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The biggest source of untapped talent is ...people with disability

More than 1.3 billion people live with some form of disability. That’s 17% of the global population, making it the largest minority group worldwide. Yet the employment rate for disabled people is half that of non-disabled. How can disability inclusion be strengthened?

The biggest source of untapped talent is….people with disability. Closing the disability employment gap

One in six people across the world live with some form of disability. Yet only 4% of businesses are focused on making offerings inclusive of disability, according to The Valuable 500, a global movement putting disability on the business leadership agenda and project partner of the World Economic Forum. And those in work are being let down. People with disabilities who are employed often experience unequal hiring and promotion standards, unequal pay for equal work and occupational segregation.

A survey of 7,500 professionals across the UK and Ireland being released in April by recruitment consultancy Robert Walters finds a third of disabled professionals do not think their manager takes the time to understand their personal circumstances, while a third of employers perceive disabled people to be less productive.

According to the UK’s national statistics body ONS, 7.7 million people of working age (16-64) reported that they were disabled in April-June 2020, 19% of the working age population. Just 53% of disabled people (and only 5.6% of those with a learning disability) are in employment compared with 81% of non-disabled people. Disabled people have an employment rate that is 28.1 percentage points lower than that of people who are not disabled – this is the disability employment gap.

Unless we harness the talent of people with lived experience of disability and ensure they are driving and leading the conversation, the conversation will never change and the barriers will remain

In the US 17.9% of people with a disability were employed in 2020, down from 19.3% the previous year, says the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This compares to 61.8% (66.3% in 2019) for people without a disability.

Disabled people across the world have been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic in physical health, mental health, and economically – compared to non-disabled people. ONS figures show that death rates among disabled people in the pandemic are at least twice those of non-disabled people.

In India about 2.2% of the population lives with some kind of physical or mental disability (National Statistics Office 2019). Arman Ali, executive director at India’s National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, says these people “remain one of the most marginalised and neglected groups in India” and since the pandemic, “loss of access to healthcare, support systems, education, livelihood, and even basic food supplies are the ‘new normal’ for the vast majority of India’s disabled people”.

Microsoft, European Space Agency and more...businesses are waking up to disability inclusion

People with disabilities are the biggest source of untapped talent in business. But, as we look to the post-pandemic future, some business leaders are taking a more progressive stance. In October 2020 Microsoft disclosed for the first time in its Global Diversity & Inclusion Report the number of employees in the US who had voluntarily self-identified as having disabilities. Of the 46.1% of US employees in its core Microsoft business who responded to the survey, 13.2% self-identified as having a disability. This amounts to 6.1% of all US employees in our core Microsoft business identifying as a person with a disability. The company says employees with disabilities had been the catalyst of many Microsoft innovations, such as Learning Tools, Live captioning in Teams, the Xbox Adaptive Controller and Seeing AI. “Disability is a strength and it is imperative that we continue to actively work to hire people with disabilities and bring their expertise into our processes, products and culture at every level,” it says.

BBC Studios has committed to ensuring one-fifth of its on-screen talent and production teams come from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background, low income background or have a disability. It aims to make sure that at least one senior role on scripted or unscripted teams is appointed from one of these backgrounds. Meanwhile in February 2021 the European Space Agency launched a recruitment drive for individuals who are “psychologically, cognitively, technically and professionally qualified to be an astronaut, but have a physical disability that would normally prevent them from being selected due to the requirements imposed by the use of current space hardware”. For the first time people with physical disabilities will be invited to apply to participate in the ‘Parastronaut Feasibility Project’ to understand the requirements on safety and technical support so that people with disabilities can serve as professional crew members on a safe and useful space mission.

“This is not about tokenism, we have to be able to justify to all the people who fund us – which is everybody, including people who happen to be disabled – that what we're doing is somehow meaningful to everybody,” David Parker, the director of ESA's robotics and human spaceflight programme, told BBC news.

In advance of the publication of a National Strategy for Disabled People by UK prime minister Boris Johnson, more than a dozen senior business leaders including CEOs from the Post Office, Schroders, AO, BNY Mellon Investment Management, Clifford Chance and Purplebricks, published an open letter urging him to deliver the most ambitious disability plan in a generation, saying “we stand ready to play our part”.

Now is the time to act: reducing the disability employment gap

The UK’s CSJ Disability Commission this week published its Now Is The Time report outlining steps to improve the employment of disabled people. Lord Shinkwin, commission chair, says: “We have a once in a generation opportunity to improve the life chances of disabled people,” while David Forbes-Nixon, founder of the DFN Foundation which backs the commission adds: “Now is the time for action and driving real change in delivering a fairer society for all. We can’t miss this opportunity …to draw on this extraordinary and untapped talent pool.”

The commission suggests five ways to reduce the disability employment gap, which include increasing supported routes into employment, such as high quality supported internships that involve job coaches and learning support; introducing mandatory workforce reporting for all employers with 250 plus employees on the proportion of their workforce that is disabled; and requiring all large public sector contract award decisions to take tendering organisations’ disability employment records into account, and requiring organisations with public contracts to work towards increasing the proportion of disabled people within their workforce.

At a time when inclusion is high on the corporate agenda there is surprisingly little information on the benefits of employing people with disabilities. A systematic review on hiring people with disabilities, using peer reviewed publications between 2007-2017, concludes there are several benefits, including improvements in profitability, competitive advantage, inclusive work culture and ability awareness. 

The Valuable 500, which launched in 2019 with the aim to get 500 national and multinational private sector corporations to be the tipping-point for change and help unlock the social and economic value of people living with disabilities across the world, says there is a strong business case for strengthening inclusion of people with disabilities. The cost of excluding people with disabilities represents up to 7% of GDP in some countries. With 28% higher revenue, double net income, 30% higher profit margins, and strong next generation talent acquisition and retention, a disability-inclusive business strategy promises a significant return on investment, it says.

One of the barriers to disability inclusion is the lack of confidence and competence of business managers and leaders. Organisations like The Valuable 500 as well as the many disability charities out there can help with this.

As we move into the ‘future of work’ now is the time for employers to harness this untapped potential. For, as the business signatories of the open letter say: “Equality of opportunity to succeed at work is key to progress. Tried and tested changes, such as gender pay gap reporting for big business, are already transforming the conversation in the boardroom. At its heart is this simple truth: unless we harness the talent of people with lived experience of disability and ensure they are driving and leading the conversation, from shopfloor to senior management, the conversation will never change and the barriers will remain.”

Published 24 March 2021
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