Recognition of Staff Network Leadership


Leading a staff network is under-valued because, outside of those who hold leadership roles, it is rarely examined in the context of professional development. It isn’t usually seen as requiring a professional skillset.

Here I want to explore the demands of staff network leadership in relation to the NSW Public Sector Capability Framework. There are 20 general capabilities divided into 5 groups. Below I have identified 16 capabilities that could be applied to a staff network leader. I will go on to briefly discuss each.

PERSONAL ATTRIBUTESDisplay Resilience and Courage
Act with Integrity
Manage Self
Value Diversity
RELATIONSHIPSCommunicate Effectively
Work Collaboratively
Influence and Negotiate
RESULTSDeliver Results
Plan and Prioritise
Think and Solve Problems
Demonstrate Accountability
PEOPLE MANAGEMENTManage and Develop People
Inspire Direction and Purpose
Optimise Business Outcomes
Manage Reform and Change

Personal Attributes

Staff network leaders of necessity contribute a very substantial level of their own time to the role. Sometimes this can create tension in their personal lives. In addition to efforts to negotiate an accommodation of their staff network role within their formal role can raise challenges that must be handled sensitively and deftly. The need to display resilience and courage, and manage self is fundamental to being an effective staff network leader.

A strong positive personal reputation in relation to network members and the agency in general is essential. The need to act with integrity in foundational to effective staff network leadership.

No staff network functions in isolation. Aside from intersectional links with other staff networks, those who might be allies and champions have their own styles and priorities. The ability to genuinely value diversity is essential.


The relationship capabilities are central to leading a staff network effectively. The ability to communicate effectively is foundational and is perhaps the most complex and nuanced of the capabilities. It includes private conversations with individual members, running small and large meetings, and engaging with mangers and executives. Writing skills must also be well developed in a variety of formats.

Working collaboratively is critical. This may include working with other staff networks or engaging with business units to achieve network objectives.

Because staff networks aren’t part of the formal structure the ability to effectively influence and negotiate is magnified in value.


An effective staff network must results-oriented. It must provide benefits to members, and it must deliver a business outcome (improving staff welfare and agency culture are 2 good examples). Hence delivering results is a key priority.

Time and attention are scarce resources for volunteer staff networks. Effective prioritization and planning are essential to ensure intended benefits are delivered.

Because staff networks sit outside the standard organisational operational structure the need to think through risks and opportunities and solve problems can be significant.

Staff network leads must demonstrate accountability to members, whose interests they represent, and to the agency, whose resources (time, funds, and attention) are relied upon. The agency, the members, and staff more generally are all critical stakeholders.

Business Enablers

Of the 4 capabilities project management was the one that was most applicable across all networks. Leading a staff network itself can be a major project. As well, reform and change related activities are best seen as discrete projects.

People Management

Staff networks are voluntary, so people management skills must be developed to a high degree. Inspiring direction and purpose are critical to a network where engagement is voluntary. 

Managing and developing people is vital with members who participate in network activities which may be new to them. This is especially the case with leadership teams where members may not have leadership experience and need support to build confidence in their capacities.

The challenge of optimising business outcomes is essential if a network is to provide benefit to the organisation to justify the time and resources applied to the network. These outcomes not only benefit members and staff more generally, but also the agency as a whole.

Networks can be actively involved reform and change, so the need to influence and manage change and reform processes can be central to network activities.


In many respects, being DEN Chair was the hardest role I have ever had. It was more complex than any previous role. Most of my previous roles involved engagement with the public in some way (individuals, service providers and businesses – usually in ways that were dynamic and challenging – but always within a clearly defined set of perameters.

I have described being a staff network lead as being a ‘wildcard’. You don’t have a place within the clearly defined hierarchy of status, responsibility, and influence. But you must respect it and work with it. There is great opportunity but also great risk. You must be a diplomat able to engage with staff at all levels about matters that can be complex and delicate.

I hope I have shown that being a staff network lead can be more challenging than many other leadership roles. The fact that it is voluntary and requires a lot of additional time adds to pressure to perform at a high standard. People who put their hands up to take on a leadership role are driven by a passion for the cause. But they rarely know what they are taking on – in terms of the complexity and the nature of the challenges.  

Recognition of the skills required can transform how we value staff networks and support their volunteer leaders.

Staff networks, or Employee Resource Groups, exist because there is an assumption of benefit to be had from their activity. Or maybe they are merely tolerated because their creation is a matter of policy and compliance is performative only. The latter situation is the worst-case scenario for a network lead. The magnitude of difficulty is magnified. Getting good results when the organisation’s senior leadership is not committed to the desired positive change is a far greater challenge. Network leaders who succeed under such circumstances will have earned our respect. Its hard enough when senior leaders are actively supportive.

Achieving maximum includability


I have been reading a report – Communicating about Disability in Australia: Insights, Challenges, and Opportunities (June 23). The link to it as at the bottom.

It’s a useful document but I got distracted by the use of the term “full inclusion”. We use the term “inclusion” for very good reasons. There are times when modifications and accommodations can make a situation more inclusive for a person with disability. It can be anything from speaking distinctly and not hurriedly to meet the needs of a person relying on lip-reading to adding usable handrails to stairs or ramps as well as stairs. And it can mean a great deal more when we modify our attitudes and behaviours to overcome bias.

But the idea of ‘full inclusion’ struck me as potentially problematic because it could imply some ideal state which was neither realistic nor reasonable.

How inclusive should we be?

I agree that we have a collective duty to ensure that public spaces and shared workspaces must be accessible for as many people as possible – to ensure that those who want access them and be included in their activities can fulfill their wishes. Public places are for all of us, so non-inclusive designs and constructions are not okay. Inclusion in workplaces for employees with disability is generally acknowledged as a right that is widely honoured – if imperfectly and often tardily.

But as a person who lives with a disability I see a vital distinction between disability-related inclusion and inclusion on a wider scale. There are some situations which, by their nature, demand an inclusive attitude, and others that do not. There are some situations where my disability would be grounds for exclusion. I could not, for example, sensibly seek to become a member of a football team.


As I was reading the report the idea of ‘includability’ struck me. Many years ago, I worked with profoundly disabled people. It seemed their level of disability eclipsed their personhood, and they were seen as deeply dysfunctional beings with whom no human-to-human connection could be usefully made. This wasn’t true, but the presumption closed off efforts to falsify it for most people. But I found it impossible to switch off my desire to know who I was working with – bathing, feeding, toileting. There was always somebody there who responded to my acknowledgement of their presence. A relationship was possible. Some level of intentional and conscious inclusion was possible. It was not, however, required or even desired. In fact, it was actively discouraged.

These ‘patients’ (as they were known) had a base level of includability – an acknowledgement of their humanity. That’s the least we could offer. Sometimes it may have seemed that even doing this taxed our sense of inclusion. For ‘them’ to be one of us on a personal rather than a biological level challenged our ability to be empathic and inclusive. The fact that they were biologically human triggered a sense of obligation to be cared for, though it was mostly controlled. But they weren’t one of us on a personal level.

To the extent that disability impairs how we function it can limit the scenarios in which we can be included. But a whole bunch of other things can add to these limits – our interests, our knowledge, our beliefs, our character, our personality, our looks. Take away ‘disability’ and the other limits remain – and to them we can add gender, sexuality, race or ethnicity, age. We can’t just think of inclusion in disability terms. It’s a universal concern for us all.

If we can imagine there’s such a thing as an ‘includability score’ some attributes can discount that score but they are utterly irrelevant in some settings. My reliance on Canadian crutches is an issue when it comes to tennis, but not chess. Like probably all folks, I’d like my ‘includability score’ to be as high as I can get it. A lot of that will be down to me owning personal attributes only I can modify.

You can contribute to my ‘includability score’ by not incorrectly imputing attributes derived from your encounter with my disability as negatives against my value or integrity as a person. You can discount my ‘includability score’ to suit your biases, and not as a reflection of my value. Includability is shared and is dependent upon everyone’s ability to participate intentionally.


The report explores attitudes toward people living with a disability and how those attitudes impose upon such people an imagined social destiny. Disability is complex – from narrowly limiting an ability to function well in a community to overwhelming a social sense of personhood. Stripping another of their humanity can be self-protective because it maintains a sense of personhood within an agreeable boundary for us. What is beyond is not to be confronted honestly, let alone embraced with kindness.

Disability is on a spectrum reflecting the degree to which it impinges upon identity – as a lived experience and as perceived – and there is often a gulf between those two values. We must allow that the lived experience value trumps the perceived value in most instances.

Its against this complexity that the idea of ‘full inclusion’ irks me. It may have a meaning that I might find agreeable eventually. But I don’t think the idea can be allowed to fun free outside a corral of caveats.

The best any of us can hope for is to maximise our ‘includability score’, and that may oblige members of our community, wishing for greater inclusion, to adjust their assumptions about disability and personhood. Those who are merely indifferent, and those cemented in their unkind views, will be harder to persuade toward a more generous perspective.

We evolve as a community toward a kinder, more inclusive, environment because, as individuals, we are mostly moved to go in that direction. Wanting that change is part of the evolutionary journey. Crafting the tools of change through ideas and the language to carry them is a vital component of the same journey.

Movement toward the desired outcome of the shared passion for Disability Inclusion can get stuck in the deep sands of habit and unsettled by the novelty of the idea. Our communities are new in the scheme of things. Diverse pluralistic communities aren’t like tribes or villages where our instincts for inclusion were built on communal intimacy. Inclusiveness is emergent in this current setting. It must be nurtured with wisely chosen words and actions.

We are all inherently includable. To what degree we are included is dependent upon how we are seen and valued by others, and to what extent we can influence our own attributes.

Strategic planning for Disability inclusion


Strategic planning is honoured more in name than action. Maybe we should just call it planning, but strategic has such an aura of importance about it. It might be useful to visit a dictionary to refresh our understanding of these words. 

Strategic: relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means for achieving them.

Plan: a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something

So, a strategic plan identifies long-term aims and provides a detailed method for achieving them.

There are two elements – a goal and the means of getting to it. 

In 2019 the 15 members of my then employer’s (now the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ)) DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT) was privileged to participate in a 2-day facilitated planning workshop. It wasn’t called a Strategic Planning workshop. We called it an Action Planning workshop. We needed to lay down the foundation of the DEN’s future actions and culture. We had presented to the Board in February that year and we returned to the Board in November with a bold spreadsheet detailing what we wanted to achieve. 

What gets counted gets done

In my time in DCJ I was frequently required to prepare project plans, which I did with a sense of despair. They were signed off and forgotten. Even when I went back to a manager to review the plan, I was mostly met with a blank look – “You are taking this seriously?”Well, yes. The whole point of making a plan is to follow it. 

That doesn’t mean a plan is followed rigidly. In the “fog of war” of reality, circumstances will drive the need for changes and revisions. But while the plan must be adaptive it still must be followed. 

While our original Action Plan was a great foundation, it was essentially a manifesto for influence. It had a bold time frame and clear success measures. But with 13 action areas it was wildly ambitious. It was what we wanted rather than what we had contracted with the department to make happen in a clear and precise way. 

This was a vital distinction. Setting a set of aspirational goals for DEN wasn’t the same as contracting a set of outputs with the organization. That was where we wanted to get to, but a lot had to change first – and we were exploring what that was. 

I recently looked at that plan, developed around this time (September) in 2019. Some of the actions are still being pursued. Most actions have been achieved, but well after our bold 2020 target date. However, there were only 2 actions that remained unfulfilled – greater awareness of invisible disabilities and a degenerative disease and disability transition program. 

Planning for cultural change

Culture is the accumulated expression of lived experience, and it is grounded in behavioursand actions. There are actions that can be planned, executed, and measured in terms of outputs but the outcome can often only be hoped for. 

Strategic planning is about planning to maximise the chances of your desired outcome happening. Straight planning works when we are dealing with outputs, not outcomes.

The distinction is critical. Outputs are the consequences of rational and predictable actions. Outcomes are the benefits conferred by such actions and more. Well intended outputs do not assure desired outcomes. Influence upon culture is independent of outputs but is also interdependent.

We need to ensure that our organizations’ culture is conducive to turning outputs into outcomes. With most public sector organizations, we are dealing with a reservoir of goodwill that may need to be assured it can freely express a willingness to be inclusive. Sometimes an organization’s culture can be dominated by change exhaustion or workload demand and hence be more in a survival mode than a celebratory one.

In 2019 the DEN was committed to generating positive cultural change. The 2019 DCJ’s annual People Matter Employee Survey (PMES) score for disability was 4% of staff. In 2022 it had doubled to 8%. The DEN’s approached paid off. It had laid the foundation for continued cultural evolution.

That doubling of the percentage of staff with disability signaled a critical shift in confidence by those staff – but that would not have been possible without a wider change across the organization’s culture.

Planning for procedural change

This is harder because it requires agreement at an organizational level that things will be done differently at a policy, procedural and practice level. Cost may be directly involved. Changing policies and procedures is slower than we’d like. It always is.

When I joined the DEN in 2010, I wanted a return-to-work policy for people with acquired disabilities not related to work-related events. This morphed into the idea of a workplace adjustment passport. It has taken nearly a decade of steady change in attitudes, maturation of ideas and the evolution of methods. There had to be a cultural shift first. What seemed self-evident at the level of living with disability has slowly evolved into a workplace adjustment passport, a flexible working policy, accessible technology, and other forms of accommodation of needs – but for all staff and not just those with disability. 

The Disability Inclusion movement may have been the most focused drive for change, but it wasn’t the only influence. 


We plan everything of consequence. The more complex the task the more detailed the plan must be. 

I exited hospital in March 2009 after 10 months. Going home was a profoundly desperate need that had to be planned on so many levels. I was still facing at least 6 months of intensive home-based physiotherapy. It wasn’t well-planned and I was constantly discovering needs that had to be met by my own makeshift effort rather than the health system. 

My return to work was good-spirited but ramshackle. I was a novelty to my employer and myself. We struggled through, though sometimes causing more pain that was necessary. We were all learning how to be adaptive and inclusive on the job. 

The following year the DEN was established and now multiple staff with disability and key people from HR shared discovering what a DEN could be. It took 9 years before the potential of what the DEN could be was evident. It had sufficient agency to imagine what might be possible and plan to achieve clear goals. 

Over that time the idea of Disability Inclusion was maturing across the sector as well. The idea was also evolving inside the organization, as its culture changed. We had created a collaboration between the DEN and the organization. We had shared goals. We could now think about planning for positive change in ways that are more effective than our earlier efforts.

We can see that there is an essential difference between project planning and strategic planning. I still think the word ‘strategic’ is often used just because it sounds important. However, when we understand that strategic planning embraces the outcome of actions, not merely the output, the real power of that meaning can become apparent.

What is the outcome of effective Disability Inclusion action? An output might be that accessible technology is readily available, that recruitment is fairer, that workplaces are more accessible. But the outcome is that equity of access to opportunity and equal standing in the organizational community is no longer a ‘gift’ that can be withheld by action or constrained by inaction. It is a right and dignity that is acknowledged without ever having to be asked for.

The outputs are matters of process. The outcomes are matters of culture. Each influences the other. An ERG must seek to influence both, but its highest goal must be cultural change. Outputs are stepping-stones on the path to the outcome, but never the destination. The outcome is a ‘guiding light’. This is the foundation of the strategy for success.

Success is built on effective strategic planning.

Selling Disability Inclusion


Now and then I listen to audiobooks on communication, with an emphasis on selling. I do this to remind myself just how important it is.

Selling is not an idea many people have positive emotions about. That’s understandable. Back in the 1980s I did a week-long course with a now non-existent insurance company. I learned how to manipulate people into buying. It was unethical and I knew it. I didn’t last long as an insurance salesman and cancelled the only policy I sold. I felt bad that I had put a family into financial stress through my manipulation. Maybe they would have still bought insurance without that manipulation? Maybe not. Nevertheless, I was immensely grateful that I became conscious of the process of manipulation. I could choose not to act that way.

A decade later I had a regional role in northern NSW with the Department of Community Services. I was licensing aged and disability residential services and disability workplaces. I was often out in the field 3-5 days at a time. 

I borrowed a 6-cassette course on conflict resolution from the department’s library. Over the next few months, I played the cassettes repeatedly, using each visit to a service to practice the skills described. That exercise transformed how I worked and served me very well in my in that job and subsequent roles when I was involved in contentious or fraught situations with service providers.

I also had some tapes of Zig Zigler on salesmanship (without the flagrant manipulation). They came from an associate who encouraged me, with no success, to become an Amway distributor. I listened to them repeatedly. Zigler is perhaps the most prolific author on this theme, with books from 1982 to 2011.

Over the subsequent years I have become aware how those three experiences have profoundly influenced my professional life in powerful and positive ways.

There’s nothing more unpleasant than being the target of poorly executed selling. That’s what we remember. Beautifully executed selling is something we rarely see – because when it is done well, we don’t see it as selling. 

Selling is also called influencing and persuasion and negative the connotations that fit both words are easy to bring to mind. It is quite simply an activity that we have little respect for, or trust in.

Ethical selling, influencing, persuasion – acts of relating where everyone feels good, and the outcome is good, is what we generally try to do on a day-to-day basis. But we so often fail to achieve our desired objectives because we lack the skills needed to be effectively persuasive.

We all sell

The act is natural to us, the word has been given a bad rap because we recall it being done badly and/or unethically. 

Learning to sell well (and ethically) is something we should all be striving to do. 

Selling is not just the pitch. For a time, it was popular to talk about one’s personal ‘brand’ (maybe it’s still a thing?). Every aspect of who we are is bundled into the act. 

We can use less loaded words like ‘communicator’, or serious words like ‘negotiator’. In the end we all want to be able to convey ideas we think are valuable and generate actions that create good outcomes.

Being able to sell well is a skill we should value and celebrate. The question of ethics is real and must be addressed.

How do I sell disability inclusion?

ERG leaders have the necessity of selling thrust upon them, but they usually do not appreciate this reality, and are often unprepared for the challenge that now faces them.

Let’s rephrase the question as “How do I influence people to be more inclusive of people with disability?” We could also say “How do I persuade people to be more inclusive of people with disability?”

Without the loaded language the task takes on a more noble tone.

What is important is that influence or persuasion is a form of communication and relating that can be done skillfully and ethically or poorly and unethically. It can be also done skillfully and unethically and poorly and ethically. We often do the last when we want to do the first. 

So, the answer to the question is: “Skillfully.”


In previous posts I have explored the forms of resistance advocates for disability inclusion encounter. It is important that we don’t misdiagnose the reasons and motives for the resistance met. It is equally important that we do not expend time and energy on remedies that do not work, or which work to only a limited degree. Time and energy are scarce commodities for both the influencer and subject of attempts at persuasion.

Skillful ethical selling/influencing/persuading serves everybody well.

Some books from my audiobook list

These are also available in hardcopy and ebook formats (except the Dale Carnegie book)

  • Influence – Robert B. Cialdini (1984)
  • Exactly What to Say – Phil M. Jones (2017)
  • How to Talk to Anyone – Leil Lowndes (1999)
  • How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work – R Kegan & LL Lahey (2000)
  • How to Win Friends & Influence People in the Digital Age – Dale Carnegie & Associates (2011) 
  • The Surprising Science of Meetings – Steven Rogelberg (2018)

The Cialdini book is a classic and a must read. In fact, I have just discovered he has another book that seems to be as good – Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. I bought the audiobook version immediately.

There are a lot of books on the selling/influencing/persuasion theme, including looking at the darker side of unethical manipulation. Books on marketing are also helpful. You will find something that suits your needs.

I included The Surprising Science of Meetings not because it is about communicating so much as the environment or setting for the act of selling to occur. Where and when we seek to persuade are just as important as the how

A reflection on leadership and commitment


Over the past few months, I have had the privilege working with ERG leaders – disability and others – though the intersection with disability is a persistent accompanying theme in most cases. 

Leading an ERG effectively is a demanding and tough job. It’s not a case of putting on one’s leadership hat a couple of times a month. It is a passion that is constantly present. 

Here I want to reflect on and celebrate the role of ERG leadership. 

The wildcard role

Most significant organisations these days have a formal DEI team that sits within a defined hierarchy and has a clear status. Now DEI teams have their passions and challenges too, so I don’t want the reader to infer that what I say about ERG leads doesn’t apply to DEI teams. 

Some things do not, however, apply and one of those things is the wild card nature of an ERG leader. 

I have met NSW public sector ERG leads who have been at grades significantly below the usual manager grade of 11/12. This includes 3/4, 5/6, 7/8, and 9/10. Of these grades, typically 9/10s and some 7/8s may lead teams. 

Depending on circumstances it is not usual for staff under grade 11/12 to engage directly with executives. One is generally definitely seen as a subordinate in status, power, influence, and skill. 

ERG leaders must perform key management functions, but without any official standing beyond their role title. And to make things just that little more interesting the members of their ERG are all volunteers. While there may be explicit recognition of the fact of being an ERG lead, all else is essentially contingent. 

Who an ERG leader is is really down to the luck of the draw. Any ERG could end up with a person with substantial proven leadership skills and experience or somebody with nascent potential which may or may not flower during their leadership term. 

Possession of potential plus passion is the mark of a truly interesting wild card. 

The potential isn’t rare. There are always people with potential at lower grades, though some may be stuck there through circumstance or bias. Becoming an ERG leader can unplug that potential and when it is mixed with passion for the ERG’s cause great things can happen. But being a wild card is also a risk.

The art and science of leadership

Doing leadership well isn’t easy. It is an art and a science. Knowledge of the science can be acquired through self-directed learning, training, coaching, or mentoring. The art can be developed only through passion-fueled practice.

Typically, though, leading an ERG is under-appreciated. To be fair, sometimes ERGs bring this upon themselves because of perceptions created when ERG leaders who have the passion and commitment get stuck for want of understanding the science side of leadership equation. This can be more often true of new ERG leaders with no formal leadership experience.

Being an effective leader takes knowledge plus the necessary personal attributes.

Leadership is a function, not a role

In books such as Fearless Leadership by Loretta Malandro (2009), The Fearless Organisation by Amy C. Edmondson (2018) and Dare to Lead by Brene Brown (2018) we develop an understanding that leadership is less a formal role and way more about personal attributes. So, people who are not leaders can find themselves in leadership roles. But equally so, people who are leaders may not find the opportunity to get into a formal leadership role. Happy the days when the two come together.

For ERG leaders whose backgrounds have given them limited formal leadership opportunity and whose status in the organisation is decidedly subordinate, moving into their new role may precipitate a conflict between their passion and ability and their reflex to be responsive to their normal position in the organisation’s hierarchy.

For them, being a wild card is a distinctly uncomfortable and even perilous position to be in.

An intense learning curve

Books like Primal Leadership by David Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee (2001), Quiet Leadership by David Rock (2006) and Leadershift by John C. Maxwell (2018) remind us that the art of leadership can (and must) be continually refined. It is often an ongoing journey of self-discovery and personal development.

For those new to ERG leadership roles settling into that role can be a demanding time, especially if critical guidance isn’t available. While organisations are happy to facilitate ERGs it is rare that there is commitment to supporting leaders to develop into their roles.

Becoming a great ERG leader is a big challenge that those with the passion needed to drive them will meet. But they must also seek out the guidance they need. 


I have been deeply impressed by ERG leaders emerging from the middle to lower ranks in organisations. Their passion for their cause gives them the energy to meet the considerable demands of their roles.

Leadership is a function before it is a role. And whether it is looked at as either, or the happy marriage of both, it must be seen as an art and a science. Natural leaders still must develop the rational skills that give their potential expression of the art the necessary coherence.

Being a wild card isn’t easy, but it is full of great potential if played wisely. This is part of the art of leadership that can’t be learned anywhere but on the job. This is perhaps the most important, challenging, and rewarding insight for any ERG leader to embrace.

There is a future potential for organisations to recognise that ERG leadership in an outstanding opportunity to develop and hone leadership skills, and to invest in supporting emerging leaders.

What a difference an idea of service makes


I had a chat recently with a friend who works in the NSW Department of Customer Service (DCS). It is a public service agency whose customer base is the whole of the NSW community. My friend has a deep passion for accessibility, and he thinks about it in ways I find deeply inspirational.

Here are some reflections arising from our chat. I focus on inclusion rather than accessibility. You can’t have inclusion without accessibility – but you also can’t have accessibility without a spirit of inclusion.

Service means different things in different contexts

In one sense all public sector agencies serve their community. They are all services. But sometimes that service is fraught because the service users, or those upon whom the service is imposed, do not endear themselves to the service providers. In other cases, the services provided are more remote from the community. They make the other services possible.

What makes DCS different is that its customers/service users are generally seen in a positive and direct way. I have dealt with DCS often. Its commitment to customer service is sincere. You can explore what it does here –

Because of its different approach it has engaged its internal audit team to assess its services in terms of their accessibility. That’s a strong positive move which reflects confidence in DCS’s willingness to be held accountable.

This is in stark contrast with other agencies which provide services in areas which engage with community members in deeply problematic situations – like police, corrective services, child protection and housing and homelessness. Issues of accessibility and inclusion are no less relevant, but the complexity of these roles is such that it doesn’t lend itself readily to an internal audit assessment. This is not a criticism, just an observation. There are complex reasons why this is so, and its not a theme I can cover here.

In essence you can do some things with the idea of service in one context, but not another. This distinction is important because it tells us a great deal about how we understand what service is, and how we apply that understanding.

Accountability is a problem

Bullying and harassment of staff with disability is an ongoing issue in the public sector. It could, theoretically, be solved simply by having an effective reporting and response mechanism. Reality is different. Our psychology gets in the way of ideals all the time.

There is a huge difference between accountability in the delivery of accessible services in a positive spirit of service delivery and holding staff in leadership roles accountable for the mistreatment of subordinate staff. It should happen, but it mostly does not unless the offence transgresses against norms severely and cannot be downplayed.

In recent months I have been made aware that NSW public sector agencies have been obliged to develop and implement policies related to sexual harassment and bullying and harassment. This misconduct is clearly a breach of the sector’s code of conduct, but instead of strengthening response processes which affirm accountability, the policies are revised – as if the policy is the issue. It isn’t. It’s the failure to act effectively in response to complaints that is the problem.

Service and accountability on a personal level

DCS demonstrates that understanding service in a particular way can make a desire to be accountable a matter of pride. But we don’t see how an organisation operates as a form of service – more a kind of managing a mechanism. The messy business of managing how staff conduct themselves isn’t seen as a service. It is a necessity that is difficult to do well at the best of times. This attitude is changing among organisations who are committed to adopting the latest research-based thinking on how to attract and retain high quality staff.

There is a need to distinguish between managing how an organisation operates and what it does – but please do see that the idea of service applies in both cases. These days staff members are not mere cogs in the ‘machine’ of production but more like the tools (as intelligent moral agents) without whom the business of the organisation cannot be realised. Part of the function of managing staff is providing a service to them – giving guidance, ensuring safety, providing accessible working conditions and so on. 

While staff members may be subordinate in a necessary organisational hierarchy, they are not so when it comes to dignity, status, or value. In days gone by hierarchical inequity also embraced organisational and social status. In a way it still does in the sense that more power/responsibility usually means higher pay which can translate as opportunities to participate in specific social groups. But that seeming inequity is relative rather than absolute – as it used to be thought to be.

There is some interesting thinking on the idea of the ‘servant leader’ in which leadership is an act of service rather than the exercise of power. Please do google the idea. 

The wealth of work on leadership and service to be found does suggest that being a leader/manager is much harder than it used to be. The NSW Public Service Commission released a campaign to support employment of people with disability a few years ago. It included a manifesto which included the phrase: “Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy.” What the campaign lacked was guidance on how that might happen. 

Self-awareness and empathy are not attributes included in selection criteria for manager/leadership roles. It seems that we expect that people in those roles will spontaneously acquire those attributes simply because they are asserted to a good thing.

On a personal level, being self-reflective and self-critical can have limited appeal, unless one is self-motivated in that direction.  A job is generally taken to be a means toward self-fulfilment because of the income earned. It is not necessarily seen as an act of service in itself. This is an important distinction because if we see a job is a means to an end, we assume it to be the same for everyone else. The goal is to get by and get to the chance to be self-fulfilled outside of work.

This makes perfect sense, and in days gone by that was the pretty much rule. There were exceptions, of course, but they were exceptional. These were people who found fulfillment in their work as acts of service. The norm was that the staff member was essentially a ‘wetware’ component in the means of production – whatever the output was. Customer service was a thing that stood alone, externally focused. That was the only kind of service imagined.

Leading with self-awareness and empathy sounds nice. It is a form of service towards those who are led. But to suggest that it will naturally arise is to view how organisations work with great naivety. There will be some for whom such is a natural expression of who they are, but they are in the minority. To get to that quality of servant leadership there must be a cultural commitment to it at organisational level.

Things have changed

In the past few decades, organisations have recognised the need to treat their staff differently. This became pertinent when the idea of ‘knowledge work’ gained a foothold. What that meant was that apart from possessing certain knowledge staff had to be also able to exercise judgement, communicate effectively and be competent in interpersonal relations. The means of production shifted from processes to people in whom knowledge, skills and attributes of character are key requirements.

This change has arisen from changes in social values, reflected in the expectations of staff to be treated as a person of inherent worth and dignity. Disability inclusion has arisen as a theme because of this change – as have other DEI themes.

But what has changed more slowly than the social values has been the capacity of organisations to adapt. They are still locked into the habits of how things have been done since way back when. Staff are still seen as subject to organisational control rather than care. The cobwebs of the command and control mentality still linger in our workplaces and exert their dragging influence.

In a control mentality causing harm to a staff member as a component of the means of production is no big deal, because they can be replaced. With a care mentality causing harm invokes a sense of empathic concern which triggers action to ameliorate the harm and address the cause.

For many organisations this transition is slow. The control mindset is so entrenched and pervasive it is difficult to dislodge. Back in late 2020 or early 2021, before I quit fulltime work, my employer released a new policy on grievances/complaints handling. I was astonished and dismayed to see references to ‘managers’ and ‘workers’. Such out of date language is possible only if the old mindset still endures. I thought the policy persisted in the same old quasi-legal adversarial mentality that forced a separation between the interests of the organisation and the interests of staff. Staff injured by misconduct (for that is the cause of so many injurious consequences) are seen not as people needing care and empathy, but as risks to the leadership ingroup to be managed. It’s the old ‘them and us’thinking and not the ‘we’ of shared care and responsibility that mark emotional and psychological maturity.

The watershed moment

We are in a transitional phase at the level of organisational culture – moving from component thinking to real caring. Our legislation and policy champion caring but our management and leadership recruitment practices still echo component thinking. How do we hit the top of the ridge into a new watershed territory?

Typically, we are dominated by prevailing mentalities which resist the new. We resist investing in the emergent insights because they devalue old authority, and the cost is seen as an impost rather than an investment. We naturally resist change, and the object of organisational leadership should be to work through that resistance, not reinforce it. 

Leadership guides are clear here – you must model the change you want others to adopt. If you want inclusivity, behave inclusively. If you want accessibility, make it a priority in your own conduct. If you want accountability, allow yourself to be held to account.

Businesses live and die by their vision and capacity to adapt and embrace the new. Kodak, once the definitive name in photography, missed out on the digital revolution. It didn’t make it to the top of the ridge.

The public sector has no such imperative to adapt to survive. The worst it may face is limitation in funding and be subject to political guidance of variable merit. As such adaptation to the emergent paradigms about valuing the dignity of staff is patchy – uneven in distribution and quality.

What I love about DCS is that it is modelling the idea of service as a discipline governed by principles and standards. True, this has a primary external focus, but it must have an internal reflection as well. True, this might have an initial focus on accessibility, but accessibility benefits all because it is inherently inclusive. Its something that could infect the whole culture.

DCS also has a cultural steering committee. This is an idea new to me, and one I will explore and write on. In essence such a committee intentionally influences the organisation’s culture. At some stage the culture must shift into care-centric territory in a way that will steadily accelerate the rate of evolution toward workplaces that are inclusive, equitable and diverse – and compassionate, caring and kind.

You can’t be outwardly caring while remaining internally locked into component thinking. It’s been tried and it doesn’t work. Authenticity is necessary – if only we could see that at every level of our organisations.


Shifting from a control mindset to a service mindset is a stage along the evolutionary pathway, and what we can do to move it along is important. 

A friend, Ernesto Sirolli, the pioneer of enterprise facilitation in the 1980s, wrote of the importance of doing enterprise facilitation as if “people really matter.” (see That was my first encounter with a formal idea of a methodology for doing anything in which the individual mattered most. The enterprise facilitator served the client. It wasn’t a case of an expert delivering instruction and information. It was a relationship of care.

These days there is abundant evidence that staff who are cared for work better and harder than those who are not. A diverse and inclusive workforce isn’t just nice to have because legislation and policies say we must. It is more productive and more stable. The cost of making this happen is an investment.

That cost isn’t just money. It is time and attention. There’s an intellectual, emotional, and cognitive effort required. There’s also a philosophical shift that is necessary.

There is one thing that is blindingly apparent in organisational development over the past few decades, and in management and leadership in particular. It is that there is an expectation of higher levels of psychological maturity as a necessity among knowledge workers. This includes emotional intelligence. We are not going to see such qualities predominant in our workforces unless leaders and managers embody them and model them. 

We will get leadership that is routinely self-aware and empathic only when those attributes are intentionally sought in recruitment and fostered development practices by leaders who already possess them.

We are disposed to be biased toward those who are like us. That can cause problems for how we realise our ideals for diversity at times, but it also gives us insight into why bullying and harassment of staff with disability remains a problem despite all the fine words about how such conduct “will not be tolerated.” It may also explain accessibility is still not assured in procurement practices. But bias can have positive outcomes when the right people are the decision-makers.

It is time to reimagine the idea of service as something that applies to every aspect of public sector employment and not just in engagement with external customers/service users. Leadership as service, not control, is more grown up, more emotionally mature.

Finally, organisational workplaces are communities in which intense human relationships are formed. A relationship between a leader and a subordinate staff member is more complex than we mostly understand. There’s an imbalance of power often between social equals expressed in ways that are emotionally stilted. When that power imbalance is inexpertly handled it can trigger biases that lead to exclusion and conflict and eventually unintended psychological harm.

The idea that the ‘higher’ serves the ‘lower’ is alien to many – and yet it is fundamental to our best ideas on leadership. The experience of exclusion, bullying and the persistence of inaccessibility familiar to many staff with disability wouldn’t be a thing in a servant leadership culture.

This week I was obliged to pay $1135 for a major ‘service’ on my car – a 2012 Toyota Aurion. I paid it gladly despite the pain. I have deep affection for the car, gratitude for its performance and reliability, and pleasure in driving it. It is ‘serviced’ regularly. The cost of servicing the car is an investment in my ability to be mobile. I look after it in a pragmatic respectful way. I make sure it performs well and is safe to drive. Now if I could treat people as well as I treat my car… 

Exclusion is a feature, not a bug, and what we can do about it


What triggers and perpetuates our capacity to engage in exclusionary behaviour in the face of earnest assertions that such conduct will not be tolerated? It is not as mysterious as it may seem.

Most of us are kind and caring, although we don’t always make this known to others readily. Some folks are not. Mercifully they are not common in our organisations. Though there enough of them to make their conduct dangerous to vulnerable people.

It is tempting to see failures to act inclusively and find reason to assign blame. Efforts at promoting inclusion are often information-based. There is an old myth that if we give people information, they will adapt their behaviour. When this inevitably doesn’t happen, we assume a lack of interest and caring – and thus we see a moral failing. We can feel excluded from a moral framework that affirms our human value – and it can feel uncaring. It isn’t, or rather, it very rarely is.

In advocating for disability inclusion, I was, early on, frustrated and bewildered by the way organisational leaders, who were so enthusiastic to my face, so often failed to follow up. The sense of righteous urgency I felt ran into resistance and obstruction, a lack of accountability, and an unreflective insistence that certain conduct “will not be tolerated” while evidence it was being tolerated was everywhere abundant – and apparently ignored.

We got changes and improvements by persistent, insistent effort. But these changes were not as great as sought, nor as timely. Perpetrators of egregious conduct against staff with disability remained unrebuked and unrestrained despite what seemed to be reasonable efforts to intervene.

What was going on? When I quit my full-time job in June 2021 after 19.5 years, I finally had the time to explore this question in depth. I spent the next 18 months in close to fulltime research. Below is a summation of where I am up to in the quest to understand. I wanted to know if I was diagnosing the problem correctly.

The question is complex

Large organisations like government departments are novel developments in human history. They are evolving a behaviour we described, a few decades back, in terms of organisational psychology – and as our knowledge has advanced this has fragmented into myriad specialisations. 

Organisational behaviour, and the culture that is generated is constantly evolving in response to social, economic, and technological changes.

A significant social change for us [and here I am thinking specifically of NSW, though it is generally the case] is our continuously changing pluralistic multi-cultural community. Government commitment to ensure that the public sector workforce reflects the community it serves is an essential, but novel goal. This also comes with an obligation for mutual respect and inclusion within the workforce – a necessary expectation. But it is one that places an interesting burden of intentional behaviour upon staff. Exclusions and even enmities that might be normal in one’s private life should not be continued in the workplace.

Organisations and communities are made up of individuals and groups. This brings in individual psychology in two important ways. A certain amount of our behaviour is hardwired and inherited from our primate ancestors. We have reflexes and biases built in. Then we have our individual experience-based behaviours. These are complex and influence every aspect of our lives – at home and at work.

Let me summarise all this briefly:

  • Our organisations are novel and evolving forms of behaviour.
  • Our community is a novel and evolving form of living together.
  • Our workforces and novel and evolving forms of working together.
  • While we are generally people of goodwill and kindness these qualities are not uniformly distributed, while there is an expectation that a public sector workforce should/must exhibit these qualities in a uniform way.

The goal of creating an inclusive workforce which is universally safe for the diverse array of people who make up our community is a necessary one. But we have hugely under-estimated the effort needed to achieve it. We need to step back and review our beliefs in the light of contemporary research. This isn’t an easy task as it is scattered through books, articles, and podcasts.

Exclusion is a feature?

It is. Inclusion is intimate. We reflexively don’t reject those who look/behave like us, but neither do we actively include, unless they are known intimates – like family members – and even then, not always.

In terms of include/exclude options we are more disposed to exclude. That’s safer on the whole. This is a reflex that goes way back to when survival was tough. But its not all black and white. We will exclude strongly or mildly, motivated by fear or strong aversion all the way down to mild dislike or lack of interest.

We overcome a reflex to exclude by re-assessing the individual or group in a new context. I was born in Northern Ireland. My father’s family were staunchly Protestant and militantly anti-Catholic. When I was growing up in western Victoria, while my father joined the Protestant church and perpetuated his loathing of Catholics, I thought that was a dumb attitude in a small country town. I had schoolmates who were Catholics, and I valued their friendship over any nonsense my father was into. His beliefs and passions didn’t fit my context, and I had no motive to perpetuate them.

Some changes are simply down to intergenerational changes in context, like mine. The young adapt quickly. But sometimes cultural aversions are deeply rooted and do not fade quickly. There can be many motives to exclude that begin as a cultural foundation, and which may be added to by personal experience. This is especially the case with intergenerational trauma, which may lead to complex PTSD being experienced in a home or community setting.

This may seem like it has nothing to do with disability inclusion, but it has a lot. Many cultures exemplify the unblemished. We may be heirs to cultural values that do not honour disability as being just part of the spectrum of being human.

Our instincts are to favour those without disability when it comes to choosing a mate. But if we have close family members with disability our responses may be very different. We encounter caring and inclusion up close.

While we can recognise that exclusion is something we are hardwired to enact, the reasons for doing so may not be valid all the time.

For example, advances in technology, such as JAWS and screen readers, mean that blind people can no longer be justly excluded from roles they were unable to perform in in the past. Activation of an exclusionary response must now be modified by insight into the context and by extending personal inclusion to the individual.

There are multiple reasons why disability might trigger an exclusionary response. They can be contextual, cultural, or personal. Because of the changes in our cultural values, technologies, and social obligations we must be careful in running with any impulse to exclude, lest we are unkind and unjust.

Disability and intersectionality

People with disability are distinguished from other ‘diversity groups’ who are subjected to exclusionary and discriminatory behaviour because we add the attribute of requiring accessibility. In that sense people with disability can have an impact that benefits all people, whether they are a member of a ‘diversity group’ or not, because improved accessibility can help us all.

However, we must not see people with disability only in terms of accessibility. We cover the spectrum of human attributes and identities. No ‘diversity group’ will have no people with disability as members. As a result, inclusion challenges may arise from a ‘diversity group’ attributes, or identity, as well as the simple fact of living with a disability and the accessibility challenges associated with that disability.

The difficulty of changing behaviour

Changing how we behave is more about motivation than information, as anybody trying to break a bad habit knows. Motivation driven by goodwill and compassion is better than feeling forced to comply, although, to be honest, fear can be a great motivator to change, as well as stay the same. So, kind persuasion is better than policing.

Changing behaviour takes effort. It imposes a cognitive load on our brain. It requires attention, repeatedly, and sometimes constantly. The extra energy required isn’t just mental, it’s also emotional. And for that extra energy to be applied it must be redirected from somewhere else. That can include feeling angry or fearful. We change our behaviour because the new behaviour serves us better than the old, and the new thoughts and emotions are better than the old ones.

Most staff work hard at jobs that demand their attention because of workload and the nature of the job, and they may have private lives that may also demand their emotional attention to a very high degree. They don’t have a lot of extra energy to put into being more inclusive, no matter how much they may want to.

Change on a personal level, even when we are willing, may take much longer than we hope for.

In-groups and out-groups

We all form in-groups and out-groups – the people with whom we feel we belong, and those with whom we feel no great connection. Often these groups are formed unconsciously, because we are more inclined to belong to a group whose members are more like us. We can thus unintentionally exclude people, not because we don’t like them, just because they are not sufficiently like us for us to feel comfortable about bringing them into our in-group.

There are, of course, intentional exclusions from group membership because of biases or fears that are not based on reality, and which are unjustified by any measure of fairness.

In-groups and out-groups also occur because of organisational status. Managers and executives may prefer each other’s company over their direct reports. This becomes a problem when it comes to holding a manager or executive to account over discriminatory or abusive conduct. It can seem like in-group disloyalty to hold one of your own to account, whereas disciplining a direct report is much easier.

The challenge for in-groups is to become more self-critical and to set high standards for their members. This is especially the case where the in-group’s organisational status gives them high influence in setting workplace culture and maintaining conduct standards.

Leaders lose their capacity for empathy

Researchers have been discovering interesting, but unsurprising, truths about being in charge. Leaders’ and managers’ capacity for empathy decreases with increase in their power and influence. In some sectors a lack of empathy was thought to be a good thing. Employees were no more than parts of the system of production and could be discarded when necessary.

This is another instance of what we think is a bug being a feature. In large organisations, like an army, too much empathy at the top will impede operations – if the general cares too much about the foot soldier for example. On a personal level I am all for lots of empathy in armies. But I do recognise why this might be a problem in the face of awful necessity.

However, government departments are not armies, and their workforces are not soldiers. The loss of empathy among those at the top has the potential to injure staff who are subject to bullying and harassment, exclusion, and other forms of discrimination because there is little empathic motive to stop it.

The risk is that those in charge do not invest the effort needed to understand the challenge to make inclusion a reality through intentional efforts. Inclusion becomes a peripheral matter to be addressed when the ‘real business’ is taken care of. But that’s when a workforce’s capacity to respond to change is already taxed heavily.

Declaring that discriminatory conduct “will not be tolerated” is pointless when the will to be intolerant is weak, and the means enact to a response to that discriminatory conduct are scant, unevenly, and ineptly applied. Misconduct by leaders in relation to their staff seems rarely to be called to account.

Yes, progress is made, but against a headwind of ingrained habit, reflex, bias, and little insight as to why that resistance persists.

There are strong arguments based on contemporary research that a safe and inclusive work culture boosts productivity, improves performance and increases the retention of skilled and experienced staff. From a ‘return on investment’ perspective, ensuring the welfare of staff should have high priority as part of the ‘real business’. 


I do not despair of the slow pace of change because I have been instrumental in speeding it up. We can do better by being informed by authentic, strategic and intentional insights, so we do not waste precious attention and willingness to act on efforts that are not productive.

The worst thing we can do misdiagnose the cause of resistance to the change we want to create. Misdiagnosis leads to the wrong treatment. The consequence may not be terminal, but it will still be injurious.

The NSW Public Service Commission is, I believe, requiring agencies to develop a bullying and harassment policy. Clearly bullying and harassment is an active concern, and staff with disability are disproportionately the ones most affected.

But these policies aren’t about preventing bullying and harassment, otherwise you’d think they’d be called a preventing bullying and harassment policy. This would, you’d think, make much more sense. The problem has been misdiagnosed and the treatment will be futile. The NSW public sector code of conduct forbids bullying and harassment. That’s a policy.

What can you do? Please think about what I have written here. I am not claiming it’s the full answer, but it’s a good start. We have only so much time, attention, and emotional energy to invest in bringing about the changes we want, and there are a lot of folks who are sincere allies with the same limited budget of time and attention. To make desired changes stick we need to understand why there is resistance and set our sails accordingly.

The challenge is to take a novel and complex reality for what it truly is and shape our efforts to get closer to our goal/ideal in the most effective and efficient way.

Google ‘Sailing into the wind’. We can still make good progress into a headwind. It just takes knowledge and skill.

Non-sense about ambulatory toilet cubicles


I take early morning walks at Wentworth Falls Lake in the Blue Mountains. There’s a toilet block there with a few design flaws in terms of accessibility in my case, but it’s okay. 

There are 2 male cubicles. One is ambulatory. The other is not. It is wider though. That means the ratio of ambulatory cubicles to regular ones is 1:1 – far higher than you’d find anywhere else. 

But why both cubicles are not ambulatory is the thing I want to discuss here. 

Toilets are not my favourite topic. Its just that an absence of inclusivity and accessibility can be limiting and sometimes distressing – and very exclusionary.

Why inclusive design matters. 

When it is possible for a single design feature to be in service of many, most, or all people, picking the all option makes the most sense. Of course, all is an ideal that may not be met – but it’s good to aim for it. 

For example, a sliding car seat can meet the needs of all but the very very tall and very very short. But within the practical limits of car design, it shoots for all. It costs more to make a sliding seat than a fixed one, but the benefits are worth the cost. 

Why wait more than you have to, or can?

There are times when there is a high demand for toilet cubicles and when this happens people with no disability will use accessible toilets. It’s bad enough, absent an ambulatory cubicle, that one may need to wait also because for some reason it’s okay to make an accessible cubicle do double duty as a baby changing station. Still, when you don’t have an accessibility need, the options are 100%.

But the flip side doesn’t work if you need the accessibility features. There is often only one option – and access to it may be impeded. 

These days this becomes an even more pressing issue because toilet breaks have become havens where a 20-minute head break on one’s phone is not uncommon. Time flies when you are having fun, but not when you are waiting on the person having fun.

So why not?

Why did the council who constructed the toilet block at Wentworth Falls Lake not make both cubicles ambulatory? It wouldn’t have cost much extra to do so. 

The answer is a fixed mindset rather than a conscious decision. Having one ambulatory cubicle seems to be not a minimal requirement, but the requirement on the presumption that this represents the least number to meet the percentage of users likely to need such a feature. You’ll find one ambulatory cubicle among five or more most places.

In this thinking is that an ambulatory cubicle is added because the others are exclusive, rather than inclusive (pause, by the way, to reflect that exclusive is often a term of privilege). But an accessible cubicle is inclusive only if it is available for use. 

It’s not uncommon to find the ambulatory cubicle is occupied by a person who does not need this feature while other cubicles are vacant but unusable to the person who needs that accessible feature. 

The absence of inclusive/universal thinking is what perpetuates fixed and narrowly focused thinking. It isn’t that the council did anything wrong or mean. What it did was right in the context of complying with standards. The standards are not, however, inclusive on a practical human level, even though that’s the intent.

The importance of universal design 

If all cubicles are accessible to ambulatory standard, we are all on an equal footing. If only one is, it can magnify the inequity. It may cater to the minority who needs the accessibility feature, but because access to an accessible cubicle is not assured at the same rate all cubicles are accessible to able-bodied people there is no equity of access.

Of course, a solution might be to ban able-bodied folk from using ambulatory cubicles. But who would police that? Telling an able-bodied person that they may not use an ambulatory cubicle when they have an urgent need would not be kind, and they would not comply. This is a persistent issue for fully accessible toilets. When you gotta go you gotta go. It would be nice if this was a universal and realizable right. This also applies to those 20 minute head breaks, apparently.

But nobody needs to tell a person with disability they cannot use a regular cubicle. Yes, some folk cannot get off a toilet seat without aids, and asking a stranger or workmate to help isn’t really a desirable thing to do, besides you can’t get up to unlock the door. 

An accessibility feature in all cubicles is the only fair thing. 

You’ll find this when you go driving around NSW. There are roadside toilets that are single fully accessible options. That’s a mathematical logic – if one – only go universal. So why not go 100% ambulatory accessible with all cubicles to get as close to that same universality as possible? Its an equity issue, not a math one.

Of course, retrofitting current cubicles to make them all ambulatory accessible isn’t always practical. There are size issues to be considered, given you need room to fit supports. But if you advocate for a greater level of inclusion in the loo, don’t be quickly put off by protestations of impracticality. It ain’t always so. Ask for compelling evidence. Sometimes a can’t do attitude masks a won’t do one.


Universal design not only makes sense, it establishes an argument for a sliding scale of possibility. You start off with all and if that’s not possible, go to most and then finally to many

Exclusive design is a conceit and should be reserved for private settings for people who know nobody who might need an accessibility feature – including themselves – as I found out in 2009 when I returned home after 10 months in hospital to realise just how exclusive my home was.

There are good reasons to make private and shared domains inclusive – we never know when we, or folk we share our lives with, might need these attributes. There are good reasons to learn to think in terms of universal/inclusive design as the standard mode. Here’s a good place to start

Equal loo rights are for all of us!

Handy things


GBS has left me with weak and impaired grip in both hands. My fingers and thumbs have impaired movement. When it comes to cooking and eating what I can hold and manipulate with ease and comfort is limited. 

Sometimes there is nothing worse than having to buy an obvious disability aid because it screams disability as a constant reminder and is a signal to observers. I have a thick-handled spoon that does that. I haven’t been able to find an alternative spoon design. And sometimes there simply isn’t any option but a specialised disability aid.

Most kitchen and dining equipment can’t be modified away from being what they are. I found this with frying pans where the only thing I could do was be careful about the shape of the handle. I recently bought a small frying pan with a handle that was too smooth and round for my grip. I couldn’t tilt it to transfer the contents while it was hot.

I also learnt this lesson when my housemate bought a new electric kettle with a handle that arched over the top. The old kettle had a side handle I could grip. Now I have to tilt the new kettle from the edge of the sink to fill my mug. I can live with that work around, but it will probably have to have an accident so I can replace it with a side handled model.

Over the years I have been acquiring regular things that suit my accessibility needs to a high degree. Below are a few favourites. 

If you don’t have a personal need, you may know others who do.

Victorinox 11cm serrated steak knives

I bought these knives before GBS. I haven’t used a regular knife since. The handles are thicker than regular knives and are made from some kind of plastic that gives a non-slip grip. The blade has some give that I didn’t value until I tried a regular knife. The knives I have are well over 15 years old and still cut better than a regular knife.

I have tried regular knives, including regular thick-handled steak knives, but none meet my needs the way the Victorinox knives do. Interestingly, thick-handled steak knives don’t work for me the way the thick-handled spoon does. The grip is different.

Ultra-light titanium plate from Alton

This is a 22cm wide and 2.8 cm deep plate that weighs only 132g. I struggle to hold a ceramic dinner plate or those confounded wide bowl-like plates that are popular. Its bad enough trying to carry one empty but is seriously risky with food in it.

This titanium plate is a little smaller than I’d like for an all-purpose plate, but it still meets 90% of my needs. It’s so light I can carry it with a decent amount of food on it with no worries.

The plate isn’t cheap at $49.99, but its unbreakable and its ease of use because of its weight make that money well spent.

Double wall titanium bowl

I found one on Amazon. There were several designed for camping with widths between 12.5cm [Boundless Voyage $36.00] and 14cm [EPIgas $46.27]. There is a Snow Peak bowl with seems to be somewhat larger, but the size isn’t stated. The price [$84.54] is the main hint that it may be wider and deeper. 

The bowl is very light, and the double wall insulates from heat and cold. I decide the cost was worth it to have a bowl that was easy to carry when loaded, easy to hold, and unbreakable. The texture, too, reduces the risk of slipping from the hand.

Ultra-light cutting board from Alton

Cutting board come in all shapes, sizes and weights. Because I have to sit on a chair in the kitchen, I am often reduced to putting a cutting board on my knee. My housemate prefers cutting boards that are thick or have stubby legs. Reaching the bench top from my chair comfortably means even an extra cm can be a problem. 

The Alton cutting boards are made from food grade HDPE and come in 2 sizes – 21cm x 14 cm and 29cm x 21cm. They are at the most 2mm thick. I bought the larger one. It is stiff but not rigid. It is fine on my lap for a lot of things short of vigorous cutting and chopping. A rigid board is needed for that.


Impaired grip and manual dexterity are a pain in the butt. It is astonishing how many things are difficult to access or use without some kind of tool or an alternative design. I have written earlier about my climbers’ knife which is my primary accessibility tool.

Some regular things are great accessibility aids because they are designed to solve functional problems. Like the way my climbers’ knife’s is designed to be opened wearing gloves and hence is kinder to impaired fingers, camping food preparation and dining equipment address weight and robustness issues that can be translated into serving the needs of people with disability.

We must remember that activities that require significant ability create tools that also serve the needs of people with disability. They are often designed for ease of use under less-than-ideal conditions. There is a good feeling that comes from using a well-crafted ability-based tool or utensil that meets the needs of a person with disability – as opposed to relying on disability specific aids. I can live happier if all I need is only one thick-handled spoon.

Go for good design first. We must learn to think in terms of universal and inclusive design when we evaluate how useful something is. This is an ongoing opportunity. After buying the frying pan, I became more conscious about the shape and texture of handles – and now, of course, the position.

Also, let’s not think that just because a person has a disability the solution to their need for access or inclusion is an adjustment or an aid. It might just be better, more inclusive, design.

Disability and fair recruitment practice


In a couple of earlier posts, I explored what can go wrong and right in a job interview when the candidate experiences anxiety. I looked at the ridiculous ‘pressure test’ scenario of having 15-20 minutes to prepare responses to 4-6 questions.

I entirely get the heroic game-playing types who laugh at the sensitivity of candidates who don’t handle interview processes well. I am one of those folks who don’t do interviews at all well. The derisive observation “If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen” has been employed as a justification way too often. But job interviews are not a game or a competition testing for attributes not related to the role. 

This dismissive attitude has a fatal flaw as an argument. Most roles don’t rely upon this pressure scenario. In fact, they are more likely to rely upon well-researched, well though through, and calmly presented evidence. There are roles and situations when rapid responses under pressure are absolutely necessary. I am not denying that. But it is not the norm in the public sector that such capacities are preferred above calm, rational, well-researched and well thought through responses.

I have been an awful candidate many times. I have gone into interviews with several pages of incoherent scribbles that represented a needlessly frantic efforts to get down what I thought I wanted to say. I don’t know why I flip out. Ninety per cent of the time I knew the role inside out. I should have been the obvious candidate. But I failed.

A large part of the problem is recruitment practices are really bad. I spent 5 years in recruitment, and I believe that competent professional recruiters are way under-valued. The NSW public sector, along with many others, uses a localised DIY approach in the mistaken notion that it cheaper. That’s debatable. A single instance of recruitment costs no more than the time the panel members put into it. But the cost of the consequences of not getting the best candidate is not assessed. Some readers will instantly understand this.

I want this out of the way because what I want to argue here isn’t about making recruitment better, only fairer – and even then, to an uncertain degree. I spent 5 years in recruitment decades ago. It was awful then, and I have seen little improvement since. There are good reasons why this is so – and none of them give any hope things will get significantly better. We have incremental improvements, for which we must be grateful. Over time they will add up to a fairer system for people with disability.

The Interview from hell

A friend awakened me to the madness of the current practice. He went for a job that you’d have thought was written for him. To look at his CV you’d probably offered him the job on the spot. But the interview had several problems. The first was that the questions were very poorly crafted. All had two response demands, except one, which had three. Let’s figure this. There were 6 questions which had 13 response demands. 

My friend had 20 minutes to read the questions and prepare his responses. that’s a shade over 1.5 minutes to read, analyse and develop a response to each response element. Seriously? Yes. 

He has a diagnosed ‘high functioning’ anxiety. He can’t fairly be expected to deliver a measured response to the questions under that time stress. He isn’t stressed in his performance in his role. In fact, he is highly regarded. But he went to pieces in the interview.

He raised an interesting question when we reviewed his experience. Why was it necessary to create such a stressful environment at an interview? It was a perfectly rational question. I had no answer in defence of business as usual. It had been a long time since I had bothered to think about recruitment practices at a deep critical level. I had gone 2 decades and through at least 10 different roles without having to compete. I had competed for, and failed to get, three roles in that time, but none were critical to me.

A lot of people interview badly, including many highly talented folks. A big reason is the stress generated by the interview question preparation stage, and then being quizzed by panel members who plainly are not experienced in recruitment. In recent years I have been a ‘independent’ with disability on panels run in copybook professional ways by convenors of impressive skill.

A rational approach to recruitment – toward a fairer opportunity.

Recruitment is hard to do well. In my recruitment days I discovered just how challenging it is. Getting the right person for a job can be tricky. In the private sector you can take more flexible and innovative approaches. In the public sector there must be a uniform approach that gives everyone an equal chance. At least that’s the theory. The reality is often very different.

Having a standard recruitment method might work well if interview panel members were assuredly skilled at the job. This is rarely the case. Being on a recruitment panel should be a skilled role. But mostly it’s a DIY affair with a hit and miss outcome.

For a candidate with disability this means that are several potential pitfalls – the pressure test scenario of being given interview questions just before the interview, interview questions that may be poorly designed and a panel which may be biased as well as inept in assessing candidate suitability.

Ideally recruitment panels would be specialists with the required skills, but that’s not going to happen because of the cost. Consequently, we must think about what can be done at a realistic level.

I want to focus on the benefit of ensuring questions are provided at least 3 days ahead of the interview – but for everybody, not just the candidate with disability. Why?

Getting the questions ahead of time addresses issues for candidates with a range of disabilities – but it also confers an advantage. There’s time to research the response and to craft a well-organised response. But there is no good reason to address an issue and give an unfair and unintended advantage at the same time. If everyone gets the questions ahead of the interview the problem is solved. The issues have been addressed and no advantage has been given. 

Okay? Apparently not.

The rule of unreason

I think most people with disability will agree that seeking fair access to an opportunity to do their best should not include being given an advantage.

I though this idea was worth sharing, so I wrote to the NSW Premier about it. A week or so later I had a reply from the NSW Public Service Commission nixing the idea. The gist of the letter was that if everyone got interview questions 3 days in advance that would be a problem. But if candidates with disability did, that would be an ‘adjustment’. There are several problems with this.

The first is that an ‘adjustment’ is necessary only when a situation or practice is not inclusive. It’s a ‘fix’ while the non-inclusive matter is made inclusive. The goal is inclusivity, not the provision of work arounds. So often an adjustment turns out to have universal benefits. A ramp put in for a wheelchair user benefits anybody unable to use stairs.

If we see the interview question pressure test as stairs, we can see the getting the questions 3 days in advance is like a ramp. You can still cram your interview prep into 20 minutes if you wish. Not everyone can, but all can get to the same destination.

The reality is that many people who would not identify as having a disability are equally disadvantaged by the pressure test situation. This includes those who wish not to say they have a disability, those who experience anxiety reactions to interviews but think that’s just normal, and people experiencing stress for a variety of reasons [work related or personal causes].

The objection to this idea seems to hinge upon an assumption that the interview prep pressure test is a good thing. In fact, it confers no benefit at all and skews interview outcomes toward people who do well under such a pressure scenario – and these [as we all know] are not always the best fit for the role.

This objection is routinely raised by people who oppose making practices and environments more inclusive. This thinking includes assuming that being obliged to ask for an adjustment is an adequate response to a non-inclusive situation. 


There’s a lot of work to be done to make recruitment processes fair. The fact that a candidate can ask for an adjustment is a genuine advance. But it draws attention to disability, which can trigger biases and misconceptions. This is certainly the case with psycho-social disabilities which have no impact of job performance.

An inclusive practice is one which accommodates the needs and capacities of most people [I am allowing that none will be perfect]. The development of inclusive practices can and should trigger a rethink of previous business as usual practices. Resistance to changing how we think and act is normal, but it’s not defensible as a sustained response – it’s just hard to do.

I invite you to grasp two take-aways:

  1. Know that you can ask to have interview questions in advance to address any aspects of your disability that impede your ability to perform in an interview prep pressure test.
  2. Campaign to make it the standard practice for all candidates – so everyone benefits. This is the ‘solve for one, extend to many’ principle of inclusive design. 

There are other challenges to address before recruitment practices are as inclusive ss they can be. Specialist recruiters would be my ideal. But in the public sector that’s unlikely to ever be a reality. Hence, we need to look at one challenge at a time. The 3-day prep challenge is achievable and will make a critical part of the recruitment process inclusive for all.