Is success the enemy of real inclusion?


This will seem like an odd question to ask. What inspired it was a discussion about a diversity group’s celebratory plans even though there were several pain points that were not being addressed.

It wasn’t that I was thinking that the celebratory themes had no value, only that In a hierarchy of priorities for attention and effort they were placed higher than issues that were causing real distress.

Did this also apply to disability? I needed to reflect on this.

What happened to activism?

Activism, as I understand it, is action taken to address pain points – hazards that have psychological, social, or physical harmful consequences. For example, exclusion of a person with a mobility disability from a work or social venue because of the absence of a ramp or other safe means of access can have multiple adverse consequences. An activist might take action to ensure safe access as a matter of some urgency.

There are other legitimate themes for disability inclusion advocates which require persistent and long-term action. These may be characterised as attitudinal, procedural, and practice changes which are accepted as a change willingly undertaken by the organisation – but which then become bogged down. For example, when I joined my DEN as a founding member in July 2010, I agitated for a workplace adjustment policy for people with disabilities not caused by workplace accidents. The idea was taken up by the department and it was absorbed into HR business activity. When I became DEN chair in November 2016 we had no policy yet, though it was being developed.

A sense of urgency that is typical of activism fades when a proposed change is accepted by the organisation, and it becomes part of business-as-usual. 

Urgency v bureaucratic process

Most business-as-usual processes are not driven by a sense of urgency. There are legitimate reasons why some changes in procedure or practice can’t happen quickly. But often it’s about resources – personnel and funding. This is about managing ‘competing priorities’ – the bane of so many mangers.

Because disability inclusion isn’t seen as a work health and safety (WHS) concern the risk of harm (psychological or physical) that arises from any form of exclusion or inaccessibility isn’t given the same weight as regular WHS issues. And even so, psychological health remains under-valued – probably because physical harm is seen as more real than psychical harm.

There are legitimate concerns about how risk of harm is categorised, and this isn’t a discussion for here. What I want to emphasise is that what is initiated via activism loses the urgency momentum when the demand for change is accepted by the organisation. The importance of real pain and harm of exclusion is recalibrated with tacit acknowledgement that an organisation ‘must do better’. How it ‘will do better’ is rarely monitored with the same passion that drove the initial alert.

I see a role for disability inclusion advocates as conveyors of civil impatience about the progress of agreed and accepted changes to policy, procedure, and practice. The sense of urgency that drove the initial activism should not be relaxed. Instead, there should be a steady reminder that the issue is about the safety and welfare of staff and real people are suffering while the agreed change is developed and implemented.

Capture of the activist’s passion

There is not a huge difference between an organisation refusing to make changes and agreeing to act but not doing so in a timely manner. What starts off as good news fades when the proposed action is simply added to the business-as-usual menu. 

This is not to suggest any intentional or cynical intent. Business-as-usual has its own hazards – lack of resources, loss of attention, cause champions move on, and the progressive devaluing of the need for change in the general politics of getting stuff done. 

Add to that the need for work unit managers who are given the task of introducing the change to maintain a good relationship with their executive leaders.  That relationship is key to getting things done. But these executive leaders may have no understanding of, or commitment to, the issue as originally expressed – and may be under pressure to address ‘higher’ priorities.

It is also easy for an activist to become dependent on maintaining the peace within their workplace hierarchy and culture in terms of their own career – but also be seen still loyal to the cause.

This isn’t a moral observation – just a reflection of a reality – and hence the need for higher order skills in driving change.

Recovery of civil impatience

Disability inclusion has the goal of ending suffering. Neuroscience has allowed us to understand that exclusion from a group triggers responses that are not unrelated to physical pain. ‘Ending suffering’ can seem to be rhetorical overkill until we understand that Complex Post Traumatic Stress can be precipitated by psychological crises. Bullying, isolation, or exclusion can all do it. Promising change and not acting in a timely manner adds insult to injury – and that insult causes harm too.

So, acceptance of an issue by an organisation isn’t ‘job done’. It simply shifts the nature of activism into a different phase. The urgency wasn’t just about an issue being accepted as a need for changes to policy, procedure, or practice. The urgency was/is about ending the suffering.

This new kind of activism requires different skills and insights relative to the passion to have the issue acknowledged. As DEN Chair I ensured the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT) behaved as a de facto business unit – professional, knowledgeable, and diplomatic. We consulted with business areas to apply steady pressure to drive desired change. Some things still took a long time. 

Organisations are change resistant and nothing about an organisation’s culture or processes is conducive to rapid change. But change moves faster when senior executives ‘get it’. Managing up is a critical skill that all activists must acquire and master. So too is influencing workplace cultures in a way that skilfully keeps the sense of civil impatience alive but without degenerating into militancy and deficit finding. Seeking to activate positive potential is the only way to progress.

The appeal of inertia

Inertia is attractive to both sides. Gentle wheel spinning indicates effort is being applied. Organisational resistance isn’t denial. Those who are on side may be sincere allies but the reality they are working with isn’t conducive to change happening at a decent pace.

And inertia can take the heat off on both sides. This isn’t a criticism, just a reflection of reality. The human reality of ‘managing competing demands’ tells us that if things are ‘progressing’ that may have to ‘good enough’ for the time being. We have done enough within our means. Pushing for things to change faster can seem rude and impolitic. It can get supporters off-side.

Activists also have other dimensions to their lives that will ‘compete’ with their cause. Okay, that said, there are activists who will want to reach through their screens and grab me by the throat. But they are in the minority.

Here there must be a distinction between activists who persist in one mode and those who shift modes to adapt to the new environment in which to exert influence of a different order. This transition isn’t something every activist will find easy or even desirable. So, having done a job within a capability range, it is fair to imagine ‘job done’.

This is part of the cognitive fallacy that suggests that the effort to convince an organisation to make changes is done when that demand is accepted. It’s as though the momentum from the initiating activism is transferred and perpetuated in the organisation’s business-as-usual environment.

This isn’t reality. 

The holistic perspective

Success in getting an issue on the agenda for change is only the first step. Its an important part of the process of driving change, but it is not, of itself, sufficient.

Effective activism doesn’t assert ‘mission accomplished’ until the cause of suffering has been acknowledged and addressed – and the suffering has ceased.

It is tempting to see activism as just a form of moral combat struggling against unjust resistance. However, the moral momentum can be crudely expressed and expended long before the cause of suffering has been resolved.

A holistic perspective on a cause will see how multiple factors play out to create the suffering that triggers the activism. We can delve into evolutionary psychology to understand the impulses that drive individuals and groups to act as they do. We can explore organisational psychology to understand why workplace cultures act as they do. We can interrogate social psychology to appreciate how evolving values change our expectations, but not always our conduct. And we can look at ourselves to see what excites our concern and compassion – and what gives us permission to back off from what was once urgent.


Activism is hard. We are driven to a desire to end suffering and then reality hits us with a wall of resistance. Drawing attention to suffering does not mean that everyone will jump to end it. It would be wonderful if that is all it takes. 

Many will express sincere intent that it ends. But intent dies without will. And the will to change is often snarled in a thicket of existential complexities. It is easy and tempting to craft a story that celebrates moral virtue battling against ‘evil’ resistors.

I paused before writing of suffering because it could be mistaken for manipulative hyperbole. But then I thought it might be useful to remind activists that this is what they responded to in the first place – and the efforts to drive change that remain not done.

I don’t know when Diversity and Inclusion teams became a thing. But I remember when they were not even imagined, and any suggestion they might be good idea was laughed at.

Disability activism became a thing in the 1960s (along with a lot of other themes). My former department created a Disability Employee Network in July 2010 even though it had been engaged in disability matters for at least the preceding 30 years.

As a culture we continue to evolve toward greater inclusion. There are arguments about when this became a passion – the ending of slavery, women’s suffrage? In any case its being going on for a few centuries, and the scope of our inclusive embrace has been getting wider. We have been doing this precisely to end the suffering that arises from exclusion from our sense of shared humanity. That task becomes more complex and challenging as we seek to make changes at societal, communal, and organisational levels. The activist must evolve with the challenge.

In an organisational context, the low hanging fruit has been harvested over the past few decades. Its time to stand tall and go after the rest. That means acquiring deeper understanding and developing more refined skills – if we care enough to do so..

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