As Christmas nears, I am taking the time to look back on the year from a Disability Inclusion perspective. Some good things have been happening, and some things remain unchanged.
The good things
In July last year I joined my local council’s access advisory committee. Through that I have been involved in consultations with architects and designers re buildings, parks, playgrounds, and other facilities under the responsibility of the council and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
The commitment to disability access is genuine and deeply rooted in the personal commitment of staff. And it is growing.
The NSW government’s annual survey of its public staff – the People Matter Employee Survey [PMES] – indicates a steadily improving willingness of staff to indicate on the survey that they have a disability. Something is working better for that to be happening. I was pleased to see that my former employer, the Department of Communities and Justice was the top performing department concerning the number of staff recording that they have a disability – 8%. It was 4% in 2019 when the innovations I led kicked off in a big way.
Earlier this year I participated in a disability recruitment exercise for a federal department. It was run by a private recruitment firm. It was sophisticated, professional, and sensitive to the needs of applicants. I was impressed by the whole process. It should be the benchmark standard for recruiting staff with disability.
What hasn’t improved
Around mid-year the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet woke up to the fact that there had been zero progress on a Premier’s Priority on lifting the percentage of staff with disability from a low of 2.6% to a modest target of 5.4%. Instead of owning up there was a panicked election-induced effort at a smoke screen to hide the absence of any strategic effort.
Setting a target is all well and good, but failing to develop a means of hitting it reeks of a lack of authentic commitment at the highest level of the sector’s leadership.
The Public Service Commission’s website observed that “In 2022, the proportion of public sector employees choosing to share that they have a disability through reporting in our HR system was 2.5%. Achieving this 2025 target is particularly ambitious as disability is multifaceted and complex.”
You’d think that knowing a target was “particularly ambitious” might have excited a determined response. The same web page goes on to say, “We are committed to building strong foundations”. This is misleading. The graphic used shows the disability employment at 3% in 2014. A benchmark figure of 2.5% in 2018 is shown at a ‘starting point’ on the journey to 5.6% in 2025. In 2022 the rate remains at 2.5% after dropping to 2.4% in 2020.
In 2018 there were 7 years to hit the 2025 target. In 2022 there are 3 years. Zero progress in 4 years. Committed to addressing a multifaceted and complex challenge? No.
There is an important difference between improved figures on the PMES and the formal diversity data, which has not shifted in line with improved PMES data. The situation is multifaceted and complex. I agree. But I don’t agree that the people charged with addressing the challenge have a clue.
I am still hearing horror stories of staff with disability being subjected to bullying and abusive conduct. The managers/leaders responsible rightly feel confident that they are immune from being held accountable. Their conduct breaches Code of Conduct and Work Health & Safety obligations. The absence of accountability is the single most important inhibitor of change. There is no point in espousing a ‘zero tolerance’ to bullying if what you exhibit is a generous tolerance. Unless, of course, you say you have ‘zero tolerance’ because that’s what you are expected to say – and you think nobody really thinks you are serious – which you are not.
The benchmark texts on this theme are clear. Set a standard and model it. Ensure that leaders understand you are serious by holding those leaders who fail to meet it to account in a meaningful manner. The biggest inhibitor to change at a reasonable rate is the presence of exemptions from accountability granted to leaders who fail to meet the conduct standards by fellow leaders.
This is a known issue. But its not a bug, it’s a feature. And because it’s a feature it can be designed out – if there is a will to do so.
The persistence of goodwill
There is an abundance of goodwill and a desire for inclusion is evident. I see this when I talk with former colleagues
The PMES results for my former employer are instructive. In 2019 two departments (NSW Departments of Justice and Family and Community Service) merged to create the Department of Communities and Justice. In 2019 the PMES results for both departments showed 4% of staff had a disability. In 2020 this had risen to 6% for the newly formed department. In 2022 that number was 8% – doubling in 3 years.
This improvement can be put down to the work of the Disability Employee Network, the response to the department’s participation Access and Inclusion Index, and the response to the Disability Inclusion Action Plan. These 3 things impacted the organisation’s culture, letting individual staff members to unleash their spirit of goodwill. I was part of stimulating that improvement.
The tension between goodwill and leadership cultures
Stimulating goodwill can do wonders, but it can run into the frustration of leaders not facilitating changes that seem to be plainly needed. Organisations are necessarily hierarchical and the power to drive change is strongest among the leaders.
But the paradox is that leaders become less empathic, less compassionate, and little interested in holding members of their own leadership group to account. There are sound psychological and neurological reasons for this. The good news is that now we know what the problem is solutions can be designed and implemented.
This year has been a wonderful opportunity to work with people who are caring and open to ensuring that inclusion of people with disability is part of how facilities and services are designed and delivered. These are not people who are necessarily well-informed about disability, but they are receptive and responsive when we engage with them. That’s how inclusion grows through the community.
I give leaders a hard time as a group. That’s because the research on leadership as a class merits doing so. That doesn’t mean I am down on leaders individually. In fact, the success I enjoyed as a Disability ERG Chair would not have happened without the support and commitment of senior leaders. Leaders are critical to magnifying the goodwill of staff so that it can be the force for good it has the potential to be.
In fact, that’s my point. Leaders can magnify or impede that goodwill. DCJ’s 8% of staff with disability in 2022 is a great improvement on the 4% of 2019. It was achieved because leaders and staff collaborated in stimulating the process of positive change. That collaboration kicked off strongly in 2018 and started delivering results in 2019. This is what could be achieved with partial leadership commitment. Had it been whole who knows what the 2022 result could have been.
As a community we are heading in the right direction as we are more and more able to express our goodwill and be inclusive. On a government level there are impressive commitments of resources to ensure that publicly funded services and facilities are available and accessible to people of all abilities.
Before I acquired my mobility disability in 2008, I could go bushwalking with no concern about whether the track was accessible. Now I need a track to be smooth and not sloping too much, and with places to rest safely at regular intervals. There are not many tracks like that, but they are being created as the financial means to do so becomes available.
A friend sent me an ABC article on disability employment today, noting that things hadn’t improved for people with disability in the past 3 decades in terms of overall numbers. That’s true for a number of reasons – mostly that organisational leaders have not committed to changing that number.
But in that 30 years things have massively improved for many people with disability. We are more inclusive as a community. That’s been my lesson for 2022. I had spent the past 4 years focused on disability employment and not really been aware of the wider changes across the community – and driven by the public sector. I needed that balancing experience.
Yes, there’s a lot we need to do to address employment of people with disability. Yes, our organisational leaders must step up and own their responsibility to make stuff happen and hold their leaders to account if it does not. We must not diminish how important this is.
Tomorrow morning, I will take my regular walk at Echo Point in Katoomba and be grateful for work done to create an accessible walkway so I can sit quietly and feel close to the wild world. I am deeply grateful for the work done [and resources committed] to make that possible.
My best wishes to you for the Christmas/New Year. I do hope that you have an enriching, restoring, inclusive and accessible time.
Let’s make 2023 the year of engaging with our organisation’s leaders in a more effect way, one that will help them become more committed allies and champions.