With a structure and D&I relationship founded in strengthening disability inclusion, the Disability Employee Network (DEN) in New South Wales’ Government in Australia is a game changer, with invaluable knowledge for networks and resource groups worldwide.
After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease 20 years ago, resulting in legal blindness in her left eye, NSW Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) DEN Chair, Jacquie Duncan’s own experience kickstarted her desire to help others within her community. “During my back to work process, there were assumptions from others. Some of it unconscious, with no maliciousness involved. Six months into returning to work, I accepted the fact that I had a disability which was a huge step for me, because I don’t see myself as having a disability, I just have to do things a different way.” It was after these six months of returning to work that Jacquie joined the disability employee network, finding a unique sense of value within her network.
Jacquie’s first big step was taking part in a storytelling roundtable with executives, sharing her experience of why workplace adjustments are important. “I found that telling my story, being open and honest was a really liberating, albeit scary, situation. I was talking about the most vulnerable time in my life to people I didn’t know, to people who are senior. But if I could tell my story and it made a difference to one person then it was worth it. A colleague said to me that it’s about paying it forward. I can’t change what’s happened to me or the treatment that I received a few years ago but I can change how people are treated going forward.”
This roundtable was just a tip of the iceberg in the work that the DCJ DEN does to build disability confidence. Having a strong structure has been key to success. The DEN has deputy chairs, each with their own remit, resulting from Jacquie, and her predecessor, Michael Patterson, realising that it was necessary to have someone who could focus on key areas, such as communications, the business/admin side of things, and organising project consultation, in order to convey and deliver on the needs of employees. Jacquie is has oversight in all areas, alongside her deputy chairs. The new structure supports the organisations Disability Inclusion Action Plan, with all internal projects requiring DEN consultation prior to it going on the interactive plan. “We’re a really meaningful stakeholder in that employee decision. My goal was to professionalise the DEN, embed it into the organisation and make it an integral part of diversity conversation to ensure longevity. We challenge our department to go above and beyond minimum standard. Part of that is going to the next level up, and setting the bar.” Jacquie will now be focusing on disability inclusion in the DCJ for the next 12-18 months full time, instead of her day job. This will enable her to focus on four key priorities: Connecting with people and supporting them as offices return to work; developing the communications strategy; emotional health; and accessibility. Alongside that, there will be 20 other DIAP (Disability Inclusion Action Plan) projects that the DEN will have involvement, either as projects originating from the DCJ DEN, or other departments. This DIAP will be a living document with accountabilities and responsibilities for everyone to see.
Crucial to the strong structure of the DCJ DEN is their relationship with other stakeholders. Their relationship with HR and talent acquisition has led to key changes such as more regular roundtables for people to share their story, and the adaption of “declaration” forms. The DCJ DEN is part of DENConnect - a forum for different DENs in the NSW Government to cross collaborate. In particular, the DCJ works most closely with the departments for education, transport and health. The former education DEN chair even does workshops for the DCJ DEN. ”It’s really important to hear from key players, where we can both learn from each other. It’s provided a really strong connection with our other government sector employees. We really support each other, share what we’re doing and how.”
Reflecting on the pandemic and the increase in remote working, the DCJ DEN undertook a lot of user testing to ensure that their meetings were as accessible as possible. This has also helped them to strengthen their relationship with the IT department. “We’d doubled the number of attendees to network meetings in June, and this increased even more in September. Covid forcing us to use technology more has given a way for more people to connect. It’s given people who couldn’t attend our meetings previously the ability to participate.”
Looking to the future, the DCJ DEN will participate, and celebrate #PurpleLightUp on 3rd December, but we’re looking forward to seeing what Jacquie and the DEN achieves in the next 18 months, setting standards that continue to amaze us.
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