Women and Gender Diverse People with Disability Reflect on Leading Change, Our Way on International Women’s Day 2024

On Friday 8 March, to mark International Women’s Day, People with Disability Australia (PWDA) created a space for women and gender diverse people with disability to connect and discuss leadership, overcoming barriers, accessibility and inclusion.

On Friday 8 March, to mark International Women’s Day, People with Disability Australia (PWDA) created a space for women and gender diverse people with disability to connect and discuss leadership, overcoming barriers, accessibility and inclusion.

Hosted by Dr Michelle Hyde, PWDA’s ‘Leading Change’ webinar featured inspiring insights from Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes, Akii Ngo, Ruth Bonser and Dr Haidi Badawi, in a jampacked agenda designed by and for women and gender diverse people with disability.

The opening keynote address by Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes reflected on leadership, resilience, and challenging low expectations as people with disability.

“One of the most common things we all experience, apart from tiredness, as people with disability is low expectations from people around us. Too often we internalise that to the point that we don’t do anything. Leadership, for me, is about trying to push back against those low expectations,” she said.

Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes also reminded people with disability of the importance of being in the room, on the committees, and at the table if we are to achieve full inclusion.

“To not be a leader, to not agitate, not infiltrate, to not put our hands up, keeps us very silent and invisible. It lets them get away with their failure to be accessible and inclusive,” she said.

In their keynote address Akii Ngo reflected on the intersectional barriers people with disability can face and the critical need to address economic injustice.

“Whilst I’m not a woman, and a gender diverse trans person who experiences gender dysphoria, and everything in between, I will always be perceived as a woman in society [due to my appearance and people’s assumptions about gender] and so I will experience the sexism women deal with but also experience homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and racism as a person of colour,” they shared.

They reflected on the financial pressures and reality for people with disability, sharing “There are disproportionate financial challenges people with disabilities and especially, complex chronically ill people face. We have to pay our bills, put food on the table, pay our rent or mortgage, so on and so forth – just like everyone else. But in addition to that, we also have so many other expenses, for example, I pay about $800 to $900 per month for my medications alone.”

Akii emphasised that people with disability’s contributions must be recognised and remunerated.

“Recognise your worth, recognise your value, recognise that you will not accept a $50 gift card for your work, you will get paid and renumerated commensurate to your qualifications and your skill set – and lived experience should also be 100% be recognised,” they said.
Akii also had a clear message for employers – be proactive and not reactive when it comes to accessibility and inclusion.

“It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic, for us to have our access needs met. So that we could work and demonstrate that we are capable, competent humans that can do everything that we want to do, providing that our access needs and workplace adjustments are met.

“Don’t advertise ‘we want disabled people, diverse, BIPOC and LGBTIQA folk etc to apply’ and then when we do apply, and we get the job, we find out you don’t know what to do with us. Don’t do that. Be proactive, not reactive when it comes to inclusion and accessibility,” they said.

The event closed with a panel discussion at which Westpac’s Ruth Bonser and PWDA Board Director Dr Haidi Badawi joined Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes and Akii Ngo for a wide-ranging discussion on defining leadership, success and inclusion on people with disability’s terms.

During the discussion Dr Haidi Badawi encouraged people with disability to embrace their unique strengths as leaders.

“Leadership, it’s all about having a voice. We get to define and shape that voice.
“I don’t want my voice to be normal. I would like to be labelled as a super voice. If I’m different, I’m a superhero, I’m super able, I’m a super motivator, and I’m a super igniter. To get there I had to unlearn the negativity, unlearn all the struggles, unlearn the labelling and learn that I have lots of strengths,” she said.

A key theme that emerged was the power of community when Ruth Bonser reflected on the importance of support networks.

“It’s important to have people who believe in you so that you learn to believe in yourself. If I was to believe what I grew up with I would believe that nobody is looking for me to fulfill the leadership roles I have,” they said.

Ruth also emphasised we all have a role to play in driving change.

“For people who are gender diverse with disability, it would be easier to stay in the shadows, but we need push ourselves and share our voices. Otherwise, we will only hear people who don’t know what they’re talking about because they haven’t experienced it themselves.

“But it’s not all on us. It is everybody’s job to stand up for no discrimination and no bullying and no prejudice. That’s everyone’s job. And we can expect that of everyone. And it is reasonable for us to expect that.”

Dr Michelle Hyde reflected on the webinar by commenting on the diversity of the speakers – who yet all had such important commonalities.

“The main commonality we share is that we are the experts in our lives – we are all capable, self-aware and we know what we need in order to be able to be leaders in the workforce and support ourselves and our families”.

PWDA is grateful to all the speakers who contributed to this event. PWDA would also like to thank Women NSW as part of NSW Government for funding the event.

This event was an initiative of PWDA’s Advancing Women Project which aims to break down the barriers to participation in leadership and decision-making roles, creating access and opportunities for women and gender diverse people with disability who are ready and willing to lead.

Learn more about Advancing Women at Advancing Women project – People with Disability Australia (pwd.org.au)

You can watch a recording of the event here.