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Why elevating leaders with disabilities is so crucial to disability inclusion

Only 4% of businesses are focused on expanding their offerings to include disabled people. That has to change, this activist says as Disability Pride month gets underway.

Why elevating leaders with disabilities is so crucial to disability inclusion
[Photo: FG Trade/Getty Images]

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once declared, “A great society is a society in which its men of business think greatly of their functions.” Reflecting on the initiatives pledged at the World Economic Forum last month, Whitehead’s words certainly ring true. From decarbonizing the global economy to investing in health equity, the summit demonstrated the potential power of business to drive positive societal change.

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But while businesses have been vocal in their support of environmental and geopolitical initiatives, disability firmly remains the poor relation of ESG commitments. Over 1.3 billion people across the world live with some form of disability. Yet, according to Return on Disability, only 4% of businesses are focused on expanding their offerings to include disabled people. Clearly, business has a long way to go in rectifying society’s persistent discrimination of the disabled community.

Access denied

This refusal to account for 15% of the global population is due in part to the dearth of disabled talent in positions of senior leadership. In May 2021, Tortoise Media found that no executives or senior managers within the FTSE 100 have disclosed a disability in company reporting. Denied access to the decision-making process, it is no wonder that the disabled community remains overlooked in commercial and policy offerings.

Such a staggering failure to recognize the diversity of both customers and colleagues does not harm the disabled community alone. According to research by the Purple Pound, disabled consumers are estimated to be worth $336 billion per year to U.K. businesses. Globally, this figure is even more glaring: The disabled community and their family and friends represent $13 trillion of disposable income worldwide. For business, catering to disabled consumers is no longer an invitation—it is a necessity. Failing to account for the disabled population poses a risk to a company’s brand, employee base, and capacity to innovate. In fact, the World Economic Forum estimates that a disability-inclusive business strategy promises 28% higher revenue, double net income, 30% higher profit margins, and strong next-generation talent acquisition. With such a significant return on investment, inclusion is now a commercial imperative.

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To provide the most for—and in turn, gain the most from—this significant demographic, it is crucial that disabled voices are put at the center of business strategies. To achieve this, companies must provide inclusive development opportunities for their disabled talent. Such efforts will be impossible without adequate data to assess company performance and develop streamlined progression pathways. Robust research and reporting is essential to help businesses identify and act on the needs of their disabled employees and consumers. This year, Page Group’s Steve Ingham launched disability surveys of his 8,500 staff to share problems and solutions. The CEO, who became paralyzed after a skiing accident in 2019, wants other companies to adopt a similar transparency in admitting and addressing barriers to inclusion within the workplace. 


Related: Disability is missing piece of DEI puzzle


Reflecting on his research initiative, Ingham stresses that “inclusive workplaces, where people with disabilities feel actively supported, valued, and offered the right tools to thrive, are imperative. But the only way we are going to get better at creating these environments is by committing to disability-workforce reporting and continually talking, asking questions, and listening to our disabled workers.” While companies may fear that recording their accessibility challenges could leave them vulnerable to public criticism, understanding this data should instead be considered a crucial first step toward improving both workforce performance and brand credibility.

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Breaking the stigma

Equally, those in positions of authority must be vocal about their own disability, or create a workplace culture that encourages others to do so. Just as with other DEI targets, role models will be crucial in driving disability inclusion. Without outspoken advocates, a vicious cycle develops whereby a lack of transparency dissuades junior staff from disclosing their own conditions. And this in turn maintains the tedious pattern of shame and conformity that is preventing both organizations and their employees from reaching their full economic potential.

Sara Weller, the nonexecutive director of broadband giant BT, is a prime example of those who are using their authority and their lived experience of disability to challenge stigma in the workplace. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2009, Weller initially assumed that a disabled leader would be substandard for business, resigning her position as the managing director of Argos. Conscious that this perception was influenced largely by toxic preconceptions of “good” leadership, she now uses her position to champion the unique strengths that disabled employees bring to the workplace: “The best firms now see the unique ability, rather than disability, of their disabled employees and treat disability as an opportunity not an obligation. These companies understand that a truly inclusive culture provides them with a competitive edge to better engage talent and serve customers.” Indeed, Weller’s commitment to harnessing the potential of disabled staff extends far beyond rhetoric: BT has pledged to ensure that disabled people make up 14% of its workforce by 2025, and 17% by 2030. 

As these executives demonstrate, the business world must reimagine the traditional perception of disability as “unable” or “less than” to instead foreground the alternative worldview and skillset that disabled candidates possess. Seen as such, disability acts almost as a corporate superpower, allowing businesses to boost customer awareness, innovation, and ultimately profits. 

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In a bid to capitalize on this untapped market, the global disability collective I founded (The Valuable 500) has launched a mentorship to propel disabled talent into positions of leadership.  The program, which was announced at Davos, will pair 75 candidates with a C-suite mentor to support them in overcoming the barriers that traditionally prevent disabled employees from progressing beyond middle management. In turn, the executives will gain a practical insight into both the inclusion gaps within their business-line strategies and the lived experience of their disabled employees and consumers. With early adopters of the scheme, including  Deloitte, L’Oreal, and P&G, the business world has indicated a cross-sector commitment to pursue the possibilities of the disabled market. At last, disability inclusion could be set to become everyone’s business.


Caroline Casey is a disability activist and founder of the Valuable 500, a global business collective dedicated to disability inclusion.


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