As more jobs are supported by technology, old barriers become obsolete and companies can create workplace cultures and environments that are more equitable, safe and supportive for leveraging the talent pool of people with disabilities.
Over 1.3 billion people, or 17% of the global population, live with some form of disability. Individuals with disabilities are the third largest market segment in the U.S., comprising 1 of 5 Americans: bigger as a group than Gen X, Hispanics, African Americans or Asian Americans. The CDC reports that 25% of adults, or 1 in 4 people, live with a cognitive, physical or emotional disability.
Yet the disability employment gap is huge: Kessler Foundation workforce participation data indicates 77% people without disabilities participate in the labor force relative to 33% with disabilities. In Europe, the employment rate among those with disabilities is 47% compared to 67% among those without a disability. In the UK, the employment rate among people with disabilities is 52% relative to 82% among people without.
And while 90% of companies say diversity is a priority, only 4% of companies include hiring people with disabilities as part of that initiative. The exclusion of people with disabilities from employment has catalyzed the WEF Valuable 500 initiative - companies focused on closing the disability employment gap.
The Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage report revealed a strong advantage in financial performance for companies excelling in disability inclusion: they exhibited 28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins over a four-year analysis. They were two to four times more likely to have higher shareholder returns than peer companies, stronger if they’d been increasing inclusion efforts over time.
More benefits of disability inclusion include:
One reason for the disability employment gap is employers don’t realize the scope of untapped talent and potential benefits from hiring people with disabilities. Also, stereotypes and misconceptions contribute strongly to exclusion.
People with disabilities experience unequal access to job opportunities - disclosing a physical disability halved the call-back rate of applicants in one Canadian study. Employers underestimate the work capacity, productivity and performance of employees with disabilities while over-estimating the costs of making reasonable adjustments and workplace accommodations. Not only do people with disabilities face negative stereotypes and projections, but peer discomfort/unfamiliarity and unfair treatment also lead to unnecessary barriers.
While 84% of employers in the UK believed disabled people contribute high value to the workplace, a lack of resources and funding were also cited as obstacles. The vast misconception that making accommodations to employee people with disabilities is too expensive relative to the ROI of employing them has been debunked by research showing that 58% of accommodations cost nothing at all to make while the typical cost of other adaptions is only $500.
People with disabilities are a widely heterogenous group - including developmental, physical and mental impairments. Disabilities (which substantially limits movements, senses or life activities) can be visible or obvious (wheelchair user) but are also often invisible or hidden (such as arthritis) with needs as varied as the reasons for them.
When employees disclose disabilities, employers are required by law to provide accommodations and protect them from discrimination. But considering the potential risks, many people with disabilities do not disclose or are reluctant, and they are not under obligation to do so - even if accommodations would serve them. A survey found 1 in 8 disabled workers did not disclose their disability status, 38% out of fear their employer would doubt their competence.
When employers fail to proactively take disability inclusion into specific consideration, they make ableist-based decisions and commit unintended basic oversights that exclude people with disabilities by default or set them at a disadvantage to participate - whether it’s how you communicate a message, the size of font, a lack of flexibility with work hours, or an inaccessible location for a company event.
A disability inclusion mindset must be broad and considerate, because more employees have needs than will say so: 1 in 4 people will benefit from the adjustments that create a generally open and accessible workplace with positive spillovers on others.
Like with any form of inclusion, disability inclusion means creating an accessible workplace environment where people feel welcomed, seen and valued for who they are, without having to assimilate and are given the opportunities to participate and fulfill their potential. Disability inclusion requires curiosity around how your workplace is directly and indirectly excluding people with disabilities from equal opportunities. While disability gaps very significantly across companies, they’re highly diminished in workplaces where all employees indicate high levels of company fairness and responsiveness (more inclusive cultures).
With the increase of remote and hybrid work spurred on by the pandemic, accommodating individual workplace needs has become normalized and generalized. For example, GSK switched from saying “making accommodations,” a disability-oriented connotation, to the cultured-oriented statement of “being accommodating.”
Employers have quickly learned to creatively accommodate varied employee needs. Add in the reality that more and more jobs are focused on or mediated through technology. With this momentum, old barriers become obsolete and companies can create workplace cultures and environments that are more equitable, safe and supportive for leveraging the talent pool of people with disabilities.
Here are some core ways to create a disability inclusive organizational culture:
Organizations that take the effort to proactively become disability inclusive stand to benefit hugely from leveraging one of the most untapped talent pools out there.