What is a Disability Employee Network?


Back in July 2010, when I was a founding member of the Department of Ageing Disability and Home Care’s (ADHC) Disability Employee Network (DEN) it was little more than a consultative body. The department was fully in control of the agenda and the pace of change (slow, very slow). Back then we met with members of HR 4 times a year, raised concerns, and HR responded.

By late 2016 the membership was despondent and dwindling, Very little change was evident. The workplace adjustment policy requested in July 2010 was still not fully formed. This wasn’t resistance. It was just how things were done. In 2016 ADHC was morphing into FACS (Family and Community Services). The DEN’s original membership had crashed, and the DEN wasn’t known across the newly formed department. These were dark days.

I became DEN Chair in November 2016. I had a big job ahead of me. I stuck to the old way through 2017, slowly rebuilding the membership numbers. I had become DEN Chair by default when the incumbent suddenly quit to take up a new role with the NDIA. My goal had been to spend 12 months or so rebuilding member numbers to the point where a meaningful vote could be held. This meant raising the DEN’s profile and putting disability on the agenda in as many areas as I could.

In early 2018 I had been elected as Chair. Things were about to change in unexpected ways. At the Australian Network on Disability (AND) Annual National Conference the CEO and founder of PurpleSpace, Kate Nash, was the keynote speaker. PurpleSpace is a UK based organisation dedicated to the support of staff with disability. Kate spoke of Networkology, the discipline of creating change in favour of employees with disability.

That transformed the way I thought about the DEN and how I imagined it could work.

What is Networkology?

It is, in essence, a rational and disciplined approach to generating change. Kate laid out some critical conditions for success. It is not my aim here to recite the details of what Networkology is. I encourage the reader to visit the PurpleSpace website and explore. But I will come back to those critical conditions through this essay because they remain fundamental.

I translated Networkology into Professionalism. By that I meant that a DEN was not an amateur body engaged in good intent. It was using departmental resources, time, and relationships, so it had to take the same responsible approach. In addition, it had a brief from the department and its members to achieve positive changes for staff with disability.

This effectively placed an onus upon the DEN to conduct itself in a professional and strategic manner with a clear duty to achieve outcomes, like any other business unit. The DEN was, in effect, a networking activist change unit. That meant it operated slightly outside the normal hierarchical structure. That also meant that there was an even greater need to be professional in that uncertain space.

Stop wasting opportunity and time

My immediate lesson from Kate was that we were wasting opportunity. Her three critical elements were:

  1. Build a strong relationship with the organisation’s executive leadership. We had that, especially in the personal support of the Secretary, Michael Coutts-Trotter.
  2. Work with a strong and effective Executive Champion. We had that in Anne Skewes, Deputy Secretary, LAHC.
  3. Build a strong alliance with the Inclusion and Diversity team. We had that in the enthusiastic support of the manager, Kerry Lowe.

Over my time in the public sector, I have come to recognise that every now and then the stars come into perfect alignment – but only for a short time. Here was the perfect Networkology foundation. And I was wasting it!

We were still doing our 4 meetings a year. True, I was putting in a massive amount of effort in between. But it wasn’t enough. In September 2018 I put out a call to the DEN Membership for volunteers to put in extra time to bring about much needed change.

I got 15 responses, and I created the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team, the GAT

How the GAT changed the DEN

The GAT wasn’t intended to be management committee, or a committee. In fact, the word ‘committee’ is a sedative to me. I wanted guidance from the lived experience of an array of disabilities, and I wanted to stimulate action.

Well, I got 15 passionate, impatient, and sometimes hurting and angry individuals. Crafting them into the dynamic professional change dynamo that the GAT became is a story, but it won’t be told here.

The GAT was made up of close on 50:50 metro and regional members. We were on the phone and emailing daily. The conversation were intense, energetic, impatient, and hopeful.

I was able to get agreement that the GAT would meet for a full day in advance of the DEN meetings, in those days in person in Ashfield. We had internal and external guests to brief us and consult with us on matters of concern.

The GAT became the vehicle for approaching business areas directly to discuss how positive changes could happen. 

In July 2019 the GAT was funded to run a professionally facilitated 2-day development workshop to clarify its sense of its role and articulate the priorities it wanted to follow. This led to a strategic plan being developed.

The development of the GAT turned the DEN into an active and professional change organisation that operated as an effective quasi business unit.

Telling the story

In February 2019 I took 6 GAT members to a Board meeting for our first Roundtable. I chose members with tough stories to tell. The impact of the Roundtable on the Board and the GAT members was transformative. The Board learned of the miseries experienced by staff with disability in business units they were responsible for. The GAT members discovered that Board members were caring humans who reacted strongly to their stories.

We were invited back to the Board in November the same year to provide and update and a report on ongoing problem areas. 

After the February presentation, Roundtables were established as a key strategy for the DEN in sharing the lived experiences of staff with disability at work. They have been instrumental in triggering important and significant positive changes.

We also participated in disability awareness presentations – one for staff on the Central Coast and another for Corporate Services executives. I also encouraged a few members to tell their personal stories in the departmental newsletter.

Sharing stories – the suffering caused by exclusion and discrimination and successful workplace adjustments – is a vital role of the DEN.

Layers of membership

I obsessed over membership numbers and data. When I commenced as Chair I had two imperatives – grow the membership and increase awareness of the DEN across the newly formed department. I had a spreadsheet showing numbers by division, business area and location and I provided monthly reports to the Secretary and Executive Champion as well as the GAT.

Taking a clue from Kate Nash I expanded the membership category to include Allies. This ostensibly allowed staff who had no disability to signal their support. But it also enabled staff unwilling to say they had a disability to stay connected to what the DEN was doing. The response was strong.

At the February Roundtable in 2019 I argued that looking out for staff with disability was the responsibility of every executive, and while the DEN’s Executive Champion was an invaluable role, they should not be the only Disability Champion in the department. I set a goal of recruiting 30 additional champions by the end of 2019. I thought I was being ambitious. As it turned out I was being way too timid. I got double that number.

These days allyship is recognised as an essential part of driving inclusive change. While a DEN represents the interests of staff with disability it speaks to the whole organisation and must foster support among all staff.

Having different types of membership is useful because metrics are always a good tool to measure response and impact. This is especially the case in any professional activity – if it can’t be measured it hasn’t happened. Quite simply numbers tell the DEN how well it is doing in the key area of attracting and maintaining interest and support.

Leadership and Profile

A DEN sits in a unique place within an organisation. It is not always a formal business unit (as it is in some companies), and where it is not it must behave like one. This requires some deft management of its profile, reputation, and leadership. And here things can go awry easily.

My persistent point to the GAT is that the DEN isn’t a union of “cranky cripples” (Yes, I am allowed to say that). It is a professional body of change activists engaged in networking outside the formal organisational hierarchy. This is a delicate and precarious place to be. It requires skill, sophistication, and courage.

I have observed in an earlier essay on leadership that the first Chair of the ADHC DEN was a regional manager who had a strong positive profile in the department. The 2 subsequent Chairs were relatively junior and far less effective. They lacked the experience and skills needed.

I rated myself a scant pass mark by my own standards. I did not have a strong profile in the department, and my exposure to the department’s leadership culture was limited, despite 4.5 years as a manager. But I was very well read in organisational psychology and management theory and a professional background of engaging with business and NGO leaders very successfully.

Going back to Kate Nash’s insights and the concept of Networkology, chairing any Employee Resource Group (ERG) is a complex, demanding, and challenging role, if the members want to see meaningful outcomes. It is a skilled and professional role. 

Managing the DEN’s profile is also a challenging role that demands highly effective communication skills, strong relationship building and managing skills, excellent conflict resolution skills, and the diplomatic sense to know when to speak up, and when to shut up.

Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DEI) is a highly researched field these days, and it knits in with organisational psychology and management theory. We are well past the days when a DEN, or any other ERG for that matter, can be effective if it is not run as a professional standard body.

It is, finally, all about the individual

We flourish as individuals only in a community that nurtures its members. A DEN must be that community in the first instance to support its members. It must model the change it wants for the workplace culture in which it operates. 

The evolution of workplace culture is a DEN’s overarching goal. A healthy nourishing culture benefits all staff members, the organization, and the communities which benefit from its operation. 

It is not possible to serve only staff with disability. A DEN has a specialist insight into the lived experience of disability – in the workplace and on a personal level. This insight must contribute to a shared objective of creating an inclusive workplace.


In 2022 a DEN operates in a complex environment – political, intellectual, moral, and organisational – that has evolved way beyond how things were in 2010 when I joined the DEN, in 2016 when I became Chair, and 2020 when I left the Chair role.

Globally there have been huge steps made in supporting staff with disability. But there are also persistent sticking points that, unless understood and skilfully addressed, will remain a blockage on the path to full Disability Inclusion. At best, a failure to handling these sticking points will result in achingly slow change. At worst, the still current awful stories of staff with disability being subject to discrimination, bullying and exclusion will continue.

Nobody can expect the DEN membership to get its collective head around these challenges. But its leadership must if it wants to retain a genuine character of professionalism. And without that professionalism it will not succeed.

The word Networkology is a clue. This is what triggered a period of highly effective and innovative work for the DEN in May 2018.

Ology – a subject of study; a branch of knowledge. Networkology is the discipline and skill of building the most effective network possible to bring about positive change for staff with disability. 

If a DEN isn’t doing this, what is it doing? What is its purpose?

Michael Patterson

DEN Member July 2010 to June 2021

DCJ DEN Chair Nov 2016 to Mar 2020.

10 August 2022

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