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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Why are disabled people almost invisible as leaders in housing?


There is a spectre haunting the housing industry, says Graham Findlay, disability equality consultant. Steve Stride and his colleagues - sitting on CIH's Presidential Commission on diversity in housing - have raised the stakes in our sector - so let's face this spectre and exorcise it.

Image of Graham Disabled people - why are they almost invisible as leaders in our profession? Not as tenants or customers, of course, where they are consistently over-represented, but as colleagues, managers and even - shock, horror, perish the thought - directors or CEOs.

The challenge of the seniority gap

Let's look at some basic research findings, conducted by Disability Rights UK in 2010, cutting across all sectors. Non-disabled people are:

  • twice as likely as disabled people to be a board-level director
  • three times as likely as disabled people to be a director or head of department 
  • three times as likely as disabled people to earn £80,000 or above

We can surely all agree that this is a truly shocking seniority gap that isn’t currently showing signs of shifting. 

And yet the well-established and evidence-based business case has been made thousands of times over, which confirms that disabled people as employees are productive, loyal, resilient, problem-solving, tenacious and highly competent, as long as they get the right workplace support and barriers to the workplace are removed.

And, consequently, disabled people have no reason whatsoever not to progress to leadership roles if they have the potential to do so. 

We have made magnificent strides in grappling with dismantling the barriers to advancement for women,  BME and LGBT people, but my personal observation is that disabled people are still being framed as vulnerable, passive, too complicated to manage and risky – and are still being parked interminably in the 'too scary to think about' box.

And yet, we selectively valorise disabled achievers like Steven Hawking, Stevie Wonder and our 2012 Paralympic athletes (remember them?).

Of course, as CIH’s Positive Action for Disability (PAfD) manager for five years, I have an axe to grind. All I can do is point to the following learning points from our PAfD leadership project:

  • 24 carefully selected and talented disabled trainees undertook two-year intensive traineeships with a variety of registered social landlords (RSLs).
  • Almost all trainees clinched a job as a housing professional after completion.
  • There were virtually no drop-outs.
  • Many alumni have won awards or achieved a promotion - and some have entered management.
  • PAfD trainees really valued being mentored by a disabled person (me!)
  • The PAfD programme increased self-confidence; helped trainees to understand their disability identity; and explained more about managing your disability in the workplace, being assertive, and selling your experience of impairment as an asset.

I'd say that's a pretty solid record of achievement which shows disabled people have leadership potential.

So, how can your organisation do its bit to foster disabled leaders? Here are some pointers:

  • Actively target and recruit motivated and talented disabled people for your workforce and board. They are out there, as PAfD proved.
  • Help your staff to understand disability better – through disability equality training and great guest speakers, but most of all by employing disabled people as colleagues.
  • Spot and nurture disabled people with potential within your organisation – actively seek people out, create a culture of inclusion so disabled people feel secure to approach you.   
  • If you are a large organisation, set up a disabled employee network. 
  • Champion and coach talented disabled employees to enter management if they have the right skills and potential to progress.

The '10 by 20' diversity and leadership challenge is rightly a tough and ambitious one. If you ask me what I’d like to see when we review progress in 2020, it’s fairly simple. Point me out at least three disabled leaders in our industry who are on the national stage, championing housing.

Learn more. . .

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