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Inclusive and accessible workplaces – what do leaders need to get right?

Dean Barton-Smith AM FIML has represented Australia on the global sporting stage. He is a business leader and a disability advocate. He is also profoundly deaf, diagnosed at the age of two.

While his deafness has presented many challenges along his path, Dean has amassed quite the impressive collection of achievements in his life, and he continues to do so.

With a wealth of experience behind him, Dean is incredibly qualified to provide insight on what leaders need to know about creating inclusive and accessible workplaces. He shares his story and lessons that leaders can take to implement in their own workplaces.

Dean’s path to the Olympics

To understand Dean’s advocacy and insights, it’s important to understand the path his life has followed.

Dean grew up at a time of mainstream schooling integration. He was left to his own devices in the classroom, relying on his eyes to follow the teacher’s lips. As soon as the teacher turned their back, it was like pushing the mute button on the TV. 

“I didn’t realise until I wrote my autobiography that it was the environment I was learning in that was the cause of my lacklustre school results,” Dean recalls.  

Dean’s saving grace during his school years was sport.

“If you lose one of your senses, like your hearing, the other senses increase,” he explains. “For me it was my peripheral vision, which is excellent when you’re into athletics.”

When he was 7 years old, Dean was first captivated by the Olympics. Being an Olympian became a lifelong dream that Dean eventually realised when he represented Australia in Decathlon at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. Not to be confused with the Paralympic Games, he was the first deaf person in the world to achieve such a unique feat.

“When I got out on the track and felt the vibration coming from the cheering crowd, it took me back to that feeling I had when I was 7 and first saw the Olympics on TV,” he says. “I may not have won a medal but I did win my dream and that’s what was important.”

A career in advocacy

At the 1994 Commonwealth Games, despite a false start in the 400m hurdles, Dean kept running, unaware that the race had stopped. This experience led him to advocacy to ensure a level playing field for all athletes. Ultimately, this advocacy expanded beyond sport.

At every stage in his career, Dean has advocated for change for people with disabilities. In doing so, he has worked in a diverse range of organisations. Through his experience, he has also helped to shape his workplaces – and the products and services they offer – to be more inclusive and accessible. With a current population of over 4.5 million who have a disability in Australia, that’s a sizable market that is often ‘untapped’.

Following his athletic career, Dean worked for the Australian Communication Exchange, delivering the National Relay Service. At the time, it was a groundbreaking service that allowed people who were deaf or hard of hearing to communicate over the phone.

“During my nine years working there, I saw the impact of accessibility, inclusion and universal design,” he explains.

In the years since, Dean has worked in community and disability organisations and also in non-disability organisations where he has had the power to enact positive change. He has worked in health and transport organisations in CEO, senior management and non-executive/chairperson roles.  He was involved in National Disability Insurance Scheme lobbying, worked to introduce accessible websites and practices, established national guidelines for emergency management across Australia and advocated for the 20% of the population living with a disability.

Accessibility from day one

Dean argues that all too often, inclusivity and accessibility are considered as an afterthought. When you take this approach, he says, “it makes things more complex and difficult.” 

That complexity and difficulty applies to the organisations attempting to retrofit accessibility solutions but also to the individuals who need those solutions most. The implications when organisations get it right? It’s often a win for everyone, opening opportunities perhaps never considered.

“In keynote speeches, I regularly reference an example from 1998,” Dean explains. “A group of us found that there was a way for us to text each other but at that time you could only send SMS messages to people who were on the same telco carrier. We lobbied the telcos to introduce interoperability so we had the power to text anyone. That change benefited everyone and was no doubt very profitable for the telcos!”

A top-down approach

For workplaces and organisations to be truly inclusive and accessible, Dean advocates for a top-down approach. For businesses to succeed, it’s essential for the board and senior management to set the culture and policy from the very top. He says this is key to overcoming the fear of the unknown and driving inclusivity and accessibility through every corner of an organisation.

“The question is, are you really making your workplace accessible for all or just for some,” he asks. “Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. Are we inadvertently excluding anyone? Are we doing everything we can to accommodate different groups of people?”

Importantly, any action should not just be a tokenistic gesture to tick a box.

“Often when organisations advertise a role, they’ll have a line about encouraging people with diverse backgrounds to apply,” says Dean. “But I think there’s still a stigma attached to disability and we have a long way to go.”

Dean encourages leaders to start with proactive communication and asking employees what their needs are.

“Never assume,” he adds. “You send a really strong message when you proactively ask employees or potential employees about their disability needs. The question of ‘how can we get the best out of you and what support do you need?’ shows that you’re focusing on their strengths. It’s also a way to build brand loyalty, very quickly.”

Evolutionary leadership

Dean is a proponent of evolutionary leadership, an approach he himself prescribes to as a leader. He explains that this leadership style is adaptive, able to respond quickly to a rapidly changing world. 

It’s also evolutionary leaders who Dean believes are best positioned to create more inclusive and accessible workplaces.

“Evolutionary leaders are thinking about what could be different tomorrow,” explains Dean. “They have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening and they’re always ahead of the game.

“I encourage all leaders to take the blinkers off and be bold and brave to ask the really hard questions. I think you’ll find a lot of unexpected benefits when you do.”

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