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Disabled Leadership: An Overview

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Katie Leigh Robinson
September 8, 2020

It has been said that disability does not discriminate based on race, gender or sexuality. Disability spans the spectrum of Americans and has affected all types of people from the smallest child to the President of the United States. Disability—especially visible disabilities like paraplegia or amputated limbs—can cause the general non-disabled public to assume those with disabilities are less capable. However, there are numerous examples of Americans with disabilities who have not only succeeded, but also risen to leadership positions in companies, governments and organizations. This leads to the question: what characteristics are most important in leaders with disabilities?

The first step to answering these questions is to define some characteristics of successful leadership. In his book Leadership in Public Organizations: An Introduction, Montgomery Van Wart devotes an entire chapter to traits that contribute to effective leaders. Three of these characteristics that I believe are particularly important to individuals with disabilities are self-confidence, resilience and need for achievement. These characteristics are vitally important to leaders—especially leaders with disabilities—because they cause the leader to reach beyond her own strength and needs and overcome what she has experienced.

Self-confidence is an especially important trait for people with disabilities because it turns one’s attitude and focus away from the limitations they might carry and toward their ability to accomplish what must be accomplished. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has displayed tremendous self-confidence in himself despite being paralyzed from the waist down and requiring a wheelchair. When out running during a Bar-prep study break, Abbott was struck by a falling tree and paralyzed. He was forced to lie flat for a month before starting rehabilitation, but still passed the bar exam a year later. During his campaign for governor, he told crowds that the accident gave him an actual, “Spine of steel.” This level of self-confidence in his own cognitive abilities despite tremendous physical setbacks seems to have been key in his political success.

Resilience is another important trait for leaders with disabilities because they may have to overcome extreme hardship and setbacks in order to be successful. Resilience is the ability to spring back into shape, position or direction after being pressed or stretched. U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth has shown resilience during her entire career. When the Iraq War began, she was working toward a Ph.D. in Political Science. As a member of the United States Army Reserve, she was called into active duty. She first demonstrated resilience by choosing to learn to fly helicopters, as she wanted to work a combat job and it was one of the few combat jobs open to women. In November 2004, her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down and she lost both her legs and significant use of her right arm. Despite these injuries, she has proven herself to be capable and independent. In 2015 she completed her paused Ph.D. and has been serving as a U.S. Senator since 2016. Such resilience has allowed her to spring back into the direction of her career despite what could have been a career ending tragedy.

Thirdly, the need for achievement is extremely important for leaders with disabilities. It is rare to find a political or government leader who does not seek achievement and recognition for that achievement. Perhaps a better example for this characteristic would be a disability rights activist named Judith Heumann. Heumann was diagnosed with polio at 18 months old and has used a wheelchair for most of her life. She had to fight to be included in the education system in the 1950s and was successful in graduating from the public high school in the 1960s. She wanted to achieve an education. In 1970 she was denied a New York teaching license because the Board of Education did not think she could successfully evacuate her students in the case of a fire. She sued the city and became the first wheelchair user to teach in New York City. She wanted to achieve a career. In 1977, she helped organize and lead a sit-in that protested the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare’s refusal to sign new regulations for Section 504 for the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The sit-in lasted 28 days, and the secretary signed both Education of all Handicapped Children and Section 504 as a result. She wanted to achieve opportunities that she was not given. Since her activist activities, Heumann has worked as the World Bank Group’s first Advisor on Disability and Development, Special Advisor on International Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department and Senior Fellow at the Ford Foundation. She has a need to achieve for herself and for others.

While these characteristics are certainly not the only ones required for people to be successful leaders, they are more obviously present in leaders with disabilities. Self-confidence, resilience and the need for achievement have helped the three leaders discussed here and countless other leaders with disabilities to achieve success despite any assumptions of lesser capability or discrimination.


Author: Katie Leigh Robinson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Dallas. She studies accessibility policy, education policy, and social equity in the policy process.

Twitter Handle: @batbrarian

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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