Disability and Leadership

Global Disability Summit speech by Tom Shakespeare
Photo: Tom Shakespeare visiting Light for the World projects in Mozambique. Credit: Light for the World

Here are four thoughts about disability and leadership

First, disabled people are powerful

To live with an impairment and yet achieve great things is a piece of everyday magic which all of us have perfected. It’s not about superstars. It’s about the majority of ordinary disabled people who assert their strength and their happiness and their pride, even in the face of failing bodies, piss, and pain, frustration, and tiredness. To survive with an impairment, to assert yourself in a world that often does not want you, you have to be tough. You have to persevere. You have to smile in the face of rudeness, and carry on when you are hurting and embarrassed. We are amazing. We do extraordinary things every single day. I know with total confidence that this is true of every single disabled person here, and hundreds if not thousands of people back home.     

Second, we have a secret.  How do we do it?

Disabled people who succeed do it with grit. We do not give up. We overcome one thing, and we feel a sense of achievement. And then we overcome another thing, and it happens again. And slowly but surely, we realize how much more we can do. In my own life, I experienced this when I started doing disability research in Africa. I was frightened of going to Zambia, and Uganda.  I thought I would not be able to get around.  I thought I would not understand people’s lives.  But I realized that, despite a wheelchair and the mud and rocks and potholes, I could get around. I first realized this in Lusaka, where two strong colleagues took me by the arm and frog-marched me down an alley to see a tailor with a disability working in a street market. So I knew I could survive in Zambia, with a little help from my friends. And then I went to Uganda, and I worried about that, how difficult it would be. But it wasn’t. And then I went to Kenya. And then it was time to go to Sierra Leone, and I thought I would never be able to do that. One of the poorest countries, a country which has had civil war and Ebola, and the last thing they needed was me. But, I went, and you know what?  It was fine, of course. The people were wonderful, and the stories were vivid, and everyone helped me, yet again. And what I am talking about is what the psychologists call Adversity Inoculation. You succeed bit by bit and become stronger to face the next challenge.  And boy, do we face challenges. 

And ever since I was speaking to that street tailor back in Lusaka, I realized that we disabled people have a common language. We may come from different cultures, but we have experienced the same frustrations, the same pity, the same stigma. And we often come up smiling and grateful for the chances we have had. 

Disabled people who succeed do it with wit and charm. Not because we are especially graced with those qualities, but because we learn them. We have to. We have to put others at their ease, so we smile or tell a joke. We often have to get them to help us. Or at least, to open the door, and listen to us, and treat us fairly. It comes at a cost, all those wit, and charm. We have to swallow our frustrations and smile politely at other people’s stupidities. But we know that this is the way to succeed and lead, to overcome ignorance and resistance. As George Bernard Shaw said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.”

Disabled people break the rules. We do things our way. We are never going to conform, so we make a virtue out of necessity. We are outrageous. We play the fool. We exploit our differences to get what we want. Everyone remembers us. Half of them admire us and probably half of them hate us, but we get what we want, a lot of the time. We are stubbornly persistently effective in getting results. 

Third, let’s talk about Tall Poppy syndrome

I’ve just come back from two weeks in Australia, where they use the phrase ’tall poppy syndrome’ to describe how successful people can be attacked by their own community.

As a community, sometimes we disabled people are not very kind to our leaders.

Maybe we have spent so much time asserting ourselves, that it can be hard to realize we are part of a wider network. Maybe we resent other people’s success.   We might have said so often that oppression is holding is back, that when someone else triumphs, we worry that it shows us up.

But we can do this differently.

We can be supportive of each other, and rejoice in the success of our peers.

We can remember that every successful disabled person disproves the lie that we are the second rate, that we cannot achieve, that we cannot triumph.

Many of us have watched the late, great Stella Young’s wonderful TED talk about Inspiration Porn. But I worry that we have misinterpreted her point. She was not saying that disabled people cannot excel, cannot be leaders, cannot be admirable. She was saying, stop patronizing us, stop thinking that any minor feat is worth celebrating. Spare your praise for when we really come good.

So I am saying we should be proud of our leaders, we should support them, we should learn from them, we should invest in the next generation of leaders, we should put succession plans in place and keep our DPOs and our projects rolling forward.  Remember, when one of us succeeds, all of us succeed.

Fourth, let’s be clear.  Disabled people lead differently. 

We do not have to lead from the front, though we can. We work together. Often, because we have to. We need other people. Which is our strength. We can’t go it alone, even if we wanted to.

I have tried to get the most out of others. I have tried to lead from the back. I have tried to collaborate. I find that if you want someone to do something, persuading them to think it was their idea in the first place is more effective than telling them to do it your way. You don’t have to take the credit for it. You just need it to happen. 

There is a quiet strength, a quiet leadership, which consists of influencing opinions and priorities, not ordering people around.  Remember the wit and the charm.

We can do the other kind too. We can have big ideas. We can boss people. We can lead from the front. But let’s show there are different ways to be a leader. There are as many different ways as there are people on this stage, probably as there are people in this room. But we need to keep passing the baton on. So let’s not make ourselves indispensable. Let’s connect with others, and mentor the next generation of leaders, and hand over and maybe we ourselves can move on to other things… and that’s all I have to say. Thank you for listening.