Call to Action for Transatlantic Leaders: Reveal Your Disabilities
Are you in a leadership role? Do you have a disability that is not visible? In what circumstances do you reveal this disability to others? If you grapple with these questions, do not be frustrated — you are at the forefront of expanding access to leadership to ensure greater diversity and inclusion. Indeed, we urge thoughtful disclosure and authentic conversations about disability by current leaders across sectors to accelerate this change, and to help to decrease bias and create opportunity.
The prevalence of disability makes the conversation about the necessity of inclusive leadership all the more important. Data shows that 20 percent of Americans and 80 million Europeans have a disability. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reports that, one billion people in the world have a disability. Disabilities exist in a variety of ways: visible disabilities, such as a person partnered with a guide dog, disabilities that may at first be invisible but necessarily become disclosed, and conditions that amount to a disability though not disclosed. Sometimes we fail to disclose our disability, including, from family members, nevertheless the public. What factors into the decision to disclose one's disability, and what can global leaders do to shift toward a more empowering environment? All of us will experience disability at some point in life, and most of us already know and care about people with disability, yet we continue to spend energy hiding something ubiquitous, instead of embracing this as part of our humanity — and reaping the proven benefits of more diverse and inclusive leadership.
People in leadership roles often aim to project strength and control, and may fear appearing vulnerable. They may fail to accept the depth of insight that disability can bring. An older leader may wish to appear younger, and may associate disability with age. Some may simply suppose that being “different” will cause difficulties in building relationships inside an organization or among stakeholders, when in fact the opposite may be true. And globally, some may rightly fear persecution and even death. Here in the United States, where people with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those without, many of us keep in our minds a lesson learned that people with disability are likely to encounter bullying and other crimes.
Disclosure and awareness are intimately linked on the path of understanding, respect, and advancement.
As more leaders disclose their disabilities, they will send a powerful message to those at home and worldwide that people with disability are not to be victimized but to be treated with respect, dignity, and equality. Disclosure and awareness are intimately linked on the path of understanding, respect, and advancement. For others in groups where a unique diversity factor is not necessarily visible, such as members of the LGBT community, and members of some faith-based minorities, such discussions about the value of disclosure are long standing. Well-considered disclosure can bring about awareness that in turn allows for the cultivation of role model and mentor relationships, the ability to find common ground and build coalitions, and ultimately the breaking down of barriers.
How often do we hear about leaders with disability in roles beyond the important circle of disability self-advocacy, such as on the political and business stage? Alongside this invitation for self-disclosure is the compelling need for inclusive leaders to make the business case for diversity, and to specifically cite disability. Our societies are better for including rising leaders with disability in our halls of power.
“People with disability bring unique perspectives and understanding, adding to team diversity and increasing possibilities for innovation,” says the European Disability Strategy. With our aging populations, the market for technologies and services addressing disability is ever widening. The European Disability Strategy includes a clause on “removing barriers to equal participation in public life.” Role models with visible disability such as Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth of Illinois who lost her legs in an attack in Iraq, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott who is paraplegic, are among the few providing role models for inclusive political leadership, and in these cases their disabilities are visible. There is room for so many more to come forward, paving the way for other people with disability to gain a place in the leadership rungs of our societies.
Gary C. Norman (MMF ‘08) and Kerry Thompson (MMF ‘14) are carrying out a yearlong Alumni Leadership Action Project “Globally Engaging Disability — Including Each, Strengthening All.” This series of discussions is designed to advance leaders with disability as policymakers, role models, and advocates, and to move global disability rights higher on the transatlantic agenda. This article is written for the project, co-written by GMF Senior Fellow Lora Berg and intern Caitlin McCoy.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.