On 15th October, I attended an engaging and thought-provoking talk on disability and leadership at RSA House in London. It was organised by Clore Social Leadership and the speaker was Tom Shakespeare, Professor of Disability Research at the University of East Anglia.
For some context, the disability employment gap in our country is stark. Between April and June 2019, 52.6% of people with disabilities were in employment, compared to 81.5% of people without disabilities.
Shakespeare spoke of how effective those with disabilities can be in leadership roles. He argued that lots of the tools you develop growing up with a disability are useful leadership tools, such as humour, problem solving and resilience.
To illustrate this, he told a story of a young deaf woman he met whilst doing research in Africa. Growing up, she had no sign language and was only able to get by at school by rote learning the notes of the cleverest child in the class. Yet, she was the only child to finish school. Her resilience and determination drove her to succeed.
This is a form of adversity inoculation. Over time, those who constantly come into contact with adversity are better able to cope with future stresses. Thus they are better set up for leadership.
Shakespeare continued by describing his own experience living with disability. He grew into a fast learner, battling tokenism at a young age.
A change is coming though he argued. Talent is of course randomly distributed and he suggested that over time, charity leadership is growing more open to those with disabilities.
There is certainly much to work to be done. In the charity sector, we need to look inwardly and ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to make our organisations accessible to those with disabilities. Yet it was a positive and hopeful note to end on.
By Adam Cunnane
More info on leadership in the charity sector:
Charity Chat has a great podcast episode on disability in the charity sector
Tom Shakespeare’s website has a number of really interesting articles on disability
The talk was part of the Leaders Now series. For more information about upcoming events, click here.