Ditching the idea of a physical and mental ‘norm’ for success in the workplace is one important step that has supported the rise of some of the greatest musical, intellectual and athletic legends in history. That serves as a lesson, and inspiration, for workers and employers worldwide.
Tenor Andrea Bocelli was born with congenital glaucoma, a condition that left him visually impaired. A blow during a football game when he was 12 left him completely blind. He went on to sell more than 75 million records and is considered to be one of the greatest tenors of his generation.
Economist John Nash suffered from acute paranoid schizophrenia but fought it and built an academic career that won him the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994 for his work on game theory.
Stephen Hawking, arguably the greatest scientist of his age, was paralysed from head to toe for over 30 years until his death in 2018.
All are and were geniuses in their own sphere of interest, adding to the body of knowledge in their disciplines. All overcame significant obstacles. And all were beneficiaries of workplaces that accepted and adapted to their physical or mental challenges, allowing them to thrive.
But while Bocelli, Nash and Hawking found workplaces that accepted and adapted, they are the exceptions. Most people with disabilities face significant challenges that able-bodied workers seldom consider. And that’s before they even start their job.
That said, awareness and action has turned a corner in many ways, which is an encouraging trajectory in the name of fairness, equality and productivity.
A brief history
Workers with a disability face physical barriers getting to work, accessing buildings and using tools and equipment. Workplace technology often does not support workers with a disability, and there is a general lack of awareness and confidence among employers on how to include people with disabilities. There is also little help and support for workers with disabilities to maintain employment and explore career opportunities. And small businesses, who employ vast numbers of people, generally have no support mechanisms if they do employ a person with a disability1.
All that occurs over and above the fact that many people with disability also face societal stigmas and stereotyping.
People with disabilities are among the most under-employed cohort of potential employees across the globe. According to the US Department of Labor, the current labour force participation rate in the US is around 77 per cent, compared to just 37 per cent for people with disabilities2.
The number of people with a disability is huge, albeit difficult to compare across economies. The European Union estimates 120 million of its people have disabilities3. The US estimates the number of working age people with a work limitation is around 16 million4. The United Nations estimates one in six people in Asia – or 690 million men, women and children – live with a disability5. In Australia, that number is one in five6.
The economic and social consequences of ignoring the disabled workforce are significant. For individuals, data shows that they participate less in the workforce, are more likely to abandon education systems and are at greater risk of poverty and social exclusion. The risks are greater for women with a disability7.
For the economy, there is a massive loss in economic output because hundreds of millions of people across the globe are not able to fully contribute in an economic sense, either via the labour market, or through aggregate demand for goods and services.
The tides are turning
While there is a long way to go, there has been some progress made among employers over the past decade. The benefits of employing people with disabilities are starting to accumulate.
The watershed moment for businesses and individuals occurred on 13 December 2006 with the adoption in the United Nations of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It followed decades of work and negotiations, and shifted people with disabilities from 'objects' of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards 'subjects' with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent, as well as being active members of society8.
It meant business had to start thinking differently about hiring people with disabilities. According to the United Nations agency, the International Labour Organisation: “There are... many encouraging developments in terms of legislation and policies and practices. Both in the private and public sector, the advantages of disability inclusion are increasingly being recognised9.”
But it still has a way to go. The ILO (International Labour Organisation) has identified five objectives for the inclusion of people with a disability, based on global megatrends in employment.
The first is that new forms of employment integrate disability inclusion. The jobs of the future, which are often determined by technology, should consider the needs of disabled workers.
The second is that greater effort needs to be made to ensure life-long skills development and learning be available to people with a disability.
Universal design – whereby an environment is created so it can be accessed, understood and used to all people regardless of age or ability – should be embedded in all new infrastructure, products and services. That is the third objective.
The fourth is to make affordable and available assistive technologies. The final objective is to boost measures to include persons with disabilities in growing and developing areas of the economy, in recognition of their abilities.
“To be able to achieve these goals, disability inclusion needs to be further integrated with other initiatives contributing to an equitable future of work,” the ILO report says10. “Social protection is an important complement to achieving a future of work inclusive of persons with disabilities.”
The productivity case
Employing people with a disability isn’t just a social obligation. It makes financial sense as well.
A recent report by consulting firm Accenture shows that American companies that embrace best practices for employing and supporting people with disabilities in their workforce have outperformed their peers on financial measures11. It compared the performance of 140 US organisations, including 45 companies that were considered disability champions. The results were stark.
In terms of revenue, net income and economic profit margin, firms that championed the employment of people with a disability outperformed those who didn’t. Companies who improved internal practices for disabled workers were four times more likely to see stronger shareholder returns12.
The major reasons companies have not leveraged persons with disabilities range from a lack of understanding of the availability of talent and potential benefits through to misconceptions about the cost versus return on investment of disability inclusion.
In the report, the disabilities rights lawyer and Connecticut state senator, Ted Kennedy Jr, who himself lost a leg to bone cancer when he was 12, says disability inclusion is the next frontier of corporate social investing and mission driven investing.
“Persons with disabilities present business and industry with unique opportunities in labour-force diversity and corporate culture, and they’re a large consumer market eager to know which businesses authentically support their goals and dreams.”
In an opinion piece in the New York Times13, Senator Kennedy went further, outlining the common denominators among the organisations best including disabled Americans.
- They hire people with disabilities, ensuring that they’re represented in the workplace.
- They carry out practices that encourage and advance those employees.
- They provide accessible tools and technologies, paired with a formal accommodations program.
- They generate awareness through recruitment efforts, disability education programs and grass-roots-led initiatives.
- They create empowering environments through mentoring and coaching initiatives.
He added that many companies had yet to recognise that people with disabilities could contribute economically: “Once companies are aware of these potential economic benefits, they should be motivated to bring persons with disabilities into the workforce to thrive as never before.”
Around the globe, businesses are awakening to the social and economic benefits of creating workplaces friendly to people with disabilities. Low unemployment rates in modern economies have helped improve the rate of employment for people with disabilities. But it still remains well below the overall rate of employment. The examples of Andrea Bocelli, John Nash and Stephen Hawking support the data: workplaces which allow people with a disability to thrive will do better than those that don’t.
3 One example cited by Harvard Business Review includes: https://www0.gsb.columbia.edu/mygsb/faculty/research/pubfiles/3063/female_representation.pdf
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