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Disability Inclusion: Missing in the Diversity Dialogue?

The definition of what it means to be an “ethical” company has always been fluid, but today we are at an inflection point in the breadth and expansion of ethics and the roles of General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officers. Companies are addressing how their technology impacts consumers, how people are treated inside and outside of the organization, how to ensure equality of opportunity for all, or how we can become a better steward for the larger society around us.

We are already seeing a dramatic shift as businesses publicly align themselves with important and essential social values such as sustainability, racial equity, gender parity, and LGBTQ inclusion. Corporate leaders are voicing their opinions and becoming a part of the dialogue. But the topic of disability is often absent from these conversations. 

Chad Jerdee, Board Chair of Disability:IN

A Needed Shift from Compliance to Inclusion

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 and served as a monumental step forward for disability rights. While there is still progress to be made, the ADA drove significant improvements in accessibility accommodations for people with disabilities in both public spaces and the workplace. 

In principle, the ADA also prohibited discrimination based on disability. But like similar civil rights laws, it left much to be done to create a true culture of inclusion for people with disabilities at companies and in society. Companies focused on strict legal compliance with the law rather than broader and more critical drivers of inclusion, such as company culture, leadership, employment practices, community engagement, and supplier diversity. 

When it comes to inclusion and diversity in general, corporate legal and compliance departments have been on their own journeys. As with the ADA, they historically focused more on minimum compliance and dictating practices of non-discrimination. Recently, the focus has expanded beyond mere compliance to helping to ensure that businesses are socially, environmentally, and financially responsible—both for the present moment and in a way that anticipates future challenges. Many businesses have taken significant steps forward in critical areas of diversity, but in many companies, inclusion for people with disabilities has not been prioritized. To build truly sustainable companies, disability inclusion needs to be an essential agenda item for businesses as they seek to be more responsible citizens in society.

People with Disabilities Are Left Out

More than one billion people in the world have a disability, and an estimated one in four Americans have a disability. People with disabilities are the largest minority group both internationally and nationally, spread across race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and age.

For people with disabilities in the US, the unemployment rate is double that of people without disabilities, and we see roughly 20% of working-aged people with disabilities participating in the labor force, compared to 66% of people without disabilities.

The disabled population size is large, and the failure to adequately include people with disabilities in the global economy is clear in the data. Unfortunately, stigma and even outright discrimination have not materially improved since the ADA was passed more than 30 years ago.

The Hard Truth(s)

I know first-hand what it’s like to live with a disability. About seven years ago, I was hit head-on by a drunk driver, and I lost my lower left leg as a result. It was not an easy experience; it was certainly challenging for six or seven months as I had to adjust to life as an amputee with a prosthetic. However, I came out the other side feeling pretty much the same as I did before I lost my leg. I was able to get the right adaptive devices and do all the activities I love—cycling, running, skiing, and a host of others—and it certainly didn’t impede my ability to do my job as a lawyer.

As I adapted to having a disability, I also met many people with a wide variety of disabilities and learned about their successes and challenges. There were three hard truths that I learned from my own experience and my conversations with others.

First, I realized that disabilities make people without them uncomfortable, either out of a sense of fear or because of uncertainty about how to interact with a person with a disability. 

Second, and more significantly, people make assumptions about disabilities and the extent to which they limit a person’s ability to accomplish things, either in their personal life or on the job. These assumptions are almost always for the worse, and as a result, they present persistent, artificial, and significant obstacles for people with disabilities in the workplace.

Third, because of their experiences, most people with disabilities are adaptive, resilient, and creative. Most are eager to work, but they are held back by others’ assumptions and discomfort. At the same time, revolutionary and often inexpensive developments in both adaptive and everyday technologies give them the potential to perform roles at the same level as people without disabilities. Yet, the challenges on obtaining employment persist.

My disability did not affect my ability to do my job. In fact, I was promoted to General Counsel shortly after I recovered from losing my leg. 

However, it did make me ask some questions: 

  • What is the experience like for a blind person or a person with a hearing impairment, who can’t obtain the accessibility tools and technology needed to equitably perform alongside people without disabilities? 
  • What challenges and biases do they face? 
  • How difficult is it for companies to include people with disabilities as productive members of their workforce?

Answering Questions with Research

Again, it is our responsibility to serve all people—whether they are employees, customers, or suppliers. In 2019, Accenture led groundbreaking research with the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN on the “return on investment” for including people with disabilities. 

In “Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage,” we found that companies that lead in disability inclusion could gain as much as 28% higher revenue, double their net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins than their peers. In the US, if we just enable one percent more of people with disabilities to join the labor force, the GDP could get a boost of $25 billion!

What I realized is that advancing efforts to include the disability community isn’t just the right thing to do—it also makes business sense. We must recognize people with disabilities as a true market. Companies must also recognize that people with disabilities are already working within companies, however silently and hesitant to disclose our true identities. For example, it is estimated that more than 70% of disabilities are non-apparent or “invisible.” Further, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, people with disabilities are facing increased anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.

Companies Taking Action

In the years to come, we will soon see which companies have strategically prioritized inclusion across all underserved groups, including people with disabilities. 

In fact, a global investor group representing $2.8 trillion recently formed to collectively call on companies they invest in to report on their disability inclusion efforts. This “Joint Investor Statement on Disability Inclusion” has sparked much dialogue, with even Nasdaq facing pressure to expand their board diversity mandate to include disability. Inclusion is a governance priority, and failure to adapt will lead not only to poor business performance, but also poor ethical business standards. 

As we begin 2021, I’m pleased to see leading CEOs step up and call on their peers to advance inclusion to people with disabilities. More than 50 CEOs, including Julie Sweet (Accenture), Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Doug McMillon (Walmart), and Mike Sievert (T-Mobile) have made this a top leadership priority through the CEO Letter on Disability Inclusion.

The pressure is now on companies to do not only the right moral thing, but the right business thing. 

Playing Your Part

If you’re not thinking about including people with disabilities as a part of the greater diversity and inclusion thinking for your company, you are selling them short. 

If you’re focused just on the rules and how they apply to your company in today’s world, and not thinking beyond, you’re setting your clients up for trouble (ironically, the exact thing that you, as corporate counsel, would normally steer your company clear from!).

As corporate counsel, you have the power and ability to position your company to proudly tell your customers, employees, and the larger society about the amazing role your company plays in shaping the world.

One of the easiest next steps is to encourage your company to participate in the Disability Equality Index, the first step in evaluating your current policies and programs and building a roadmap of tangible, measurable results.

So I ask you—are you in?

About the Expert:

Chad Jerdee is the Board Chair of Disability:IN, the leading nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion worldwide. Our network of over 250 corporations expands opportunities for people with disabilities across enterprises. Our central office and 25 Affiliates serve as the collective voice to effect change for people with disabilities in business. Chad most recently served as Global Lead of Responsible Business, Corporate Sustainability and Citizenship at Accenture, a professional services company. Prior to that he was the General Counsel at Accenture and held various roles in the company’s legal department as well as the global executive sponsor for Accenture’s Persons with Disabilities initiatives. Chad is an adaptive sports athlete and enjoys downhill skiing, backpacking, running, cycling and swimming. As an amputee who lost his leg from the knee down in a motorcycle accident, Chad is focused on paying it forward to the persons with disabilities community.

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