Disabled leaders should not be underestimated

A parliamentary Speaker’s Conference is currently in progress – to ‘consider, and make recommendations for rectifying, the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large’.

This rare type of formal inquiry (the last one was in 1977) can have far-reaching effects: in 1917, the Speaker’s Conference finally secured cross-party agreement that women should have the right to vote. This is the first time disability has had such a high political profile alongside gender and ethnicity issues.

It is time to give the same attention to the presence of people living with ill-health, injury or disability in senior leadership roles across all sectors. This would help move policy discussions from ‘welfare to work’ and ‘inclusion of disabled people in the workplace’ (as though securing a job – any job – was aspiration enough) to a career and skills development agenda.

It could begin to tackle the 11% pay gap between disabled and non-disabled men (rising to a 22% gap between disabled women and non-disabled men, as disability and gender disadvantage combine). It would help employers understand what particular contributions disabled people bring to leadership challenges – just as women have re-defined the range of management and leadership approaches, and flexibilities required.

In the political sphere, history is replete with great disabled leaders who made herculean efforts to conceal their disability for fear of being labelled incompetent.

US president Franklin D Roosevelt created a massive pretence that he was able to walk – and hid his polio and wheelchair use from the public, and Winston Churchill kept his depression hidden. Until the ex-Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik was open about his experience of mental illness while in office, there were virtually no role models of political leaders being open about their impairments.

Last year, David Blunkett pointed out that in a representative House of Commons there would be at least 65 openly disabled MPs but there are only a handful.

In business and public service, we are also aware of a small number of senior disabled leaders – some of whom have chosen to conceal or down-play their experience of disability, for fear of being underestimated.

This can change. We know there is a pool of highly talented disabled people who in many cases are working below the level of their capacity. The Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR) recently ran a leadership programme attended by 40 disabled people, half of which were from black and minority ethnic communities.

Following the programme, all said they were now more likely to achieve their leadership ambitions. They included people with a demonstrable leadership record at community level – for instance, Muslim community leaders, disabled magistrates and councillors. The barriers they recounted to taking up any sort of leadership role included: a lack of knowledge and encouragement fear of being patronised and underestimated, anxiety that their reasonable adjustment requirements would not be met.

Some people living with ill-health, injury or disability face educational disadvantage many have been met by very low expectations from health and social care professionals.

But organisations can tap into this talent. RADAR’s guide Doing Work Differently helps people imagine what is possible, and details the adjustments people have found useful at work, from support to get back into work after developing a mental health condition, to straightforward IT-based solutions.

HR professionals can lead this transformation with measures including:

  • Visible leadership showing that the organisation values difference and openness about hidden experiences of disability and health conditions
  • Ensuring occupational health checks are not used to screen people unfairly out of jobs. Never permit health checks before a provisional job offer – that way there can be no covert discrimination
  • Supporting managers by sharing with them the full bank of reasonable adjustments and good management practices possible
  • Sharing with employees examples of adjustments others have found helpful
  • Identifying and supporting talented disabled people, and ensuring their career development is tailored to their needs.

Putting these measures into place could unlock talent to the benefit of individuals, companies and the UK economy.

RADAR would like to hear from people in senior management roles living with ill-health, injury or disability, who would like to share with us in strict confidence their experiences. Please e-mail: liz.sayce@radar.org.uk

Liz Sayce, chief executive, RADAR

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