What business leaders can do to foster disability inclusion

From implementing inclusive policies to acting as role models, those at the top of an organisation have the power - and responsibility - to make work better for those with disabilities
illustration of disability in leadership

No executives or senior managers at any of the FTSE 100 companies have disclosed they have a disability. That’s according to a report published last year by Tortoise Media and global business collective the Valuable 500. 

The issue extends beyond the UK’s biggest companies. A recent EY study found that 7% of C-suite executives have some lived experience of disability but four in five of them had chosen not to disclose. 

The Tortoise survey found that just 12 of the companies in the FTSE 100 report on the total number of employees who are disclosed as disabled, while only a further eight give employees the opportunity to disclose. Even among those that do, with such a lack of representation at the top of business, how realistic is it that employees will share their own status?

The importance of role models

There is still a real fear around disclosure, says Ollie Thorn, senior manager of DE&I client solutions at recruitment firm Michael Page. “A lot of people working up to those top positions are ambitious,” he says. “They think ‘I’ve got to hide this, because I can’t see any leaders who have a disability, so obviously I can’t be a leader if I’ve got one’.” 

This lack of openness at the highest level can suggest to other people with disabilities that their own disclosure might not be welcome. More significantly, it makes it far harder to create a culture which is inclusive and accessible for everyone. 

We need to dispel some of these myths that employers have about disabled people

“If we can’t see role models at the top of an organisation talking about disability,” says Caroline Casey, founder of the Valuable 500, “then it becomes a difficult issue because we’re pleading for accommodations.” 

From remote working to ramps in the office, the factors that could improve the daily working lives of employees with disabilities are far easier to secure when business leaders see it as a priority.

Fighting stigma at the highest level 

What is driving this fear of disclosure? Many of those with disabilities worry about being viewed differently, taken less seriously or seen as less able. Some believe it will keep them from jobs or promotions or that, by asking for the accommodations they need, they will be seen as demanding or difficult. 

To tackle this fear, two things are needed, says Mark Esho founder of social enterprise The Circle Foundation. The first is representation. “If you look back 10 years, how many Black people did you see in adverts? Possibly zero. Now, we see it all the time. The only advert I’ve seen with a disabled person is the Sure one. As a society we need to bring more disabled people to the forefront.”

We can’t just have lip service. We need leadership to invest in this area and ensure there’s accountability.

The second thing that is needed, says Esho, is education, particularly among business leaders. “We need to dispel some of these myths that employers have about disabled people: that we lack education, we’re lazy, we don’t have the right skills or that once you employ a disabled person, you’ll never be able to get rid of them.” 

Better education and better support for employers will help them understand what employing someone with a disability actually entails.

How leaders can create inclusive workplaces

Leaders set the tone for the culture in an organisation meaning that, whether they have a disability or not, they are ultimately responsible for creating workplaces where all employees can thrive. Unfortunately, this is all too rare. The same EY study found that 54% of global boards have never had a conversation about disability. And although 90% of organisations say they are “passionate about inclusion”, only 4% include disability in their inclusion initiatives. 

“We can’t just have lip service,” says Casey. “We need leadership to invest in this area and ensure there’s accountability.” 

What this looks like in a practical sense is simple, she says: “Leaders need to strategically integrate disability into the business, and they need to put money and resources behind it. Then they need to talk to the people in their business who have experience with disabilities, using resources like internal employee support groups.” 

It’s not just those at the top who can drive change, says Burcu Borysik, head of policy and campaigns at Crohn’s & Colitis UK. “I absolutely agree with the importance of leaders being role models, but leadership is also dispersed,” she says. “There is power in pretty much everyone speaking up, regardless of their level or title in the organisation.” 
Setting an example at C-suite level empowers those in the rest of an organisation to come forward and speak out. And, if business leaders can create a culture of openness and inclusion, postive change will follow for everyone.