Disability Inclusion: Is Your Board On Board?

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Special Task Force 9900 is dedicated to everything related to geography, including mapping, interpretation of aerial and satellite imagery, and space exploration. Within this unit is another, smaller unit of highly trained soldiers who can make out even the smallest of details – those not normally discernible to most humans.

These soldiers all have one thing in common; You are on the autism spectrum. Their job is to extract imagery from satellite imagery and sensors in the air. Using officials and decoding tools, they analyze the images and find specific objects in the images necessary to provide the best data for these planning missions. The IDF also found that soldiers with autism can concentrate longer than their neurotypical counterparts.

This story speaks to me personally. My son Trevor was diagnosed with autism at the age of five. The only thing I knew about autism at the time was Dustin Hoffmans rainman Character. Raising a son on the spectrum has drastically changed my perspective on disability inclusion, seeing the strengths despite the challenges and cultivating those strengths as I face the challenges. Today he is a grown man living alone, working, paying his bills, saving money and building relationships. His strengths outweigh his challenges.

The same reckoning with one’s strengths and challenges can lead to success in overseeing how an organization thrives, but how do you begin to ensure the incorporation of the strengths of disabled people in the workplace on a large scale at the organizational level? It needs to start at the board and C-suite level.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a disability as “any condition of the body or mind (disability) that makes it difficult for the affected person to perform certain activities (activity limitations) and interact with the world around them (participation limitations).” A disability can:

  • Being present at birth (e.g. Down syndrome)

  • Become evident during childhood (eg, autism)

  • Associated with an injury (eg, spinal cord injury)

  • They must be related to a long-standing medical condition (e.g. diabetes) that may result in disability (e.g. loss of vision).

In 2018, Accenture published an outstanding research report entitled Achieving Equality: The Benefit of Disability Inclusion. Some of the statistics in the report are revealing:

  • Twenty-nine percent of working-age Americans with disabilities participate in the workforce, compared to 75 percent of Americans without disabilities

  • There are 15.1 million working-age Americans living with a disability

  • If companies embraced disability inclusion, they would gain access to a new talent pool of 10.7 million people.

The Disability Equality Index (DEI) is a joint project of the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN (formerly known as the US Business Leadership Network). DEI’s main goal is to provide a benchmarking tool to help organizations evaluate disability inclusion policies and practices in six key areas:

  1. culture and leadership

  2. Company-wide access

  3. labor practices

  4. commitment to the community

  5. supplier diversity

  6. Non-US Operations

Organizations complete a survey (DEI estimates that it takes between 30 and 40 hours), send it to DEI, and receive an objective assessment of their disability inclusion practices and opportunities for improvement. According to DEI, respondents scored at least 80 percent on their website, with companies such as Accenture, Microsoft Corp., AT&T, The Walt Disney Co., Capital One Financial Corp. and Boeing Co. achieved a score of 100 percent. DEI has an Advisory Board composed of corporate and nonprofit leaders and advocates who advise on benchmarking issues and issues.

While taking the survey is a requirement, it gives an organization an honest and introspective look at its disability inclusion culture, policies and practices and is valuable in identifying areas where an organization needs to improve.

This isn’t fluff. The Accenture report finds several tangible results from these organizations embracing a culture of disability inclusion.

  • Companies that were DEI Disability Champions (score of 80% or better) were twice as likely to achieve higher total shareholder returns than their peers.

  • Companies that were not Disability Champions but had improved their DEI scores over time were four times more likely to achieve higher total shareholder returns than their peers.

  • Staff turnover is reduced by up to 30 percent when a well-managed disability community outreach program is in place.

As a Board member, make it a priority to work with the Senior Leadership Team to understand your company’s position on disability inclusion and ensure that disability inclusion is built into the culture and not just an add-on . Here are three things you can do to get started:

  • Use the DEI Benchmark survey to assess your culture as is. Whether or not you submit your responses to DEI for evaluation, at a minimum, download and complete the survey to understand your organization’s strengths and weaknesses as it relates to disability inclusion. You will at least understand where your organization needs to focus on the disability inclusion journey.
  • Name an advocate for the inclusion of leaders with disabilities. Identify and empower a member of your leadership team to be an internal and external voice on disability inclusion for your organization. The manager should be known as a person with disabilities or be a passionate supporter of people with disabilities. As with any other inclusion leader, passion is key. Don’t just give a manager the championship title if they’re not passionate about it.
  • Include an advocate for disability inclusion on your board of directors. Whether you are a person with a disability or a passionate supporter, make sure your board has someone with both the technical expertise and the willingness to be a bold advocate for disability inclusion in the boardroom.

Inclusion with disabilities is not just a buzzword for social responsibility intended to serve the reputation. There is tangible business value. As a board member, you must ensure that your organization fosters a culture where business benefits can be realized.