Companies should focus on ability, not disability

Disabled people are the largest minority in the world, there are more than one billion in the world. But four decades after the United Nations General Assembly adopted the World Program of Action for Persons with Disabilities, they are still excluded from large parts of the economy. It is bad for economic prosperity as well as for social justice.

Even in developed Western economies, organizations are often reluctant to hire people with disabilities, so even those with the right qualifications are significantly underrepresented in the workforce. There are 14.6 million people with disabilities in the UK, with an employment rate of 53% for people of working age, compared to 82% for the general population. Of the 31 million people with disabilities ages 16 and older in the United States, 19.1% are employed, compared to 63.7% for people without disabilities, and they are much more likely to live in poverty. Many of those with jobs cannot escape precarious, low-paying entry-level positions.

As a result, we are failing to unlock the economic potential of millions of people at a time when labor shortages and poverty in many countries mean societies are in desperate need of greater participation. We simply cannot afford to have people sit idly by. Three actions are needed to tackle this missed opportunity.

First, we must remove social and physical barriers to work. Disability policies have removed many physical constraints, such as efforts to improve access to buildings and information. Yet the barriers we don’t see can be the most insidious, such as stigma, stereotyping and discrimination.

The 2021 UK Family Resource Survey found that one in three people with disabilities experienced significant harm. Recent research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology suggests that positive role models can reduce stigma, but people with disabilities are still largely invisible to the general public. We need to understand why this is happening and what we can do about it.

Second, we need to start thinking in terms of ability rather than disability. Many employers are worried because they lack the knowledge, skills or resources to provide appropriate housing and social inclusion.

Some organizations have already recognized that having an atypical body or mind can come with specific and extraordinary talents. For example, the organization Discovering Hands trains people with severe visual impairments as clinical breast examiners because of their keen sense of touch. They can detect tumors as small as 6-8mm, compared to the standard 10-20mm, making early diagnosis easier.

Accenture, Deloitte, EY, Microsoft, 3M and Google have long known that people with neurological disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia can have extraordinary skills in pattern recognition, general cognitive abilities and memory. Researchers Robert Austin and Gary Pisano have argued that neurodiversity can provide a competitive advantage to organizations that embrace it.

Microsoft’s built-in “Accessibility Journey,” overseen by an Accessibility Manager, is specifically aimed at hiring people with autism. The approach uses “accessibility by design” with, for example, a dedicated research team to produce Eye Control in Windows 10 for people with ALS, a disease of the nervous system resulting in loss of muscle control.

People with certain conditions can also be qualified contractors. My colleague Ingrid Verheul has shown how impulsivity and hyperactivity in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can make them effective at seizing emerging opportunities – something David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue, and Paul Orfalea of ​​Kinko’s (now FedEx Office) demonstrated. The resilience demonstrated by overcoming a crippling illness or impairment can benefit a budding entrepreneur in dealing with setbacks and failures.

Third, we must stop treating people with disabilities as a separate category of human beings. Any of us could join this minority at any time. As George Will, the political commentator, said, “I’ll never be black, and I’ll never be a woman, but I might become disabled when I come home tonight.”

René Bakker is Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at Erasmus University Rotterdam School of Management. He was born with a visible physical disability

The extent to which an impairment of mind or body is perceived as a disability is subjective and depends on the context, not a law of nature. Someone who is red-green colorblind may have a disability but only feel disabled in specific roles, such as aspiring to be a train conductor.

People with disabilities seem largely invisible to large organizations, recruiters and investors, who are missing out on a huge untapped resource. A 2018 study by Accenture found that companies that excel in employing and including people with disabilities outperform their peers financially. A Canadian study suggested that the value of the benefits that could be realized by an inclusive society would amount to more than 17% of GDP.

The economic arguments for inclusion are clear. A diverse workforce is more innovative, adaptive and resilient. Unleashing the potential of people with disabilities does not only benefit them. It benefits us all.

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