It’s time to unlearn everything you think about people with disabilities

- March 31, 2023 5 MIN READ


As an internationally respected disability advocate, author, business consultant, and media professional, Lisa Cox is proof that living with disabilities need not hold a person back from achieving amazing things in life. Lisa says it’s not her disabilities, but societal attitudes that have made it hardest for her to get ahead. She joined the First Act podcast to explain how businesses and society can do much better to understand and support disability inclusion.

As a trained and passionate copywriter working in advertising, Lisa Cox was building an impressive career when she was struck down by a devastating illness at age 24. The life-changing event left Lisa a multiple amputee with a traumatic brain injury, along with various other lifelong visible and invisible disabilities.

When Lisa was ready to return to the workforce, she says societal attitudes had changed towards her because of her acquired disabilities.

“The expectations set for me as someone with disabilities were incredibly low and unfortunately, I had some very bad experiences when I tried to re-enter the workforce,” Lisa reveals. “After I had shown them my years of experience and qualifications, I was given only entry-level jobs. They put me in a corner and asked me to put paper in envelopes. And with no disrespect to the people who do these jobs – but they just weren’t right for me.”

Since then, Lisa has committed herself to improving the representation of disability in mainstream culture, from marketing and media to workplace inclusion and accessibility, for the one in five Australians who live with a disability.

Lisa Cox, disability advocate, author and business consultant

Lisa Cox, disability advocate, author and business consultant


“I’m now working with advertising and brands to disrupt the way they represent people with disabilities, and to change the way they think about what people with disabilities are capable of,” says Lisa.

The unlearning journey

Lisa has walked the talk (so to speak), becoming a Stevie Award and Social Changemaker of the Year Award winner, and the 2022 Queensland recipient of the Excellence in Women’s Leadership Award. Throughout her journey, Lisa says that there has been a great deal of ‘unlearning’ – for both herself and the people she works with.

“If you had told me back in 2005 that this is what’s going to happen, I would’ve thought there’s absolutely no way,” Lisa admits. “Because in my head were 24 years of stereotypes, that had been largely put there by mainstream media, that told me that disability was bad. So that’s why I do a lot of the work I do now; working with media and other industries to change that narrative for other people who acquire disabilities, plus people who are born with disabilities. It takes a lot of unlearning.

“The biggest challenges I face are not my disabilities per se; not my wheelchair, my prosthetic leg, or my low vision. They tend to be social attitudes. As an example, my young niece and nephew look me in the eye and speak to me, quote-unquote, ‘normally’. But frequently, I’ll go into boardrooms and speak to educated, qualified men and women – CEOs, professionals, even doctors – who can’t look me in the eye, stammer when they speak to me, and just don’t know where to look because I have a disability. When I enter the boardroom, I am asked why I’m here, am I looking for something? No, I’m actually here to chair the meeting,” Lisa says. “And that, to me, is really telling. We have a lot of work to do about how we communicate, and how society views people with disabilities.”

Listen to Lisa Cox on the First Act podcast:

Good for society and good for business

Lisa says taking a more open-minded view of disability inclusion is not only socially good, but it can also win you big bucks in your business if you get it right.

“There’s a large focus on the social good and there’s absolutely merit in that point, but it’s a really important point to make to businesses that it’s not just a nice thing to do; it’s also extremely profitable. It’s 20 per cent market share that you are essentially ignoring,” Lisa explains. “If you said to a business owner, there’s a 20 per cent market share that you’re flushing down the toilet, they wouldn’t hear of it. But that’s essentially what they’re doing by ignoring people with disability.

“So, let’s talk about that,” challenges Lisa. “Let’s talk about the $1.9 trillion of disposable income that globally people with disabilities have to spend. My legs don’t work, but my credit card does, as I said in my recent TED Talk. So, businesses need to be ready for that.”

Beware virtue signalling

However, true inclusivity goes deeper than marketing and media representation. Lisa says it is obvious to your consumers if you are simply virtue signalling by shouting about disability inclusion without putting your money where your mouth is.

“Comments on socials and using people with disabilities in your advertising and marketing are a good start; it’s better than nothing. But it’s got to go further than that,” Lisa maintains. “The ‘yeah, we’re trying, but only one day of the year’ – it’s gotta go. You can do better, especially from an advertising and marketing point of view.

“It really needs to be consistent because consumers are becoming savvier. They can spot brands that aren’t authentic, so consistency is so important. There’s certainly no excuse for not taking it further and making it an all-year-round thing.”

Disability representation in the workplace – don’t overthink it

When it comes to opening up your staffing to those with disabilities, Lisa says it’s as simple as asking employees what they need to get their job done.

“Firstly, the answer sounds really simple – it’s just to start listening to their feedback and interacting with them,” Lisa says. “Always consult with the people with lived experience. That’s key in a workplace setting because each individual is going to have a different experience. Otherwise, it’s like deciding women’s rights with a boardroom full of men.

“It’s important to seek out that case-by-case conversation with each employee. Making it clear that you are open to conversations is all it takes. And remember, they may or may not wish to disclose their disability straight away because it’s up to them.

“Secondly, understand that it might take the employee several months to work out what they need in that setting. So as an employer, don’t be put off if the employee doesn’t let you know exactly what they need straight away.”

Lisa shared many more insights into how we can all do better with disability inclusion and representation in this episode of First Act. Listen to the full ep now.

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