When companies work to build diversity into their work teams, they tend to focus on gender, race, and sexual orientation, but there’s an identity category that’s often left out of crucial conversations about an inclusive workforce: disability.
When disability is mentioned in the same breath as other kinds of diversity, it often comes as a surprise. But that could be changing. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli—who’s also the sole trustee of the $213.2 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund, the third largest public pension fund in the U.S.—made waves earlier this year when he called on 49 major corporations to participate in the Disability Equality Index (DEI) as a barometer of their disability inclusion practices and policies.
The DEI, piloted in 2014, is a comprehensive disability-inclusion benchmarking tool that serves 180 companies and counting. Participating companies self-report disability policies and practices, which are then scored on a scale of 0 to 100—the top number representing the most inclusive score. The index is a joint project between a national nonprofit, Disability:IN, and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).
In his letter to top executives at such companies as 21st Century Fox, Nike, Apple and McDonald’s, DiNapoli wrote, “Studies have shown that businesses that commit to disability inclusion outperform their peers. Companies should seize the opportunity to join the growing number of corporations that recognize the benefits of disability inclusion and are reporting their efforts.” He urged companies to adopt the DEI as a barometer of their success thus far in terms of enabling and empowering their existing and future disabled employees.
Like DiNapoli, Disability:IN CEO Jill Houghton emphasizes that there’s not just an ethical case for disability inclusion, there’s also a business case. A recent report from Accenture, in partnership with Disability:IN and the AAPD, suggests that adopting more inclusive practices when it comes to disability in the workforce could improve a company’s bottom line.
The 45 companies in the study that were identified as highly engaged in best practices in terms of disability employment, inclusion and retention had “28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins than their peers” on average over the report’s four years of data. Moreover, “The Accenture research demonstrated that companies that participated in the Disability Equality Index and improved their score over time were four times more likely to have total shareholder returns that outperformed their peers,” said Houghton.
The report also found that there are stark disparities still at work when it comes to disabled applicants. Only about 29% of working-age individuals in the U.S. with disabilities participate in the workforce, compared with 75% of the nondisabled working-age population. This large swath of unemployed disabled individuals represents a diverse, untapped resource that companies can draw from to reach their goals.
What’s more: Disabled people make up about a fifth of the U.S. population, so it’s very likely that your work team already has multiple disabled members. “Seventy percent of us have disabilities that you can’t see, including myself. I have a learning disability,” said Houghton. This means that disability inclusion at work isn’t just about achieving greater accessibility or recruiting more employees with disabilities, but about creating workplaces where employees feel free to live authentically, she said.
“As we work with our partners, we see countless stories where people come out and say, hey, I’m a senior leader and I’ve led a large team for years, and I have multiple sclerosis,” Houghton said. “People have sometimes been afraid to speak their truth, but as they see their companies dig into disability inclusion, they start to tell their stories.”
To address those types of issues, the tool extends far beyond physical accessibility in the workplace, into areas like company culture, leadership, and community engagement, to create a holistic picture of what a truly welcoming workplace for people with disabilities might look like.
Backers of the DEI hope it will help integrate consideration of disability into the varied development programs within companies addressing retention, mentorship, and advancement policies. Those programs often specifically mention identity categories like race, gender, and sexual orientation, but fail to mention disability.
Many businesses are already making significant moves towards greater disability inclusion. Companies already scoring 100% on the DEI include AT&T, Bank of America, Microsoft, and Walgreens, among many others. Houghton emphasizes that the index is not meant to be used as a tool for judgment but for empowerment. “It’s really there to help businesses celebrate their accomplishments and identify opportunities for improvement when it comes to disability inclusion,” she explained.
So, how can companies become more welcoming to disabled applicants and existing employees today? Houghton suggests that companies start by making it clear that accommodations are available for those with disabilities. “In the Disability Equality Index, only 44% of the companies who responded made applicants aware that they could request accommodations during the application process,” she said.
Accessible tools and language that includes disability are also key components to add to a company’s disability-inclusion playbook. “Utilize accessible tools. If you’re attracting your talent online and you’re not using accessible tools, you’re missing us. In your company diversity-and- inclusion statement, include disability alongside other identities. It’s often left out.”
Feedback from businesses using the DEI has been primarily positive, says Houghton. In fact, many teams have started to come together around shared experiences of disability in ways they never expected.
“We hear time and time again that the Disability Equality Index created an opportunity for businesses to pull together across cross-functional teams to look at disability across the enterprise. This is not just a recruitment issue,” she said. “When talent with disability is included and welcomed, productivity increases, teams excel, and you’re ultimately going to develop more innovative and accessible products and services.”
Laura Dorwart is a writer with bylines at HuffPost, VICE, Forbes, The New York Times, The Guardian, SELF, The Week, BuzzFeed, and others. She has a Ph.D. from UCSD, an MFA from Antioch University, and a B.A. from Barnard College. Follow her work at www.lauradorwart.com or on Twitter at @laurawritesit.