining that there’s a definitive simple methodology that will solve the problem and those who are not on board are intellectually and morally deficient. It’s not that simple. There is a method – and it is complex.
We are heirs to this complexity. It will not magically disappear. It’s what we must work with.
The problem of novelty
Disability Inclusion, and Inclusion more generally, is novel. Our culture is evolving in ways that can be challenging to many – and this is especially so across the Inclusion spectrum (race, gender, sexuality, religion, disability).
People respond to novelty in a wide range of ways. We are naturally change resistant, so often the reflex response is to resist. If we are in crisis, we will champion novelty if it offers relief (which is why Disability Inclusion advocates push for new ways of doing things). But in terms of how we may react to others in crisis, there is a spectrum of responses that is dependent upon our individual attributes. This includes our personal capacity (cognitive and emotional capacity, time and attention) to be as empathic and inclusive as we like to think we are and want to be.
The challenge for Disability Inclusion advocates is, I now believe, how to make inclusiveness accessible, so it can be adopted with greater ease. This can be done by working smarter – better informed and more strategic.
In 2018 my approach to being DEN Chair was radically transformed by Kate Nash, CEO and founder of PurpleSpace – a UK-based organisation dedicated to Disability Inclusion. Kate gave the keynote address at the Australian Network on Disability’s Annual National Conference in Sydney.
Kate introduced me to the idea of Networkology and set out an approach to Disability Inclusion that was far more strategic and coherent than anything I had been doing. I changed how I did things radically. Success was fast in coming. What I did was to listen to people who know and try out their method. That worked.
In What Works, Iris Bohnet argued for a more systematic approach to attaining gender equity goals. Despite years of engagement with gender equity campaigns Bohnet saw persistent failure. Gender equity is the ground level inclusion challenge that started in the 1960s. If anything is emblematic of how complex inclusion is, it is gender equity.
PurpleSpace, the Neuroleadership Institute and Bohnet share one thing in common – a recognition of the importance of informed, updated, systematic, and disciplined practice in driving positive and inclusive change.
Since encountering Networkology in 2018 I have been persuaded that a strategic, professional, knowledge-based approach to Disability Inclusion is the only pathway to success. Everything I have read, watched, and listened to in the past 12 months has confirmed that.
Public sector agencies must develop expertise in their leaders and Disability Inclusion advocates by investing in, and supporting, such an approach if the inclusion goals of the sector are to be realised within a reasonable time. Disability Inclusion must become a priority that is backed by the resources needed (vision, knowledge, time, attention, method, and strategy). If its not, no assurance of commitment is worth anything.