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Corporate Diversity Efforts Often Leave Out an Important Group: People With Disabilities

The robust economy, high productivity, and a 3.7% unemployment rate—the lowest in decades—has prompted businesses of all sizes to double down on recruiting and hiring efforts. They’re eager to fill vacancies at every level, from minimum-wage jobs to executive roles—yet these efforts often overlook an important resource.  

Businesses should make an extra effort to connect with workers with disabilities, a ready, capable, and sizable workforce 20 million people strong. This group often faces an uphill battle to get hired: The labor force participation rate for individuals with disabilities was 20.8% in July, compared to 69.2% for those without disabilities.

In recent years, many corporate leaders have vocally embraced the importance of disability inclusion. This transition is taking place for a variety of reasons: A better understanding of the benefits of having a more diverse workforce (which encompasses people with disabilities), an urgent need for talent, and changes in legislation that tap into workers with disabilities. In 2013, Section 503 regulations of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act was updated to require that 7% of the workforce within any federally contracted company identify as having a disability. While enforcement of the regulation has, anecdotally, been lax, there is no doubt that the law is a part of the changing conversation. 

So why aren’t more companies tapping into this deep and talented pool of potential employees? Erroneous assumptions and unconscious bias may be partly to blame. 

Haben Girma, an excellent student with enthusiastic recommendations, experienced this firsthand when seeking internships in college. Girma, who is deafblind, would arrive for interviews with previously enthusiastic employers only to be told upon seeing her that they were looking for a different fit. Her experiences with bias—which motivated her to become the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, become a disability rights advocate, and pen a recently published book—are all too familiar to many people with disabilities. Recruiters and hiring managers often assume limitations of candidates with disabilities, while ignoring factors such as academic performance, competence, and potential.

Others may feel unsure around people with disabilities and don’t know how to act or what to say, so they avoid interaction, denying their companies the opportunity to benefit from the skills of talented people. And many may be uncertain on how to recruit candidates with disabilities in the first place. Yet, they should realize that some 62% of workers with disabilities have so-called invisible, or hidden, disabilities that aren’t apparent at a glance. 

Prospective employers may also assume that employing people with disabilities would be costly. In fact, in one study, employers indicated that the anticipated expense was the number one barrier to hiring people with disabilities. But the reality is that the majority of the time, providing reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities doesn’t cost companies a dime. An effective accommodation for a person with visual impairment, for instance, could be as simple as enabling the dictation and typing tool in the Microsoft software suite, which most companies already have. And employees requiring more substantial accommodations are hardly breaking the bank (the median cost runs about $500 per person).

That small financial investment, if necessary—along with a small investment of time and effort to adapt recruiting strategies to target people with disabilities—can reap rich dividends. Businesses with leaders and hiring managers who are trained to look past disabilities and hire (and promote) based on skills, knowledge, enthusiasm, and potential have a clear edge in the market. Companies can’t simply pour money into marketing themselves as inclusive—they must actually act on it. For example, companies identified in a 2018 Accenture study as “Disability Inclusion Champions” had, on average, 28% higher revenue than their peers, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins. They were also twice as likely as other companies to have higher shareholder returns. 

Businesses that adopted diversity and inclusion strategies benefit in many other ways, including greater employee retention, reduced recruiting costs, higher productivity, and increased morale. Moreover, a workplace that mirrors the overall population—where people with diverse talents and abilities are the rule and not the exception—is one where everyone feels welcomed, valued, and respected. And conveniently, it’s likely to be a place that pleases shareholders and executives as well.

Nancy Geenen is the co-founder and CEO of Flexability, a social impact firm focused on employment and inclusion. She is also formerly CEO of the Galt Foundation. 

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