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Business Leaders Can No Longer Ignore Disability on the Inclusion Agenda

Last updated on June 29th, 2023 at 10:33 am

We’re at an incredible moment in time where disability inclusion is changing the future of work more than ever before, and business leaders can no longer walk away from this issue. 

Putting disability inclusion on their corporate agenda is one of the most important things a business leader can do because business is the most powerful force on the planet. 

Disability has always been “the poor cousin” on the inclusion agenda, something of an outlier. We’ve never seen accelerated change for the disabled community and that isn’t acceptable. Inclusion is either everyone or not at all. You simply cannot take an à la carte approach to disability inclusion. 

The Valuable 500

The Valuable 500 was formed to create a collective in business that is accountable and committed to working together to end disability exclusion. Now, there are 500 of the world’s CEOs of the most important brands representing 22 million people who will activate that change to their collective mass. 

Five years ago, The Valuable 500 could not have existed. To think that we now have 500 companies standing up and representing 22 million employees across 64 sectors in 41 countries is a testament to a new appetite.

I’ve been an activist for 22 years. When I worked for Accenture as a management consultant, I was “in the disability closet.” At the time, I thought that if I spoke about my own disability openly, I wouldn’t have the same chances and opportunities as others. That was the state of the world then. 

What’s Changing

What’s different and exciting today is the younger generation is talking about disability pride. We’re starting to see inclusive design become more mainstream; we’re hearing about accessibility and captioning. We’re seeing some of the greatest talent in the tech sector owning their neurodiversity. Richard Branson, for example, talks about his dyslexia, and that has really fueled a different way of thinking. We need to hear these distinct perspectives and learn about the different ways people work within our environment. 

Lived experience with disability contributes enormously to our global economy. The problem is, we don’t see it. People with disabilities are still not getting the chance to fully contribute to the global economy because there are barriers to them reaching their full potential – be it a barrier to their education, or to getting their first job. 

We must ensure everyone has the same opportunity. Creating universally inclusive corporate cultures will build a universally inclusive society. However idealistic this may sound, it’s what we must aim for because half-baked inclusion is neither right nor acceptable. 

When you consider that people with disabilities and their families constitute 54 percent of our global economy, it becomes evident that we simply cannot talk about employment if we don’t connect it to the value that people with disabilities bring to workplaces and businesses. 

Most Employers Are In The Dark

Most employers don’t even know the number of employees they have in their companies who have a disability – in part due to the fact that 80 percent of disabilities are invisible. Of the 22 million employees worldwide who are under The Valuable 500 umbrella, I’m sure that 12 to 15 percent of them have lived experience with disability and are hiding it.

It is not only rank-and-file employees who don’t feel safe disclosing their disability. The Valuable 500 conducted research in the U.K. with Tortoise Media, examining disability inclusion in Financial Times Stock Index 100 (FTSE100) companies. The research showed that among the FTSE100, there’s no one in a senior leadership position or higher, who self-identifies with a disability. 

We also know that in business, four out of five C-Suite or senior leaders who have a disability do not disclose it. It’s clear that disability at the highest levels of power in business is still seen as something less than acceptable. The discomfort and fear that existed for me 20 years ago, is still there. What’s different now, however, is that the younger generation I mentioned earlier — the next generation of business leaders — is talking more openly about disability inclusion.

Business leaders are not machines. They are parents, siblings, friends – and ultimately, human beings. But there’s a fine balance between the human being and the business leader who must deliver to shareholders and the bottom line. 

For business leaders, investing in disability inclusion requires a significant commercial rationale and return on investment. There’s ample research proving disability inclusion does deliver ROI in many ways. 

What Will Your Legacy Be?

What business leaders must ask themselves is this: “What is my legacy?”. To achieve this, they must ask the people in their companies who are connected to disability, how they as a leader can do things better and how the organization as a whole can do things better. They should ask difficult questions and admit they don’t always know the answer. It is their responsibility to start the conversation, to reach out and be curious and intentional. This is how change happens. 

As an activist, I refuse to keep finding problems for every solution and reasons why things cannot happen. Rather than focusing on how difficult it is to self-identify with a disability in corporate culture, we must build cultures of trust. 

Intentionality and concerted effort make change happen. If we find reasons for something to be difficult, nothing will get done. I do think we’re moving forward and we should celebrate the moments and the “wins” with disability inclusion. They may yet be small, but they add up to something more than what has come before. 

Caroline Casey is the founder of The Valuable 500, the world’s largest CEO collective and business movement for disability inclusion.

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