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Accessing Leadership: supporting disabled leaders and future leaders in the voluntary sector – Part one: Scoping Review

Zara Todd and Ellie Munro

Foreword: Zara Todd & Ellie Munro

As Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, ‘some are born great; some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ For many disabled leaders, their leadership journey is a mixture of all these origin points. Very few of the disabled leaders that we have spoken to over the last five years ever started out wanting to be a leader and, for many of us, the title of leader is still an uncomfortable one. When you combine this with the skills, experience and qualities needed to lead voluntary sector organisation in the 21st century it is unsurprising that, outside of the disability field, most disabled leaders are invisible.

This does not mean that lived experience of disability does not shape and the impact people’s leadership styles and approaches. However, it does mean that positive disability leadership assets such as adaptability, creativity and problem-solving are not always celebrated, and that many disabled leaders feel that they need to hide their impairments in order to be accepted as a leader.

We are excited that ACEVO has created this project, and begun to ask serious questions about how we support disabled leaders and future leaders in charities and voluntary organisations. We know this sector offers amazing opportunities for developing careers that people are passionate about; we want to make sure that everyone is able to access these.

The project has only just begun, and creating change, where needed, will be a long process. What we are finding so far is that this is an area where we desperately need more research, better data and an understanding of the experience of disabled staff throughout the voluntary sector. While organisations are rightly starting to report on, and make efforts to tackle, gender pay gaps and opportunities for Black, Asian and other minoritised staff, work to understand and support disabled employees (including disabled staff who are multiply marginalised) is much more limited for most charities.

This interim report, on existing research and approaches in the field, is only one part of the project. Alongside this we are talking to current disabled leaders about the challenges they have faced in their careers, and the things that have helped them. What we are hearing from disabled leaders so far is that they don’t know what support and career development opportunities are out there to help them in their role. Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) do not necessarily see themselves as part of a wider charity sector, and face some unique challenges. Non-disabled stakeholders also tell us they aren’t aware of any disabled leaders, or that they are unsure what ‘counts’ as disability – for instance, seeing mental ill-health as a separate concern.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought greater attention to some difficulties faced by disabled people who want to develop their careers. Inflexible working policies have suddenly been overturned, allowing people to work and attend meetings from home, and to work around caring and other commitments. This has opened up more informal professional networks as well; conversations are happening online, rather than in the tearoom, between meetings. It has also led to stark realisations for some that they are, in fact, disabled, when they have been included in shielding or high-risk health categories, or faced new challenges under lockdown.

So-called new ways of working have not always worked for disabled people, however; long online meetings organised without breaks, without captions or signing, and even without considering some disabled people’s lack of access to information technology, bely a response designed, again, without disabled colleagues in mind.

It is important that the system does not return to ‘normal’. That normal was not one designed for disabled staff. As the voluntary sector begins to consider how it builds back up, in the face, as is so often the case, of falling funds and rising demand, it must do so in a way that empowers, develops and makes the most of talented and ambitious disabled people. Too often, charities define disabled people only as beneficiaries, rather than talented potential leaders. The values and ethos of the work they do needs to be reflected in the way they support their workforce, including their disabled workforce, to develop.

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