Business must not ignore one billion people with disability

Just 7% of senior executives identify as disabled – when general rate is 15%

As the good and the great of the business world gather in Davos this week, their minds may well dw ell on the World Economic Forum’s fundamental objective – to improve the state of the world – and the efforts they may or may not have made within their own businesses to achieve this in the past year.

Business has made great strides in advancing various inclusion issues over the last 50 years, and there’s no doubt that these advances have improved the state of the world. Gender, race and LGBTQ+ equality issues have all benefited from bold business voices speaking out and taking action to level the playing field for everyone.

The starting point for all of these advances has been a handful of business leaders brave enough to come forward and commit to addressing these issues within their own businesses. When business leaders speak out about these issues, the world understands that they are important. Their customers, suppliers, competitors and government stakeholders understand that they are non-negotiable aspects of doing business with a company.

These issues all still exist in businesses to some extent, but the time and space dedicated to discussing these issues at the very top of business has helped move the needle on progress to improve them.

Yet one clear exception remains: disability. There is still a long way to go to ensure disability inclusion is discussed at the very top of business and is taken seriously enough to be built into the leadership strategy at global businesses.

There is still a long way to go to ensure disability inclusion is discussed at the very top of business and is taken seriously

New research from EY on behalf of #valuable, the campaign I lead, revealed that the majority of global C-suite executives rarely or never discuss disability on their leadership agendas. Only 7 per cent of board-level executives identify as disabled – even though 15 per cent of the population count themselves as disabled. The proportion of disabled C-suite executives should be double what it is. Of these, one in five do not feel comfortable disclosing their disability to colleagues – highlighting that disability continues to be a taboo subject for many of the world’s leading businesses.

Woefully under-represented

This absence of discussion around disability at the very top of business leaves one billion people worldwide – 15 per cent of the population – woefully under-represented, as employees and consumers. Ignoring the one billion disabled is the equivalent of disregarding a potential market the size of US, Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan combined, and a disposable income of more than $8 trillion. It is too big a market opportunity for businesses to ignore – particularly when we know that disability inclusion delivers hard benefits to businesses.

Our research has found that senior leaders cited “disability confidence” – the practice of regularly engaging with your disabled employees to understand what support is required – as a key factor in capturing new markets, building their brands and in attracting and retaining clients, consumers and staff.

Yet shockingly, the World Health Organisation has found that up to half of businesses in OECD countries choose to pay fines rather than meet quotas on disability, the result of which is a widening employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people that sees the latter twice as likely to be in employment than the former.

To close this gap, we have to put disability on the global agenda. Doing this requires the same bold business leadership that led to environmental initiatives or gender pay gap reporting being placed front and centre of every business.

We know that visibility of disability at the very top increases the likelihood that disability inclusion will be discussed at board level – 63 per cent of C-suite executives who know disabled board-level colleagues report that disability is discussed at leadership level, compared with only 37 per cent of those not aware of any disabled board-level colleagues.

Business must lead

We need more brave business leaders – Virgin Media’s Jeff Dodds, Omnicom’s Janet Riccio, Unilever’s Paul Polman, EY’s Mark Weinberger, and Virgin Group Founder Sir Richard Branson are some such examples – to stand up for disability.

When business leads, society follows. Of the world’s 100 largest economies, 31 are countries and 69 are corporations. If business takes the lead on tackling disability inclusion, then the rest of the world can and will follow.

If business takes the lead on tackling disability inclusion, then the rest of the world can and will follow

As Jeff Dodds says, business leaders are already having the right discussions around other areas of inclusion, so they are already well-placed to broaden the conversation to include disability confidence – it just requires business leaders to have the courage to bring the topic forward.

At One Young World last year, I laid out our ambition to put disability on the World Economic Forum’s agenda for its annual meeting in Davos – an ambition since I became a young global leader (YGL) in 2006. I am so proud to say that disability inclusion will form a comprehensive part of this month’s annual meeting agenda with a significant focus on business disability inclusion. Most significant of all, Davos has put business and disability on its main stage with a panel of the world’s most influential business leaders. This is a world first.

When I take to the stage at Davos, my message to the business leaders present will be this: if you really want to lead in this century, if you really believe in good, conscientious business, and serving the community in which you operate, we need you to stand up and recognise the value of the one billion people of the world with a disability.

Inclusion is no longer a “nice-to-have” or a tick-box corporate social responsibility initiative. An inclusive business must be inclusive of everyone, it cannot pick and choose “à la carte” style what it wants to engage with and what it wants to conveniently ignore. Disability inclusion at board level isn’t more important than racial diversity, gender balance or LGBTQ+ representation. It’s the final frontier in the ongoing battle to create a world inclusive for everybody.