Does your organization have a diversity initiative in place? If so, you are not alone. Over the past two decades, there has been an explosion of awareness of the need to build and sustain a workforce that includes people with diverse backgrounds. Business leaders are rapidly realizing that a diverse workforce strengthens the company’s ability to attract talent, develop products, reach out to customers and operate globally.
A look at conferences and books on diversity shows that these initiatives usually focus on race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation. This is understandable; people with these backgrounds continue to face barriers in being treated equally in the workforce. But it is surprising that many of these initiatives do not include the largest minority in our country today: people with disabilities. A study of the diversity policies of Fortune 100 companies found that only 39 of these 100 firms have diversity policies that explicitly mention disability. Further, among these companies, there is a great variation in the actual commitment to disability inclusiveness (Ball, et.al, 2005).
Disability has many features in common with other more traditional diversity categories. Like other diversity groups, people with disabilities have a shared sense of identity and community that cuts across different disability conditions. Also, people with disabilities face many of the same powerful but invisible barriers that are faced by other diversity populations: stereotyping, lowered expectations, preconceived notions, and being frozen out of vital informal networks.
In other ways, though, disability is a unique diversity population. Unlike other diversity groups, disability is a diversity population that any of us could enter at any time. Also, those with disabilities are covered by different laws than are other diversity populations. Laws such as The Americans with Disabilities Act and The Rehabilitation Act are federal laws aiming to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in employment and in other areas of life.
Finally, people with disabilities continue to face unique types of discrimination. As a country, we have made some progress in recognizing and acknowledging the discrimination faced during our history by people of color or of different ethnicities. Yet, we have largely not come to terms with the discrimination faced by people with disabilities during our history, despite the many horrific abuses faced by people with disabilities as recently as the eugenics movement of 30 years ago. Our views of disability as an individual "medical" issue may automatically draw our attention to images of disability as a deficit or limitation that needs “fixing”—as a condition of the individual that could be seen to justify unequal treatment in the labor market. Because of this, we have tended to treat disability somewhat differently than we treat other diversity categories.
In this way, our sensibilities around disability as a diversity category may have lagged behind our sensibilities for other categories of diversity. In 2008, few people would argue that it is “disruptive” for children from ethnic minorities to attend school with other children. Yet, this claim is still heard today when children with disabilities are placed in classrooms with non-disabled students. In our everyday language, we would object to using words that would denigrate a whole diversity class. Yet, we frequently hear such slang terms as "crazy," "spastic" or "mental case." Because we have not come to terms with the legitimacy of disability discrimination, we are less likely to include disability as a diversity category.
But here’s the bottom line. Diversity is good for business; diversity initiatives that include people with disabilities are even better for business. Your markets and customers are becoming more diverse. If your employee-base is different than your customer-base, you risk becoming disconnected from your market.
Examples abound of companies who have been able to improve their products, expand their markets, and expand their talent pipeline by increasing the diversity of their workforce. And this is particularly the case for companies who have included disability in their diversity initiatives.
There are several organizations that have expanded their market share by including disability in their diversity initiatives. For example, by including disability in their company-wide diversity initiative, IBM gained market share. A key business strategy for IBM was to become a world leader in providing accessible technology products. IBM employees with disabilities made valuable contributions to this business strategy in two ways. First, they played a key role in identifying elements of accessibility that were not immediately recognized by product designers. Second, they contributed to finding ways to reach out to new markets that included people with disabilities. Then, as an added benefit, the innovations that were built into products to improve accessibility for customers with disabilities led to enhanced use-ability for all users, not just those with disabilities. By having employees with disabilities on board, product designers had a unique insight into product use-ability that led to successful product innovations.
Another example of the business case for including disability diversity initiatives comes from a regional bank. A teller at the bank who had family members with hearing disabilities was fluent in sign language. One day this teller noticed a deaf customer struggling to communicate with another bank employee. Using her sign language skills, she was able to assist this customer. Soon, it became clear that many deaf customers were changing their accounts to this branch because of this employee. Within a short time, many new customers with disabilities opened accounts at this branch. Over the next few months, the news of the accessibility of this branch spread further to family members of customers with disabilities.
Diversity policies that include disability will be more powerful on a number of levels. They will be more powerful in sending the right message to your current and future employees. They will be more powerful in reaching customers. They will be more powerful in contributing to product designs. They will be more powerful in bringing about business results.
Ball, P., Monaco, G., Schmeling, J., Schartz, H., & Blanck, P. (2005) Disability as diversity in Fortune 100 companies. Behavioral Sciences and the Law 23(1): 97 – 121.