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The Winning Path for Leaders With Disabilities


Learn the three ways that career barriers can be busted

People walk through in the office, one person in a wheelchair

There are many examples of leaders with disabilities. Helen Keller, the prolific author and activist, was deaf-blind. Franklin Roosevelt, former president of the United States, had polio. And according to national-level data, it is clear that many individuals with disabilities now occupy leadership positions in organizations

Yet these leaders are largely overlooked in research, practice and policy communities. This is problematic, considering that more than one billion people have a disability and disability is often stereotyped as incongruent with leadership

Prior research on this subject tends to emphasize overwhelming barriers—how individuals with disabilities encounter “glass ceilings”, “glass cliffs” and “glass partitions.” We know little about how those with disabilities navigate barriers to advance their careers and succeed as leaders. 

In my research, I examined the factors that facilitate, rather than hinder, career advancement and leadership among people with disabilities. I interviewed individuals holding a range of leadership positions, such as a manager, executive, mayor, business owner and professor. They shared insights about their careers, emphasizing the varied barriers they encountered alongside their career development. 

The results give us a rich understanding of the complex career paths that many leaders with disabilities take, illuminating the “how” of their upward trajectory.

Three factors were central to their success. Importantly, interviewees had the greatest chance of advancing their careers with these three factors in combination, not separately. These factors, which I refer to as the “three-legged stool”, are career self-management strategies, social networks and organizational and societal influences. 

Career self-management strategies 

These are behaviours and attitudes of the individual, such as engaging in self-advocacy and perceiving social barriers as contestable. For leaders who are disabled and encountering barrier after barrier, for example, perceiving barriers as contestable challenges became very important. One interviewee explained how they would respond to barriers: “It’s about seeing the barrier or the shortcoming and saying, Okay, that’s a challenge. To not accept others’ views of me. I’d much rather put out who I think I am.” 

Social networks 

Network connections include those both inside and outside of the organization, such as inclusive managers, mentors, family, friends and role models. Several interviewees, for example, shared how important supervisors and workgroup members were, specifically as they treated interviewees as people first and did not perceive impairment as a problem. “I was lucky enough that I had some really good supervisors and colleagues early in my career that were just logical and very practical in their thinking,” said one. “And we would just naturally address barriers as they came up.” 

Organizational and societal factors 

These are influences such as flexible and proactive employers, access to disability-specific career advancement programs and funding, and a visible, critical mass of leaders with disabilities. Many leaders’ careers, for example, were influenced by organizational practices and policies that inadvertently made it difficult for them to lead (such as the organization purchasing inaccessible management software). Disability representation in leadership, however, was highlighted as an important facilitator: “You need a critical mass,” said one interviewee. “Otherwise people think, Oh well, [they are] the exception, as opposed to thinking, This is just the way it is. We are an inclusive and diverse workplace, and, of course, people with all kinds of disabilities are going to move into leadership positions.”

The Three-Legged Stool: Foundations of Career Success

Foundation 1
Career Self-Management Strategies
  1. Behaviours
    1. Learning communication skills; being a self-advocate
    2. Proving yourself; giving it 150%
    3. Using education for credibility
    4. Resumé-ableing
    5. Self-employment
  2. Attitudes
    1. Taking a positive attitude
    2. Perceiving barriers as contestable challenges
    3. Building confidence and self-determination
Foundation 2
Social Network
  1. Internal Networks
    1. Inclusive managers, colleagues and employees
    2. Mentorship
  2. External Networks
    1. Fostering a positive disability identity and motivating success
    2. Modelling skills
    3. Recruiting participants into core stakeholder roles for their skill set
    4. Support access to core stakeholder roles in relation to barriers
Foundation 3
Organizational and Societal Factors
  1. Organizational policy and procedure
    1. Flexible and proactive employers
  2. Programs and funding
    1. University scholarships
    2. Career entry and advancement programs
  3. Social systems
    1. Disability-related work
    2. Leadership status
    3. Critical mass of leaders with disabilities

In practice, the framework in the chart above can be used by organizational decision-makers and policy-makers to ensure career advancement is disability inclusive, to the benefit of individuals and society.

For instance, organizational initiatives can be designed to focus on supporting all three foundations of the stool rather than attending to only one or two. In this case, a leadership development program with an emphasis on career self-management strategies would not be implemented alone. It would be designed in conjunction with other initiatives that cultivate social networks (such as a mentorship program) and facilitate inclusion at the organizational level (such as updated accommodation and hiring policies as well as management training).

Although research on disability and leadership is limited, the three-legged stool provides an initial framework that goes beyond barriers and conceptualizes the career advancement and leadership of individuals with disabilities. Career self-management strategies, supportive social networks and organizational and societal factors are all required for career success. 

Daniel Samosh is an assistant professor in the Employment Relations Unit of Queen’s University. This article is adapted from an essay published by Business and Society.