The 9900 Special Intelligence Unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is dedicated to everything related to geography, including cartography, interpretation of aerial and satellite photographs, and space research. Within this unit is another smaller unit of highly skilled soldiers who can detect even the smallest details, the ones that are usually undetectable by most people.
All these soldiers have one thing in common; are on the autism spectrum. Their job is to take visual materials from satellite images and airborne sensors. With the help of officers and decoding tools, they analyze the images and find specific objects within the images that are necessary to provide the best data to planning missions. The IDF also found that soldiers with autism can focus for longer periods of time than their neurotypical counterparts.
This story speaks to me personally. My son Trevor was diagnosed with autism at the age of five. The only thing he knew about autism at the time was Dustin Hoffman’s. rain man character. Raising a child on the spectrum dramatically changed my view of disability inclusion, seeing strengths through challenges and nurturing those strengths while adapting to challenges. He is a grown man today, he lives alone, works, pays his bills, saves money and builds relationships. His strengths outweigh his challenges.
The very calculation of your strengths and challenges can lead to success in monitoring how an organization thrives, but how do you begin to ensure inclusion of the strength of people with disabilities in the workplace at scale with an organization level? You have to start at the board and C-suite level.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a disability as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to perform certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around her (participation limitations)”. A disability can:
- Being present at birth (i.e. down syndrome)
- Become apparent during childhood (i.e., autism)
- Be related to an injury (i.e. spinal cord injury)
- Be associated with a long-standing condition (eg, diabetes), which may cause disability (eg, vision loss).
In 2018, Accenture published a landmark research report titled Getting to Equality: The Advantage of Disability Inclusion. Some of the statistics in the report are revealing:
- 29 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities participate in the labor force compared to 75 percent of non-disabled Americans
- There are 15.1 million working age Americans living with a disability
- If companies were to embrace disability inclusion, they would have access to a new talent pool of 10.7 million people.
The Disability Equality Index (DEI) is a joint project between the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disabilities: IN (formerly known as the US Business Leadership Network). DEI’s primary goal is to provide a benchmarking tool to help companies assess disability inclusion policies and practices in six key areas:
- Culture and Leadership
- Access to the entire company
- employment practices
- Community involvement
- Supplier Diversity
- Operations outside the US
Organizations complete a survey (DEI estimates 30-40 hours to complete), submit it to DEI, and receive an objective score on their disability inclusion practices and opportunities for improvement. DEI places respondents at 80% or higher on their website, with companies like Accenture, Microsoft Corp., AT&T, The Walt Disney Co., Capital One Financial Corp. and Boeing Co. scoring 100%. DEI has an advisory committee comprised of corporate and nonprofit executives and advocates who advise on benchmarking issues and questions.
While it is a commitment to complete the survey, it gives an organization an honest and insightful perspective on its culture, policies and practices around disability inclusion and is valuable in helping to identify areas where an organization needs improvement.
This is not fluff stuff. Accenture’s report highlights several tangible results from those organizations that have embraced a culture of disability inclusion.
- Companies that were DEI disability champions (score of 80% or higher) were twice as likely to have higher total shareholder returns than similar companies.
- Companies that were not disability champions but had improved their DEI scores over time were four times more likely to have higher total shareholder returns than similar companies.
- Staff turnover is up to 30 percent lower when a well-managed disability community outreach program is in place.
As a board, make it a priority to work with the senior leadership team to understand your company’s disability inclusion position and ensure that disability inclusion is embedded in the culture, not just an add-on project. Here are three things you can do to get started:
- Use the DEI Comparative Survey to assess your culture as is. Whether or not you submit your responses to DEI for qualification, at a minimum, download and complete the survey to understand your company’s strengths and weaknesses in disability inclusion. You will at least gain an understanding of where your company needs to focus in the disability inclusion process.
- Appoint a senior leadership disability inclusion champion. Identify and empower a member of your senior leadership team to be an internal and external voice on disability inclusion for your organization. The executive must be known as a person with a disability or be a passionate supporter of people with disabilities. As with any other inclusion leader, passion is key. Don’t give an executive the title of champion if you’re not passionate about it.
- Put a disability inclusion advocate on your board. Whether you’re a person with a disability or a passionate supporter, make sure your board has someone who brings both the necessary subject matter expertise and the will to be a fearless advocate for disability inclusion in the boardroom.
Disability inclusion is not just a social responsibility buzzword meant to improve reputation. There is tangible business value to be had. As a board, your responsibility is to ensure that your organization promotes a culture where business benefits can be realized.