A Call for Leaders with Disabilities

Woman Looking Through Magnifying Glass


I am kicking off a new series of vlogs and blogs focusing on the issue of leadership through deaf and disability lens.  There are so many situations that are happening across the country resulting both positive and negative outcomes. While decisions are being made by able-bodied leaders, assumptions are drawn by the system and bias are perpetuated via conducting business as usual; how do we position ourselves to own the decisions? It compels me into taking a closer or perhaps an intimate look at our leaders who are also deaf or have a disability today.

Individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing or have disabilities along with their communities are facing many challenges.  We are currently dealing with education crises, communication inequity, cultural and disability incompetent services, insufficient opportunities for competitive employment, unconscious bias and so much more.  A call for ethical, qualified and brave leaders who happened to be deaf, hard of hearing or have a disability are so critically desired.

I currently work for the state of Minnesota and as a leader I do have opportunities to impact change for people with disabilities.  Yet, everyday among colleagues I sit in meetings; facilitate discussions or negotiate contracts; I look around in the room and wonder where are the people that look like me? Why aren’t there any deaf leaders or leaders with disability working alongside me. The sense of responsibility becomes overwhelming and daunting.  Are we experiencing a shortage of leaders? If so, why?

What I do know is that it isn’t unusual to find a very small number of leaders who are deaf or have a disability.  The term tokenism has been around for years. We traditionally see token individuals with visible disabilities in volunteer situations i.e., council membership, committee volunteer or advisory group or even in typical mainstream workforce.  It is clear that we need to purposefully recruit more people with disabilities.  In Minnesota’s state agencies, a very small percentage of the workforce has a disability.  The percentage is likely to be significantly lower for those who are identified as a leader or manager.  Possibly a tiny fraction of a percent.  This is obviously an indicator that we are experiencing a gap of leaders.  Why?

Our state is committed to raising the bar in creating an inclusive workforce for people with disabilities. Governor Dayton signed an Executive Order that by 2018; to increase the number of people with disabilities working for the state to 7%.  Increasing the numbers by hiring more people sounds easy-peasy.  However, hiring managers, supervisors and team members would need to be disability agile and able to recognize unconscious bias to increase success in recruitment and retention of valuable employees, managers and leaders who have disabilities. This will require transforming a culture that is so deeply entrenched.  How do you untangle and unleash the grip of a culture that has been the way of life for so many people for hundreds of years?  How do you compete with the world’s rapid pace of conducting business as usual and the complex, ever-evolving technology?  It seems futile to be at par with the able-bodied counterpart without a fight.  Since, I am an eternal optimist… I believe it can happen. But I am also a realist… there’s a whole lot of stuff that needs changing.

In closing this piece for now, I have more questions than answers and I may have opened the Pandora box. I am so much more fixated on the crises regarding the shortage of leaders.  Is the direction we are taking in creating an inclusive workforce possible without leaders and managers who look like them?  Who will be their voice?  Who will hold the system accountable?

I will need to sleep on this a bit… back with you again soon.

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