Disability leadership in civil society

Disability leadership in civil society

Disabled people account for around 20% of the UK population, however they are under-represented in leadership positions in society. For example, only five MPs in Parliament identify as having a disability.

Women presenting at a conference
Zara Todd giving a presentation Download 'Zara Todd_Blog.jpg'
"I took a lot of my learning from my Fellowship into this work and it was great to be able to explore this issue." - Zara Todd, Fellow

In 2015 when I applied for my Fellowship, I didn’t know that I would be talking about disability leadership on a weekly basis for years to come. As a disabled person who had worked considerably in the third sector and in disabled people’s organisations, I knew that disabled leaders were under-represented and under-appreciated. I also could see that there was a lack of progression routes and opportunities for disabled people who wanted to develop their skills and experience. Through my Fellowship I got to see some different models of doing things and met some incredible disabled leaders. As a result, I came back with lots of ideas for how we could improve the situation here in the UK.

Fast forward to 2020 and ACEVO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) contacted myself and Ellie Munroe, an experienced third sector researcher. They asked us to carry out research into how voluntary sector organisations can build more disability-inclusive approaches to leadership.

Through our research, and interviews with disabled leaders and ACEVO staff, we found that relatively little has been published around this topic since my Fellowship - and that my findings are still very much relevant. They were:

  • Disabled people want mentoring and peer support.
  • There should be more celebration of disabled leaders.
  • There should be progression routes within the disability space.

The disabled leaders that we spoke to on behalf ACEVO identified a number of challenges around disability leadership, including:

  • Not feeling able to disclose their impairment or disability due to stigma.
  • Confusion about who is covered legally by the term disabled people.
  • Lack of understanding of what disabled people’s organisations do.
  • Lack of support for disabled leaders.

What was important to Ellie, myself and ACEVO was that we didn’t just say what wasn’t working, but actually went on to suggest tangible recommendations the organisation could implement if they wanted to be more disability-inclusive.

Our recommendations included:

  • When running events for civil society, be sure to provide all attendees with accessible information about the event and an opportunity to share their accessibility needs.
  • Develop leadership potential pipelines that recognise and harness the skills gained by lived experience. This includes offering mentoring from those with lived experience.
  • Create an organisational disability inclusion and accessibility manifesto or statement of commitments, and promote this to all staff.

I took a lot of my learning from my Fellowship into this work and it was great to be able to explore this issue and the experience of disabled leaders in the UK context. I hope that ACEVO and other organisations use the framework that myself and Ellie have set out, to help them build and develop more inclusive practices, so that civil society can benefit from the wealth of talents and experiences that disabled people have.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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