Hiring and supporting employees with disabilities isn’t just a matter of corporate social responsibility or public relations; it’s just good business.
According to a recent study of 140 U.S. companies by Accenture–alongside the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and Disability:IN–those that offered the most inclusive working environment for disabled employees achieved an average of 28% higher revenue, 30% greater economic profit margins, and twice the net income of their industry peers between 2015 and 2018.
Furthermore, those companies that were rated as “disability inclusion champions” were twice as likely to have a higher shareholder return than their peer group. Even non-“champions” that were actively working to better support employees with disabilities were four times more likely to report higher shareholder returns.
“This really gives us and other business leaders the opportunity to bridge the conversation from philanthropic to foundational,” says Laurie Henneborn, managing director of Accenture Research and lead researcher of the “Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage” study.
A community plagued by misconceptions
Though the study’s findings may sound counterintuitive to some, they begin to ring true the more you strip away common misconceptions about the disabled community.
“People make a lot of assumptions about people with disabilities and what their limitations might be, usually for the worse,” explained Accenture’s general counsel and chief compliance officer, Chad Jerdee, who sponsored the report.
After Jerdee had his lower left leg amputated as a result of getting hit by a drunk driver in 2014, he says the biggest change he experienced wasn’t in himself, but in how people treated him.
“It’s not prejudice and bigotry in the traditional sense; it’s people’s inherent discomfort with disability,” he says. “Once you go through the experience, you realize you’re the same as the person you were before, except for the way that other people look at you and the assumptions they make about how hard it will be to employ you.”
Rather than signifying a potential weakness or limitation, however, Jerdee says those who have had to adapt and overcome such challenges often prove to be the most positive, determined, and hardworking employees.
Offering an inclusive environment for employees with disabilities, however, isn’t only of benefit to those being accommodated. Jerdee and Henneborn say that their research and personal experience has demonstrated how it can improve company morale and corporate culture more broadly.
“More than a quarter of the white-collar workforce has a disability but are not disclosing; I was one of them for 14 years,” says Henneborn.
Unlike Jerdee’s disability, Henneborn says she long suffered in silence, fearing a lack of acceptance and understanding. For her it was multiple sclerosis, but Henneborn says many who suffer from other “invisible disabilities,” such chronic migraines, diabetes, depression, or other mental illnesses, feel it’s easier to keep it to themselves.
“It’s about trust; I’m worried my employer will treat me differently if they find out I have diabetes or a mental illness,” says Mary Dale Walters, senior vice president of Allsup, an employment network that helps those on disability benefits get back to work. “If I hear and see from that employer that there is an openness and a willingness to accommodate and hire people with disabilities, I’m more likely to improve my trust levels with that employer; Improved trust in your employer means better performance, better engagement, and better productivity.”
Another major misconception Walters has had to contend with is the cost of hiring those with disabilities. Many employers assume their healthcare expenses and insurance premiums will skyrocket, despite the fact that Medicare, Work Opportunity Tax Credits, the Ticket to Work program, and other government initiatives bear most of the financial burden.
“The data I have seen indicate that the cost is as low as $500 on average per employee,” she says. “Most employers are likely already in office settings that are already accessible, and most jobs can also be done from home.”
Measuring disability inclusivity
The Disability Inclusion Advantage study would not have been possible without a mechanism for objectively measuring disability inclusivity, explains Henneborn, which is where the researcher’s partners come in.
The Disability Equality Index is a joint initiative created by the AAPD and Disability:IN that rates U.S. businesses on their disability inclusivity policies and practices on a scale from 0 to 100. The index incorporates a range of criteria, including culture and leadership, community engagement, employment practices, and support service.
“The disability equality index has become the leading corporate benchmarking tool for disability equality and inclusion,” says AAPD board chair and Connecticut State Senator Ted Kennedy Jr. “What the Accenture report did is take the companies that participate in the DEI and compared them with their peers.”
Kennedy, who is the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, has been promoting more inclusive policies for employees with disabilities since he was appointed to Ronald Reagan’s Committee on Employment for People With Disabilities in the 1980s.
“What we really needed was evidence that hiring people with disabilities and having a more inclusive culture actually made business sense,” he says.
Expediting progress through shareholders
Since receiving that validation in the form of the Getting to Equal report, Kennedy says significant progress has already been made. After decades of promoting disability inclusion as a humanitarian issue, Kennedy says it can now join the ranks of other corporate benchmarks that offer insights into potential financial performance.
“Companies are graded on their carbon footprint, on LGBT issues, women on boards: They were all a function of these investors saying when you compare companies with [inclusive policies] to those without, it actually improves their financial performance,” he says. “If you can prove that, whatever you’re trying to do, whatever the issue is, will accelerate, because you’re no longer making the case for justice and equality and doing the right thing. That will only get you so far.”
Kennedy’s hypothesis is further proven by a recent decision by the New York state comptroller and sole trustee of the $207.4 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund, Thomas DiNapolim, who sent a letter to 49 of the country’s largest companies requesting their participation in the Disability Equality Index.
“We’re in the process now of getting dozens of pension funds to sign onto this initiative,” says Kennedy. “We’re making this a shareholder issue.”
Political roadblocks and openings
Despite the recent progress, Kennedy says the current White House Administration has “eroded civil rights” for people with disabilities over the past two years.
“I don’t mean to get political, but we have not seen the type of commitment to enforcement that we have with previous administrations,” he says, adding that the American Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.
“It’s been a bipartisan issue, always, until very recently, when suddenly disability rights have become much more politicized,” Kennedy continues. “Yes, some things have improved, but some things are under immediate threat, like basic rights for people with pre-existing medical conditions and special education funding.”
As the domestic political landscape gets more complicated, however, the international community has recently taken up the cause. In fact, disability inclusion was a key theme of the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, where Accenture’s North American CEO Julie Sweet discussed the results of the study.
“The long tail of this study has been overwhelming,” says Henneborn. “Watching this unfold, as Ted likes to say, the next frontier for corporate social responsibility is here, and it’s here in a big way.”