More than 4 million people or around 18% of the population are currently living with a disability in Australia. Mark Tonga, current AGSM @ UNSW Business School MBA Executive (MBAE) student, is a voice for these Australians.

When Tonga found himself a tetraplegic and unable to return to his profession as an accountant after a rugby training accident 12 years ago, he decided to donate his time to the disability community. This soon led to advocacy work in the not-for-profit sector.

“I started seeing some common problems that people with disabilities were facing. I thought I could use my skills in accounting, so I started some board work with not-for-profits, and that eventually led to advisory work for local government and councils,” Tonga said.

“I now work in local, state and federal levels of government, on strategic policy related to disability. I provide advice and ensure that the information is getting from the grassroots to higher powers to help them make more inclusive decisions.”

Tonga is advocating that all members of the community who experience disadvantage, not just those with a disability, feel they are treated respectfully and fairly, are valued and belong. He believes that by recognising and acknowledging the benefits that people from diverse backgrounds bring to our communities and being more inclusive and considerate in our decision making, everyone is given the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Tonga is a member of the NDIS Independent Advisory Council for the Department of Social Services, providing formal advice to the Board of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), the governing body of the NDIS. He is also the Chairperson of the NSW Disability Council for the Department of Family and Community Services, Chairperson of the City of Sydney Council Inclusion Advisory Panel, Inaugural Chair of the State Library NSW Inclusion Advisory Panel and Committee Member of the Australian Museum Accessibility and Inclusion Advisory Panel.

Knowledge is key

As Tonga found himself working with policy makers and change leaders at all levels, he wanted to expand his skillset so he could make a bigger impact. Tonga felt that turning up ‘unprepared’ would be unfair to the people he advocates for; he wants to get results. AGSM’s MBAE is one part of his strategy to make this happen, as it will expand his knowledge in people and change management, negotiation and more advanced problem-solving frameworks.

“Everything I’ve done so far was achieved by observing and learning on the run. I was not afraid of making mistakes, I did learn from them and changed. So I needed to be more efficient. I have the enthusiasm and real-world experience but lacked the finer tools to engage. An MBA was perfect for me to understand, arm up, so to speak,” Tonga said.

“One of my goals is to ensure that the voices of those who experience disadvantage, including people living with a disability, are heard and attaining this MBA will help to achieve that’’

As a recipient of the AGSM 40th Anniversary Scholarship, Tonga said he was ‘over the moon’ to be able to study at a business school that encourages and celebrates diversity. He acknowledges that he is different and feels an affinity with AGSM because of its flexible class structure and being on the leading edge when it comes to #AlwaysBeLearning.

“They could see what I want to contribute to the community, and they are giving me the tools to help me achieve this. AGSM see things laterally, horizontally, vertically – and I was fortunate enough that they saw the opportunity and wanted to invest in me,” Tonga said.

“This will accelerate my advocacy and give me a megaphone to speak through to get things done. Having the skills and qualification will lift me up another level closer to the ultimate decision makers in this area of need.”

Working to make an impact in the community

Studying part-time, Tonga is stepping back from his not-for-profit sector commitments for now, choosing to focus his time and energy on government advisory roles. He wants to work in the environment that will make the largest impact, to ensure all members of the community are considered across all aspects of public policy.

“As a person with a disability myself, I think it’s important to have people with that experience speaking the language. It emphasises it louder than someone who could come and speak on my behalf. I’m able to do justice for myself and the community,” Tonga said.

Studying the MBAE at AGSM has awoken an intellectual hunger that Tonga regrets not tapping into before, with group assignments energising him similarly to when he played in sporting teams.

While the current online delivery model works well, he is looking forward to getting back into the classroom again and connecting with his cohorts face-to-face. As well as giving him the opportunity to learn anecdotally from professionals in different industries, he will be able to start a conversation about disability by being in the room and participating.

“These people are going to be, or are already, leaders. Just by seeing me they’ll think that there are people with disability out there who need to be considered. I want to stretch their thinking when making decisions in their organisations. I want them to learn from me as much as I’m learning from them.”

The AGSM MBAE has already equipped Tonga with an intellectual rigour that has enabled him to harness his experience and drive decisions and solutions in a more effective way. Building a more diverse community of the future requires more visibility and acceptance of people’s differences, and Tonga is working hard to reach that goal.

“The world is different now. We need to reshape the view of what makes an effective person and I’m trying to help do that.”

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