22 March 2024

Debbie Heron is a senior leader with a disability who is working to co-lead Life Without Barriers.

Image: Debbie Heron wearing a pink blazer and maroon shirt, standing next to Claire Robbs, wearing a cream blazer and black shirt, smiling at the camera.

Life Without Barriers is contributing to reshaping disability leadership by partnering with the Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) to bring on a Co-CEO Intern.

Debbie Heron has joined Claire Robbs at the helm of Life Without Barriers, working together to drive inclusion for people with disability in the care sector.

“This is the second time that the CEO Intern Program has been run in Australia, so I'm incredibly excited to be the second CEO intern," said Debbie.

"The program provides a platform for people with a disability who are looking to move into the C-Suite - the executive area and CEO realm - a chance to be mentored by an established CEO and take on the co-leadership role within a 12-month period.”

Debbie’s first meeting with Claire Robbs, Life Without Barriers Chief Executive, was at the interview for the program.

“I was very nervous beforehand. When I got into the interview, Claire made me feel so at ease, like I had met her before and we were just having a conversation. I felt all those nerves disappearing."

"I was extremely comfortable talking with her during that interview process, and that has continued throughout my connections with Claire. She has been very open and told me that there are no questions I could ask that are too silly to answer. She’s a genuinely supportive, heart-centred and visionary leader,” shared Debbie.

Debbie said she is sincerely privileged to spend time learning from Claire and the team and is motivated to help create transformational change.

“I’ve always believed that your circumstances don’t determine where you can go, they simply show you where you can start."

"Being born at 24 weeks, with the common trajectory for this period, meaning I’d be unlikely to have the opportunities to live the life my brother and sisters could aspire to," said Debbie.

"I’ve seen that transformational change can happen when people challenge their views of themselves and others.

“After struggling to get meaningful employment in my early years, I think it’s important to bring a perspective to employment and promoting people with disability.

"We know people with disability work hard, effectively, and efficiently - that’s not the barrier, it’s about having belief, imagination and expectation, and that’s what drives me,” Debbie added.

Working in the disability sector has brought a transformational shift in Debbie's thinking and perception of herself.

“Growing up, I always assumed that my disability was a negative, something that I should hide or try to compensate for."

"I’ve found that what I assumed made me ‘less than,’ which is my disability – makes me an asset," said Debbie.

“Having my disability and my experiences makes me a more open, compassionate person who has a better understanding of other people with disabilities."

"That is not to say that my experience is the same as anyone else's, as we all have our own distinct experiences. I've been able to now see my disability as a positive, and I can see the good that I can bring to others' lives through utilising my experience,” said Debbie.

Claire Robbs said that she and Life Without Barriers will learn a lot from Debbie’s knowledge and experience.

“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,” said Claire.

Claire added that 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.

“More than 20% of our population are people with disability, yet leadership roles are lagging in representation of lived experience in disability," said Claire.

"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,” Claire said.

Image: Debbie and Claire face each other, smiling.

Debbie shared what her first few weeks at Life Without Barriers have been like.

“I work alongside Claire and have gone to executive meetings board meetings, and I have hosted a visioning workshop. I couldn't be happier with how it's begun. It’s just amazing that Claire opens up her diary to me and says, ‘What would you like to learn more about as a Co-CEO?’”

The visioning workshop Debbie led had representatives from across the organisation.

“I felt very welcomed and very privileged to be involved. Claire and Emma Bennison, Chief Innovation Officer, invited me to host the workshop, which shows the great amount of support and trust that they have in me."

"Being in the room with amazing thought leaders and hearing the robust discussions was a wonderful experience. I'm looking forward to seeing how the project unfolds and how I can support as Co-CEO.”

Debbie said that as a senior leader with disability, and in this case, the top job, she is called to pay it forward and show other people with disability what is possible.

“We need people to blaze that trail and show that there is a pathway forward for us to have voices at every level."

"I want other people with disability to see examples like mine and say, ‘I can see myself represented here, maybe I could do that'.”

Debbie encourages others with disability to believe in what is possible for themselves.

“We might sometimes feel that we are not good enough, but the fact is, we are. I think we're limited by our thoughts and imagination. It's about having confidence in ourselves to reach for our dreams and goals, whatever they might be. And know that there’s a community out there that greatly supports everything that people with disability do,” she said.

Life Without Barriers is committed to creating change for people with disability, by people with disability. The Life Without Barriers 2022-2025 Access Inclusion and Employment Plan (AIEP) commits us to improving access and creating employment without barriers for people with disability within our organisation and by using our influence to see other organisations do the same. Central to the AIEP is the target to have 15% of its workforce comprised of people who identify as having a disability in the next three years.

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