This was my contribution to a debate at Castlemaine State Festival on Friday 26 March. The debate topic was “are leaders born, or are they taught?”, and it was between Sally Rugg, Gareth Evans and me (leaders are born) and Christine Nixon , Don Watson and Shelley Ware (leaders are taught). What a fantastic event, especially to be at an IRL festival again. Wow! The festival staff are amazing, so happy to be here.
I pay my respect to the Dja Dja Wurrung people, the traditional owners of this land. They’ve been telling stories on this land for over 60,000 years – it’s a privilege to be guests on this land.
We are often thrust into leadership positions because we are advocates for change. As Sally Rugg said, “minoritised people are forced to leadership at an early age as they advocate for themselves, their families, their rights, their dignity, etc.” And to quote Gareth Evans, and also Lady Gaga, great leaders are “born that way”.
I identify as a disabled woman, and my experiences are shaped by being disabled and the discrimination faced, and also inclusion. I became to identify as disabled when I met young disabled and chronically ill leaders in my mid 20s. Many of these people were younger than me, but they taught me so much – mostly about disability identity and pride, and how to advocate for access.
I absolutely agree that leadership is inherent to who we are. But I’m going to add something more to that – that while we are born leaders, we can only live out our potential to lead when physical, attitudinal and structural barriers are removed.
In 2020, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported:
“* Fifty three percent of Working age disabled people participate in the Australian workforce, compared to eighty four percent of non disabled people.
*People with disability are more likely than people without disability to leave school early and to have a lower level of education
“ * People with disability generally have a lower level of personal income than people without disability.”
And, 12 percent of students with a disability go to a special – note – segregated school where they don’t receive a mainstream education.
Greens Senator Jordon Steele John is a contributor to my new book, Growing Up Disabled in Australia. In his chapter, which came about through an interview he did with emeritus professor Chilla Bulbeck. He talked about Parliament House, a house where we should all be welcome, a workplace to aspire to – though perhaps not for women, and not this week – is not accessible.
“…the inference was that disabled people are something to be charitably given a bit of space if we feel like it, but not centrally included in the planning of a space. I encountered a similar attitude when I entered parliament. This is a building that was built in 1988 and at the time they were patting themselves on the back for the number of accessible toilets they put in the public areas. But not a single piece of the working areas of Parliament House was built to be accessible, even by 1988 standards. When a man who used a wheelchair, Graham Edwards, was elected to the House of Representatives, they changed an office for him but nobody thought to change anything on the senate side of the building. Because again the thinking was, ‘Oh, that’s an anomaly, it will never happen again.’ And the reaction to me entering Parliament House was, ‘Oh crap, we haven’t got an accessible office.’ So far they’ve fixed things to the bare minimum for me. And I’ve been saying that it’s not good enough, that you need a comprehensive accessibility plan for the building. How are you going to transform the way it works so that you are prepared for other disabled people to be elected? And I’m just met with blank stares.
And this led back to the social model of disability, and the understanding that disability is not something the individual has and which is therefore their responsibility, but instead is created through the interaction of their impairment or difference with barriers created and sustained in society by ableism, by presumptions. Addressing the discrimination that disabled people face is a whole of society issue – everybody has a responsibility for breaking down and changing it.”
As an arts worker, public speaker, festival regular, I look at stages. A stage – what we are on now. It’s very rare that I see a stage that is accessible to disabled people – that is, a wheelchair lift, seats, space for an Auslan interpreter, adjustable lighting. This stage is accessible, and I am impressed.
Rarer still that there’s an accessible backstage area for disabled people – no accessible toilet and shower, no space for rest, and the accessible entrance is probably near the rubbish bins.
I am a guest lecturer at a university. I teach young medical students about media representation of genetics. My lectures are once a year, for an hour. One day I arrived at the University, and there was not a seat at the lectern. It would be painful for me to stand for an hour. So I asked the student leader in the lecture theatre for a seat. He had no idea where to find one, but I had seen one on the way in. We walked through the maze of the University building, and I spotted the stool. It had a sign on it, and lots of masking tape affixing the sign between the stool’s legs. “There is is”, I said. “Oh no, you can’t use that?”, he replied. I asked him why? “The sign says it’s for mobility impaired academics only”, he said. “I am one”: I confirmed. It was very awkward after that.
His view of disability was so narrow – he had the idea that I didn’t need a seat as I can walk. This exchange also showed me that he didn’t expect a disabled person to lead.
I want to see more spaces built – and modified – so that disabled people can lead, across all industries. So that we can just get on with our jobs without begging for access and being met with blank stares as Jordon speaks of, or defensiveness as we so often encounter.
I see so many amazing disabled people who are leaders – Nas Campanella, working as a news reader on Triple J to now being the ABC’s National Disability Affairs Repoeter; Connor McLeod, who in 2015 when he was 13, petitioned the Royal Bank of Australia to add a Braille label to notes so he and other blind people could tell how much they’re worth; and Nat Wade, a south Australian lawyer, who founded a disability led law firm, specialising in disability rights and justice. These are three among countless others. These are leaders who have, no doubt, experienced discrimination, but have also been supported to lead.
Something that makes me cringe is when we’ll meaning people congratulate me on my work and tell me I’m a voice for the voiceless. This is not true. Just because a disabled person doesn’t speak, or write, or hear, doesn’t mean they’ve not got something to say. It means that people aren’t making it accessible for them to communicate and be heard. How many disabled leaders have been overlooked because they don’t communicate the same way other leaders do?
There’s a famous saying in the disability rights movement, “nothing about us without us”, meaning that disabled people should be involved in all decisions for disabled people. Because we are born leaders, and disabled people make up 17.2 percent of the Australian population, we ought to be seeing a lot more disabled people in leadership positions, particularly related to disability. So, non disabled leaders, step aside and let us lead.
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(Jordon was quoted with permission.)