Life Without Barriers has partnered with the Disability Leadership Institute to bring on a co-CEO intern, providing an opportunity break down leadership barriers for those with lived experience of disability.

Debbie Heron, an experienced leader and advocate who lives with a disability, has joined the organisation and will work alongside CEO Claire Robbs.

It’s a far cry from the future that was envisaged for her at birth, she said.

“The trajectory for me after I was born was just that I would never walk or talk and I’d be likely to need to go to a special school and then a group home, and then go off to a sheltered workshop to do group work. [But] my parents didn’t accept that as a life trajectory for me,” she told Link.

She grew up in an environment that encouraged her to try everything and adapt it to her needs. After attending a mainstream school, Debbie graduated from university with a law degree. But finding stable employment was more difficult.

“I’d get through telephone interviews and things like that, but then when it came to meeting people face to face, that was always a bit of a downfall for me and I found myself not really getting through to any placements after my degree. That was quite challenging for me,” she recalled.

She worked in the legal sector before moving into the disability sector, where she discovered her passion.

“I’ve found the place where I can use my disability. It’s something that I always thought made me less-than, but I found actually it’s an asset. It’s been quite transformational.”

She’s now “absolutely ecstatic” to be working with Life Without Barriers, and said the internship program provides a safe space for someone who “might normally not put their hand up” to give a new opportunity a try, supported by a team that wants to provide an accessible opportunity.

“That is, I think, the future for how we get more disabled leaders into the C-suite,” Debbie said.

“I think it’s incredibly important to have these [positions] open and available for people so that people with disabilities can actually see themselves in an organisation. They can come and tangibly touch things, try things, see how they fit in… [and] understand where their disability might fit in at work. It just gives that practicality to things and gives that person with disability a lot more confidence.”

Life Without Barriers is currently implementing its 2022-2025 Access Inclusion and Employment Plan, with a target to have 15 per cent of its workforce comprised of people with a disability in the next three years.

CEO Claire Robbs said the care sector is in a perfect position to drive the change needed in employment for people with disability and ensure boards and senior leadership positions are representative of our communities.

“The best way an organisation can demonstrate their commitment to employing people with disability into leadership roles is to do it themselves. We want more people with lived or direct

experience which is similar to the experiences of people we support in our leadership and that includes the top job,” she said.

“As we work together over the year, Debbie and I will co-learn from one another and I am so looking forward to that journey.”

Debbie said she hopes to gain an understanding of what goes into a C-suite role, as well as building her own confidence for future similar positions. In some ways, she feels she is a role model for other people with disabilities who are working towards executive leadership positions – something that could help create societal-level change and greater acceptance of leaders with disabilities.

“I’ve had so many amazing mentors and kind people in my life, so I’ve always taken the tact of paying it forward. In terms of paying forward all the kindness and goodness that’s been given to me, I feel that I am a role model in this trail that I’m blazing. And I’d like to bring other people on that journey with me as well and say, ‘hey, look, I did it, so maybe it could be possible for you’. I’m very happy to embrace that and see some transformational change for the better from it,” Debbie said.

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