Working in partnership towards authentic inclusion

By: Tori Haar   |   Board Director, Autism Spectrum Australia   |

A few months ago I was formally appointed as the first openly autistic director on the Board of Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect), Australia’s largest autism-specific service provider. Autistic representation on the board of an organisation whose business is providing services to autistic people and their families is important, but it’s just one level of governance in which Aspect has been working in recent years to better engage, and listen to, the perspectives, needs and aspirations of the community it serves.

Historically, many of Australia’s major disability service providers were founded by groups of parents with a common goal of providing the best supports they could for their children. Small groups of parents have grown into large organisations with hundreds of staff members providing a range of different services. Working with families is generally a common and continuous thread in those journeys, but the direct and genuine involvement of disabled people is far less universal.

So given the rich and varied histories these kinds of organisations have had, how do you then start to work towards bringing the people who are arguably your most direct and important stakeholders into the conversation in a meaningful way?

Inclusion is far more than a nice idea or a box-ticking exercise. It’s an active process that is built on relationships and brings diversity not only of experience but also of ideas. Innovation often thrives when there is a diverse group of passionate people around the table. It’s also a process that takes time and has to be undertaken authentically and consistently to contribute to meaningful and lasting change.

Aspect’s experience demonstrates that this can be a worthwhile and achievable process for an organisation to resolve to undertake, even more than 40 years into its journey. In 2017, they established the Aspect Advisory Council, a group of seven autistic individuals with varied experiences and skills (including myself), in a formalised role including regular interaction with the Board and Executive and input into key elements of Aspect’s strategy and governance.

In recent years, working in partnership with people on the autism spectrum has become one of Aspect’s core strategies, having taken the initiative to involve autistic voices across different levels of the organisation and develop a Disability Access and Inclusion Plan. Operational initiatives include a Think Tank of autistic people that different business areas are encouraged to consult, an autistic employee network and student councils in some of Aspect’s schools.

Appointing an autistic board member- once a lofty aspirational goal- is now the natural progression of a maturing partnership The relationships were built and groundwork was laid for it to become a comfortable and exciting transition rather than one underpinned by uncertainty. In my experience, what I have needed so far has not been drastically different to any other new director and my perspectives have been a welcome addition.

I would encourage other disability focused organisations to consider how they can take an intentional and meaningful approach to foster stronger relationships with the communities they serve. Some things to think about when doing this are:

  • Start somewhere - it’s easy to be overwhelmed in the beginning so start with a single meaningful initiative which has the support of both the Board and Executive. While parts of the community may expect quick results, it’s more important to do things well than to take on too much at once and risk it becoming tokenistic or short lived.
  • Value diversity - like anyone else disabled people have a range of life experiences, skills, needs and perspectives. More than one perspective needs to be included and finding the right people to work with for the right topic is really important if you want to make an impact.
  • Consider power imbalances and communication differences - people with disabilities can have a history of not being listened to, being misunderstood or having assumptions made about them. They may also have had experiences of being asked to share things without having the outcomes of a process shared back to them or result in observable change.

Needing to communicate or respond in a different way, or work towards finding mutual understanding does not diminish the value in what people have to share and contribute. If you find the right people, they might not be the ones with a traditional resume or skill set. Invest in their development to help enhance how they are able to contribute.

Most importantly, keep listening and learning and be willing to try new things and listen when something hasn’t worked. 

While no organisation, like no relationship, can ever claim to be perfect, it’s important to keep moving forward and being willing to continue to grow and evolve alongside the community you serve. Inclusion and diversity are always going to be valuable assets in that journey.

Mar. 16, 2021

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