Leadership & Productivity

Big business doesn't talk about disability. Do you?

13 min read

21 January 2019

Editorial Director

New research reveals 56% of global C-suite executives in large companies rarely or never discuss disability on their leadership agendas. How do SMEs fare?

New research from EY blows the lid off yet another unnecessary workplace taboo: disability. A global campaign #valuable, looks at attitudes and strategies towards disability inclusion. The results are staggering.

15% of the world’s population lives with a disability, but only 7% of business leaders identify as disabled. Of that small pool, one in five C-suite leaders with a disability don’t feel comfortable admitting their disability to colleagues.

With matters of inclusion, normalising diversity at every level of business is the first step. Visibility of senior leaders with a disability increases the prevalence of discussions about disability inclusion at board level. 63% of C-suite execs who know disabled board-level colleagues report that disability is discussed at the leadership level, compared with only 37% of those not aware of any disabled board-level colleagues according to the #valuable study.

This suggests that the stigma around disability is alive and well in the corporate world. If decision-makers shy away from declaring their disability and normalising it, what hope do the people in their employ have?

#valuable is a worldwide call to action for businesses to recognise the value of disabled people, and it’s backed by big names in the corporate world like Virgin Group Founder Sir Richard Branson, Unilever’s Paul Polman and Omnicom’s Janet Riccio. The research is one of many ways #valuable aims to start the discussion.

Disability is still woefully absent from the majority of board-level discussions globally – with the majority (56%) of global senior executives rarely or never discussing disability on their leadership agendas.

“The research reveals we still have a long way to go to ensure disability inclusion is discussed at the very top of business and is taken seriously enough to be built into the leadership strategy at global businesses,” says #valuable founder Caroline Casey.

“Although 7% of leaders identified in this survey have a direct connection to disability, there are very few leading high-profile voices for disability inclusion. In the last 30 years, bold business leadership has played a crucial role in driving social change. Now is the time for us to see a bold leader stand up for disability.”

The business case for disability inclusion

The business case for inclusion has been proven time and again. Business leaders cited that disability confidence helps them capture new markets, demonstrates relevance to clients and consumers, and helps build their brands. Furthermore, promoting disability confidence is central to attracting and retaining talent and can result in greater productivity levels.

Today, more than one billion people across the world live with some form of disability – 15% of the global population, or 1 in 7 people – but their value is routinely ignored by business, equivalent to disregarding a potential market the size of US, Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan combined.

Along with their friends, families and communities, the one billion disabled people worldwide also hold a disposable annual income of $8 trillion a year, equating to an opportunity that business cannot afford to ignore. 

Of those one billion, 80% of disabilities are acquired later in life, and our ageing global population means the prevalence of disability is on the rise.

Disability and unemployment: General ignorance persists

The current global employment rate for disabled people is half that of non-disabled people, a gap that has widened since 2010. According to the World Health Organisation, up to half of the businesses in OECD countries choose to pay fines rather than meet quotas on disability.

The Office for National Statistics reveals the employment rate in the UK for those with disabilities was 50.7%  from April – June 2018. For people without disabilities, this figure is 81.1%. If workplaces make changes so that they are more inclusive, the whole economy would benefit.

In addition, research by the Independent Living Strategy Group has recently found that charging for social care or effectively a ‘disability tax’ has increased substantially over the last two years – sometimes by half. With workplaces not catering for staff with disabilities, there are fewer jobs available for the disabled, resulting in financial hardship.

Sourcing inclusive talent

Last year, research from the Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative (RIDI) found that even the most inclusive businesses find it difficult to level the playing field at the recruitment stage primarily because 7 in 10 hiring managers struggle to source disabled candidates. RIDI launched a directory, the RIDI 100, which lists recruitment service providers that are committed to the inclusion of disabled jobseekers.

The same RIDI study found that just 11% of HR professionals feel ‘confident’ in knowing where to find candidates with a disability.

Established in 2011, RIDI is a not for profit organisation which is working to remove the barriers that disabled individuals face when seeking employment. Recruitment organisations which wish to achieve RIDI 100 status must currently hold a minimum Disability Confident Level 1 status, or be working towards it.

“RIDI has one purpose: to break down the barriers faced by the millions of disabled people who are entering or progressing through the job market,” says Kate Headley, spokesperson for RIDI and subject matter expert.

“We have long known that businesses, while open to hiring disabled individuals, often feel that they ‘don’t know where to start’ when it comes to engaging with disabled candidates. However, our latest research underlines the fact that many hiring managers simply don’t know where to turn to even access this valuable talent pool.”

By creating a dedicated directory of Disability Confident recruiters, she believes businesses can overcome this crucial hurdle.

Unaddressed mental health issues and disability

On a similar vein, many employees transition to disability leave because of untreated mental health issues. While this is a separate issue altogether, it’s related, because it stems from a lack of understanding.

When it comes to maintaining the well-being of the workforce, prevention is better than cure. But in order to be effective, well-being efforts need to support the whole person, 100% of the time, in their personal as well as professional life.

According to Paula Allen, vice president of research and integrative solutions for LifeWorks,  this is entirely preventable. “Our own research shows that managers are able to tell that someone will transition to disability up to 18 months before they actually take leave. So, there are early warning signs,” she says.

Making sure that Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are available is part of the solution, but this needs to be supported culturally in terms of making sure stigma is addressed and a mentally healthy work environment is encouraged.

Total wellbeing consists of four pillars: physical, mental, social and financial, all of which rely heavily on each other for support. While EAP is proven to be effective, it only reaches the 10% of people that reach out in times of need. To support 100% of the workforce, employees need something that speaks to them day-to-day, through the times that are good as well as the times that are bad.

“Everyone has different well-being drivers and different requirements,” Allen adds. “People are very busy, so we need to break support into smaller pieces to fit into their lifestyle. Technology allows us to drive access to support for people who wouldn’t have otherwise asked for help.”

What role can SMEs play

Some small business owners may think that providing support for disabled employees could be a demand on their bottom line, but this is just a misconception– a hangover from the old corporate culture that values bean counting and paper pushing as markers of productivity.

Here’s how SMEs can start the discussion with sensitivity and fairness.

  1. Physical access
    91% of UK SMEs say their building doesn’t have a lift, which automatically alienates wheelchair users. Even with remote working on the rise, access to the office is a crucial part of making employees feel like their part of the organisation. Consider accessibility when choosing workspaces, from ramps and elevators to flooring that is conducive to wheelchairs.
  2. Make reasonable adjustments
    Often, people with disabilities only require their employer’s understanding. For example, someone with diabetes may need multiple breaks during the day to administer insulin. Start the conversation with employees to understand their needs. The government has tools and schemes in place to lower any costs for making reasonable adjustments. Read about it here.
    Reasonable adjustments include making changes to a disabled person’s working pattern, providing training or mentoring, making alterations to premises, ensuring that information is provided in accessible formats, and modifying or acquiring equipment.
  3. Modify the recruitment process
    Eliminate unconscious bias by assessing job descriptions and expectations from the outset. For example, a job role that states a driving license is essential may exclude visually impaired or blind candidates. Consider if the job role you are advertising for really requires everything you’ve stated before the recruitment process even begins. Other aspects to consider include allowing for extra time during selection ‘tests’, or providing special equipment, lighting etc., depending on the needs of the individual candidate.

At the root of this issue is the fact that employing people with disabilities isn’t an act of charity or a PR stunt to appear inclusive. Businesses need to look past a disability and assess a person’s ability to do a job. Anyone can be disabled at any time, even if it’s only a sports injury. It’s crucial to remember that  80% of disabilities are acquired in later life, and the sooner businesses at every stage of growth considers the value of being inclusive, the better for the wider economy.

Are you a Disability Confident employer? Are you a business owner with a disability? Share your experience with us to reach other SMEs and start the conversation.