Driving disability inclusion in the workplace
Disabled talent faces major hurdles in progressing beyond middle management – and to address this, senior leaders need to radically change company culture. CA magazine reports
Just three years ago, a survey of business leaders revealed that most would be “apprehensive” about hiring a senior disabled employee. Of the more than 1,000 leaders polled, the main concern around hiring senior staff with disabilities was that it would be too costly to make the necessary adjustments to cater for their needs. Let that sink in for a moment. Unsurprisingly, experts said that the poll – conducted by researchers Survation for executive search firm Inclusive Boards – demonstrated there were many workplace prejudices which still needed to be tackled.
“Recruiting senior staff should never be about whether or not a person has a disability. It should be about recruiting people with the best talent and skills to take the organisation forward,” said Angela Matthews, Head of Policy and Research at the Business Disability Forum.
Sophie Wingfield, who is Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, added: “It is appalling that negative attitudes about hiring disabled people continue to persist, particularly among business leaders. Many independent studies show that organisations with diverse leadership teams perform better than those with less diverse teams, and that disabled employees take on average fewer sick days than non-disabled employees.”
Seven months earlier, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, award-winning social entrepreneur Caroline Casey threw down the gauntlet when she challenged 500 multinational organisations to make a public commitment to disability inclusion in their organisation. Casey, who is legally blind, having been diagnosed with ocular albinism, a genetic condition that severely impairs vision, remortgaged her house to get the Valuable 500 off the ground.
She has form: aged 28, Casey made the life-changing decision to leave her career in management consulting. In 2000, she launched the not-for-profit Kanchi, which developed a set of disability standards that were adopted by hundreds of companies. She told the Spot On podcast that the Valuable 500 exists to break the CEO silence on disability “because disability has been on the sidelines of the inclusion and diversity agenda”.
Valuable 500, she continued, was established to break the silence of the 54% of companies that had never had a conversation about disability at the highest level. “But to break it in a positive way,” she said, “to get the CEOs to have a leadership conversation that may be leadership action and leadership community, to drive systemic change across the supply chain and to fix that gap. But not by shaming people. I don’t want to shame anybody.”
The Valuable 500 has since become the largest community of global CEOs committed to disability inclusion in business. Its mission is to use the power of business to drive lasting change for the 1.3 billion people around the world living with a disability. These 500 companies operate in 64 sectors and represent 22 million employees across 41 countries.
In Britain, recent ONS figures show the disability pay gap widened to almost 14% in 2021, with disabled employees earning almost £2 per hour less than non-disabled employees.
Statistics also show that disabled workers are less likely to work in the three highest-skilled occupations: managers, directors and senior officials; professional; and associate professional and technical occupations. “These gaps exist everywhere, at every level,” Liz Johnson, CEO and co-founder of the Ability Network, told the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). “For people with disabilities, there’s always a bigger gap than there is for anyone else.”
Telling the stories
In March, the TV drama Then Barbara Met Alan received positive reviews both for its depiction of the fight for the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, and for disability representation on and off screen. The one-off drama tells the true story of disability rights activists and former couple Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth. The production included 17 disabled actors, 55 disabled supporting actors and 50% disabled representation on the senior editorial team. Yet in the week the biopic aired on BBC Two, a report by the Diamond diversity monitoring project found just 5.4% of UK TV’s senior roles are held by disabled people. The report concluded that: “There appears to be nowhere in the industry where disabled people thrive.”
As the columnist and author of Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People, Frances Ryan, wrote in her Guardian review of the programme: “Disability history is not taught in schools. It is not dramatised for entertainment and is rarely the subject of documentaries… I’d wager most of the British public think disability rights were introduced in the 1970s along with other anti-discrimination laws, like those legislating against sex and race prejudice, and came about by benevolent authorities gifting rights to the grateful disabled.”
Johnson, a former gold medal-winning Paralympian, has spoken of how people are often uncomfortable when talking about disability, so prefer to avoid the conversation. “Where it differs slightly to other minority demographics is that people don’t even know how to contextualise it. They don’t want to cause offence. So they don’t say anything, and nothing gets addressed,” she told the CMI.
She added that when people with disabilities do get into leadership and management positions, we shouldn’t look to them to be the voice of accessibility or representation. Instead, she explained, forcing this role on people may explain why many managers with “invisible” disabilities are unlikely to speak up about their own experiences: “People think disability is something different, something that needs more. Actually, it’s about understanding what fairness looks like. A disabled person doesn’t need you to fix an issue for them, but they do need you to make sure that there are options available to them that enable them to be successful.”
Casey has spoken of the 7% of CEOs with a “lived experience of disability”, compared with the figure of 20% for the working age population as a whole. This illustrates how much harder it is for disabled people to progress – and perhaps explains why, of those 7% of CEOs who do have a disability, 80% choose not to report it.
Kate Nash, CEO of PurpleSpace, a professional development hub for disabled employee networks, said recently that having confident role models with visible disabilities at senior levels is “an incredibly important part of the process of believing and normalising human difference as a part of work”.
She pointed to a UK Border Force initiative around workplace adjustments which attempted to normalise the experience of disability through storytelling campaigns. “They invested in their people, they had some of their senior leaders talk extensively and candidly and unflinchingly about their personal experiences of disability, as a way of encouraging others to say it’s okay,” she said.
What else can business leaders do to improve disabled representation? Businesses are obliged to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers, from improved physical access to allowing people with social anxiety to have their own desk. And after years of underinvestment, the Access to Work grants are a welcome shot of government support, helping businesses that incur additional costs by employing disabled people.
Business leaders might also recognise that the next generation needs to be at the heart of building the inclusive businesses of the future. In May, Casey launched the Valuable 500’s latest initiative, Generation Valuable, a mentoring programme spearheaded by 28 early adopter corporations worldwide. It will create a community of disabled talent to share and report on their experiences to C-suite managers with the aim of making companies more inclusive.
“Generation Valuable will connect C-suite executives with disabled talent within their businesses and will have a profound effect on both,” Casey wrote in FE News. “The initiative will help amplify the substantial contribution of disabled people and drive the cultural change needed in business. 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 making offerings inclusive of disabled people.”
The programme is designed to foster new perspectives, deepen understandings, cultivate growth and attack the challenges rising disabled talent faces in progressing beyond middle management. There will also be a “concerted effort” to ensure that mentees will be representative of all business functions, especially those with a P&L significance to their company rather than exclusively HR and EDI roles. The first cohort, consisting of 75 mentees with at least five years of experience, will be announced in December to coincide with International Day for Persons with Disabilities.
Casey, who will discuss why disability should be part of every business’s ESG strategy at the CA Summit 2022 on 4 October, cited research which shows that minority talent faces promotion barricades just below the executive rung. “Breaking into the executive ranks can seem nearly impossible without supportive, engaged corporate cultures. This is why we need to implement palpable schemes to make a difference – empty platitudes regarding disability inclusion within the workplace will no longer suffice,” she said.
For José María Álvarez-Pallete, CEO of Telefónica, which has joined Generation Valuable, providing opportunities for people with disabilities is both an ethical imperative and good business. “In the current context, no company can afford to do without any valuable professional. Diversity allows us to better understand the real needs of our customers, to connect with society, and to be more innovative and productive. Together, we need to empower people with disabilities to humanise technology and break down barriers with digitalisation.”
Sharon Thorne, Global Board Chair of Deloitte, says Generation Valuable offers business “a much-needed solution to help build a more inclusive pipeline to senior leadership and enable greater diversity for tomorrow’s C-suite”.
As Casey said, business is key to ending disability inequality: “If we can get businesses to value people with disabilities as customers, suppliers, talent and members of their community, then we could change the inequality crisis. What business includes, society includes; what business values, society values.”
Caroline Casey is speaking at CA Summit 2022. Register here for your free place.