Disability Works

Becoming a disability champion will positively impact inclusion

Hiring diverse people is a half-step toward greater business success. Creating a culture of respect and inclusion is the other half and requires a specialized effort. -By Jeremiah Prince

In the ongoing talent shortages, companies have been pushing to reach ever-broader pools of potential workers. They’ve spent millions pre-recruiting younger and younger learners, developing relationships with non-traditional workers, and even designing retraining programs to capture workers left behind by other industries. Yet there’s one group of workers – large and growing larger – that rarely comes up in the conversation.

The disabled.

According to a survey of C-Suite Executives conducted for the EY/Valuable 500, some 56 percent of leaders reported that disability inclusion rarely or never came up on their leadership agenda. At a time with inclusivity and equity issues are a main topic of conversation around the world, it seems strange that this should be the case – all the more so because of the incredible asset a disabled workforce can be for many firms. Yes, an incredible asset – if a given firm is savvy enough to capitalize on the opportunities in front of it. Here, some of the key business reasons disability inclusion should be a priority will be discussed, including pointers about where to start and how to develop the work within any interested organization.

Why ignore 20% of the workforce?

People living with disabilities compose up to 20 percent of the working population. If that seems surprising, remember that many life-long disabilities aren’t immediately apparent at a glance. Thus, any company not talking about disability inclusion is effectively ignoring the needs – and potential – of some one in five workers.

This is a huge pool of talent, and often includes a large swathe of workers who entered the workforce with one set of abilities only to have life deal them a different set of cards. These are workers who, with reasonable accommodations, can easily perform or excel in their positions. Indeed, a recent Accenture study found that businesses that focus on disability inclusion grow their sales 2.9 times faster than other companies. Their profits? Those grow 4.1 times faster than less inclusive firms! The size of the prospective talent pool – and the potential payoffs for – makes a clear business case for disability inclusion. Further, at a time when the economy is getting tougher, the chance to recruit top talent and leverage that talent for sales growth and profits should put disability inclusion at the top of the 2023 priority list.

Where to start the conversation about disability inclusion

So, understanding that disability inclusion has clear bottom-line benefits, the next step is getting the conversation about it started. Unfortunately, this isn’t always as simple as it might seem. According to the World Economic Forum, even at firms that are already investing heavily in DEI projects, disability inclusion is often left out of the conversation.

To change this, advocates can begin by asking simple questions during planning and implementation. Ask what signage would look like in braille, and whether any braille signs have been installed. Question whether new software is compatible with e-readers for the blind or whether design work is friendly to those with low vision. Check that those with mobility limitations can easily access not just the main office but also offsite meeting sites, lunch spots, or “happy hour” destinations. In many cases, simply knowing that these inclusive-use questions are going to be asked – each and every time – will prompt planners, organizers, and purchasing managers to being with the full population of end users in mind.

Many of these accommodations for internal staff also become welcome accessibility points for customers and clients. As a very basic example, when a regional bank CEO developed a wasting disease, he felt like he was inconveniencing the business with his requests for automatic doors and flex days to work at home. However, applied across the organization, the flex day policy proved to be a boon for worker satisfaction, productivity, and retention. Further, front line staff noted that a surprising number of customers seemed appreciative of the new hands-free access to the building, which encouraged foot traffic and created more opportunities for face to face conversations about accounts, cross-sell products, and referrals.

Building the momentum for real change and results

Once started, advocates and allies need to continue building the momentum for real change and results. Organizing together and showing that there is a collective force is incredibly impactful, especially since many individuals with disabilities report that they sometimes are hesitant to advocate on their own behalf. They worry about being viewed as an inconvenience or as attention-seeking rather than equal members of the team and workplace, and fear that speaking up could jeopardize their employment and chances for advancement.

By championing disability inclusion as a collective action, however, this individual burden is lifted. Plus, firms making an organization-wide change are more likely to reap the benefits of fully inclusive jobs, customer-facing resources, and products. Since this is, right now, an area where many companies fall behind or fail to start, there is considerable potential to claim first-mover advantage in competitive market niches – including niches where firms may not have realized that their lack of inclusivity was knocking them out of key talent races, customer opportunities, or market share.

As changes are made, Accenture and others note that the gains are likely to be highly visible – including in the bottom line. Faster sales growth rates, higher profit levels, access to more talent… with these key rewards on offer, firms can be confident that becoming an advocate for disability inclusion is doing the right thing on every level.