Developing Deaf and Disabled leaders

Our project to develop Deaf and Disabled leaders

About the project

From August 2019 to December 2020 we piloted a leadership training and development programme funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.

DDPOs face significant challenges in “bringing on” new Deaf/Disabled leaders or accessing leadership development programmes that are accessible and right for DDPOs. In response, we designed a leadership programme to trial with 10 Deaf/Disabled people who had shown an interest or potential for leadership. Using “human centred design” theories and techniques, we supported participants to identify their own leadership development goals and work practically on leading a change (with coaching and training). Together we analysed what support was most effective in achieving leadership success.

Who facilitated the leadership programme:

This programme was facilitated by Alex Hendra, our Associate Business Consultant. She has extensive experience  supporting DDPOs with business development, a particular interest in user-led and participatory models of service design, and previous experience co-designing successful leadership programmes with Disabled young people.

What made the programme unique:

We took a rights and equalities based approach, which is so often missing from leadership programmes. We theorised that there are plenty of Deaf/Disabled people with leadership potential, or already leading but unacknowledged. We believed that by freeing people up to take control and to understand and challenge the societal barriers that get in their way, they would become more effective leaders:

“This programme really was focused on the root of the issue and disability and leadership: what has really prevented us up to this point and a safe place to really challenge this and maybe find some breakthroughs.”

This proved to be powerfully effective:

“I’m not hiding anymore”

“I made an interesting personal discovery, whereby I realised that my lived experience of disability gave me an advantage. There are acquired skills I overlook as I see them as a way of life but didn’t really acknowledge these skills as leadership skills until taking part in this programme. I came to recognise the skills I shared with the other Disabled leaders.”

Who took part?

10 leaders from DDPOs across London started the programme. 9 completed the full programme (1 withdrew after the initial workshops).  All were Deaf/Disabled people with a connection to a London DDPO,  but with very varied roles and leadership experience. Their success on the programme proved our theory that anyone can be a leader. You don’t have to be in a traditional position of authority:

“I was interested to see everyone on the course were at different levels within their organisation (CEO, Trustee, Project Worker, Volunteer), but this didn’t make any of us less of a leader because this programme showed us we all have the makings of a great leader in each of us. We are passionate about our cause, we have a vision, determination to make a positive change and the spark that inspires others to support our change.”

What changes did they lead?

Leaders took on a real change project they were passionate about, with coaching and peer support. They took control, gained confidence and explored and found solutions to barriers along the way.

Here are examples of the changes they led:

Picture showing the stages of a "design cycle"A voice through the arts

A participant who was already a DDPO trustee and also runs her own small social business, aimed to address social isolation and give marginalized people a voice through participatory arts. She made huge progress in developing new partnerships and attracting funding to scale up her work. She is particularly proud of her success in adapting to the challenges of the Covid 19 lockdown by rapidly moving her drama workshops online. Working on her project contributed greatly to her leadership practice. Importantly, it gave her tangible evidence of her own abilities and the impact she could have, which boosted her confidence and motivated her to set her goals even higher.

Local campaigning groups

Another leader who is a paid member of staff within a DDPO, and an individual campaigner, worked towards forming local campaigning groups for blind and partially sighted people to advocate for access and equality in their local areas. She gained confidence, developed her campaigning skills and has gone on to take on new more challenging leadership roles including as CoChair of a BAME sight loss Committee.

Opportunities for members to socialise

The Director and an unpaid member from an organisation run by and for people with learning difficulties worked together on a project to set up more opportunities for their members to socialise. They approached it from two different angles based on their leadership goals. The member focused on leading development of new social activities. The Director focused on providing better support to enable members to design their own services. Working on a real change was a valued experience for them. The organisation has recently become independent from its local Mencap. Being able to challenge stereotypes and prove that people with learning difficulties can successfully control their own organisations and services is crucial to them. Working through a real change project was powerful proof of their ability:

Before lockdown “we managed to run one Sleeq club night which was brilliant – it went really well. It was the first time Safety Net has done this since becoming independent. So I was completely in charge – if anything went wrong it was my neck on the block! But it went fine. Holding Sleeq was a relief – everyone wanted it to happen. And it was important to show ourselves that we could do it on our own as an independent organisation” (Director)

“I worked as a volunteer organiser. It felt really good. Before I had just gone along and enjoyed the club night. I think I realised how important our ideas are. Other social clubs and organisations run brilliant events but they are run by people who aren’t Disabled. And people who go there are afraid to go clubbing anywhere else. That’s why we have to train people to do their own social lives as well as run club nights and events ourselves. It was good that I managed to get a plan of how we can make the change happen. That is progress” (Organisation member, and now trustee).

Developing a financial model

Change Canvas describing one of Lived Experience Leadership Participant's planned changeAnother leader who is a paid staff member in a DDPO wanted to strengthen the effectiveness and sustainability of the organisation she worked for by developing a financial model to analyse and better plan use of staff and resources:

“with so many DDPO’s closing around us, I wanted to develop a financial model that would not only show (the DDPO) where their weaknesses were but address them before they became a problem. I also wanted to use the financial model to explore a way to address a common theme when working for DDPOs, it is common for staff to feel like we are constantly firefighting. My personal experience is that I do not produce my best work in this environment. Part of my change plan was to find out why this was happening and explore a shift in this way of working, as I believe it is costly in staff energy and the results aren’t what they could be….When I started my change plan, I lacked confidence and there were gaps in my knowledge that made me question if I could be a Leader within an organisation like mine. Learning about Financial Modelling was an amazing experience because it is a blueprint to how an organisation runs from the inside out.”

The process of working practically through a particular area of organisational development was really important to this leader in both developing her organisational management skills but also radically reframing how she saw her own abilities as a leader and her understanding of how organisational structures and under resourcing can constrain staff performance and development

“my whole life I have believed that I needed to work harder, go the extra mile, be multifaceted to overcompensate for my disability and the limitations that come with living with a lifelong fluctuating health condition. Working in a DDPO has helped me learn that there are organisations that support Disabled people in a working environment through flexible working, which works best for me. Despite this I still found that my confidence was lacking, but this leadership programme and mentoring has completely shifted my thinking! I know in a working environment where I am firefighting, I am put in a position where I need to put my work above everything else to get the result that is needed, even if it means working outside my paid hours. This has a negative effect on my health, my relationships and my self-confidence as I don’t feel the work produced is a true reflection of me at my best. This project has opened up my world and the way I see it. The importance of having a solid foundation for any organisation, with structures and processes that shape it’s service provision, providing staff with the environment that is productive to producing high quality work without compromising their health or relationships or the need to work outside their paid hours to meet deadlines.”

Identifying barriers

Two leaders didn’t make as much progress in their change project as they had planned because they dove deep into personal development, but it was still the initial vehicle that allowed them to identify barriers getting in the way of progress:

“Personally, this programme couldn’t have come at a better time.  I’m not sure if my journey was as it intended by the programme when designing it. I didn’t get to fulfil my change plan as much as I had hoped however it did much more for me than allowing me to be successful in a change plan.  It allowed me to be supported and guided by professionals who actually understood how to develop someone like me which feels like a unique opportunity and hope others who are in a similar situation can experience……I now know I have the skills and ability but knew something was stopping me fulling my best but I just couldn’t quite figure out what.”

The second of these two leaders wanted to support her organisations’ trustees (including herself) to be more proactive and confident. She particularly wanted to find ways to ensure Disabled trustees with limited paid work or management experience understood their value on the Board and confidently used their lived experience. She didn’t always feel able to progress all actions in her plan, particularly once lockdown hit. However, she maintained focus on the underlying goal of her project and it was a vehicle for getting out of her comfort zone,  setting herself challenges to build her confidence, and make use of alternative opportunities to develop the voice and confidence of herself and other trustees and members. When she presented her progress to her peers at the end of the programme they reflected that she seemed to have moved from passion… to channelling that energy and anger into action….and through to confidence and self-belief.

Diagram of a Journey MapThe final two leaders fed back that they benefited a lot from the programme, but particularly from peer support groups and coaching, rather than the focus on a change project. However, one of these continued to make progress on her existing project she had been working on for some time to develop accessible information for users of mental health services.

What were the impacts:

For leaders:

  • significant improvements in their leadership practice and confidence
  • taking on new leadership roles and applying for more senior jobs
  • other practical skills they learned through leading their projects
  • a better understanding of the value of their lived experience
  • a better understanding of the Social Model and more understanding of their access needs and assertiveness in making sure these are met
  • more partnerships, joint working and peer support amongst DDPOs

DDPOs also benefited with training for staff, improved service design and engagement with members and service users, improvements in governance, new funding and organisational development.


Reports from participants:

To view other resources on leadership, please also go to our Leadership information and resources page. This includes useful toolkits and resources related to leadership and links to other training and workshops to support leadership practice.