Why the integration and disclosure of people with disabilities in workplaces displays good values and is economically practical.

The enhancement and disclosure of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts in the workplace has become a focus for many companies in the US. Despite these efforts, there is a substantial, often marginalized, segment of the population that is largely overlooked—namely, people with disabilities. To dive deeper into this topic, we spoke with Robert Ludke, an author and senior fellow at The Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement, in our Double Take podcast. Ludke’s work focuses on research and engagement to support and expand employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. He provides some great insight into the current state of representation of this demographic in management and executive-level positions, as well as the business case—beyond the value of doing what is right—for ensuring that people with disabilities are included among top-level decision-makers.

Ludke reminds us that we must recognize the true scope of the word disability and how many people are affected in some way by it.

I think we need to look at disability for what it is, which is the ultimate intersectional characteristic that defines people. It cuts across race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, veteran status. We also have to recognize that at some point in our lives, every single one of us will have a disability. Some people are born with disabilities, some people age into their disabilities…if you fall off your bike tomorrow and you break your arm, well, you’re temporarily disabled.

Robert Ludke, Author and Senior Fellow at The Harkin Institute

As Ludke points out, the number of people that live with a disability is far-reaching, and no one is immune to the possibility of developing a disability at some point in life. However, the sheer lack of representation in the corporate workplace, and particularly on corporate management teams and boards of directors, is sobering. A recent study conducted by the Valuable 500 concluded that not a single board member of any company within the Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 100 Index of leading UK companies identified as disabled. Ludke highlights that this finding is confounding given that 15% of the world’s population is disabled, and he estimates that an additional 15% are in truth disabled but choose not to disclose it for any of a number of reasons. The numbers suggest that there are people at the top of these companies who do in fact have disabilities but are perhaps not being transparent about their conditions.

If leaders of organizations are choosing to conceal their own disabilities, they are sending a message to their workforces that the environment is not conducive to openness and honesty in this area. This could generate a fear of discrimination in the workplace and prevent employees from bringing their authentic selves to work, limiting creativity and true potential.

For a whole host of systemic societal reasons, many persons with disabilities have not been on the career path that would, shall we just say, interest companies as they are recruiting boards of directors. Too often, persons with disabilities are consigned to entry-level positions or forced to work in the gig economy. So those structural impediments don’t allow them to move up the career ladder in a way that appeals to recruiters of boards of directors.

Robert Ludke

Disclosing information on employees with disabilities is currently not one of the reporting requirements mandated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). However, there is a glimmer of hope that change may be imminent. The SEC is expected to release additional disclosure mandates later in 2022, which should include measures on employees with disabilities. There are obstacles, though, to obtaining clear-cut data on this point. For instance, many people with disabilities could decline to categorize themselves as such. Additionally, health-care privacy laws may impede employers from asking certain questions on the matter.

Ludke emphasized the need for employers to destigmatize disability and encourage employees to bring their authentic selves to the workplace. This could help to reduce the fear or hesitancy people may have of identifying as disabled.

The economic impact of further inclusion of those with disabilities cannot be understated:

There are 1.85 billion people in the world that identify as disabled. That is about 300,000 people more than the entire population of China. If you add in their friends and family members, that goes close to just over 3 billion people. The friends and family members and persons with disabilities have an annual disposable income of $13 trillion. The gross domestic product (GDP) of the European Union (EU) last year was roughly $15 trillion, so we’re talking a market roughly the size of the EU.

Robert Ludke

Anecdotally, some companies have noted this large opportunity set. For instance, a multinational athletic company created a sneaker with ergonomics that allowed consumers to easily pull them on with minimal use of their hands and arms. The model flew off the shelves owing to demand from the disabled population. Modern-day conveniences, such as the dictation features on our smartphones and easily maneuverable suitcases, were originally designed to meet the needs of the disabled community but have spilled over into the wider global economy.

Despite the number of product innovations used by the general population that were originally created for the disabled, visibility of products for people with disabilities in the US is still quite limited.

If you look at the total amount of retail space dedicated to selling products for pets and you add up the space and all the retail outlets in the country, it’s actually more than the product space allocated to people with disabilities. I’m pretty confident that the market and the spending power of persons with disabilities is greater than that of dogs and cats.

Robert Ludke

The integration and disclosure of people with disabilities in the corporate world not only displays good company values, but is also economically practical. It creates opportunities to reach a market the size of the EU in terms of GDP, which, unfortunately, appears only likely to grow given the increasing number of ‘long’ Covid-19 cases. The movement towards workplace inclusivity appears to be headed in the right direction. Still, Ludke emphasizes the importance of making concerted efforts to destigmatize disability at work. 

Subscribe to “Double Take” on your podcast app of choice or view the Diversity and Human Capital episode page to listen in your browser.

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