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Disability Representation on Boards Is Up, Yet Inclusion Lags

July 28, 2022, 8:50 AM

An increase in people with disabilities in boardrooms and corporate leadership isn’t always translating to more inclusive workplaces for rank-and-file employees.

Of the 415 companies that participated in the 2022 nonprofit Disability:IN’s Disability Equality Index Report, 30% have at least one senior executive who is disabled and 6% have someone who identifies as disabled serving on their corporate boards. The companies surveyed include large employers such as Starbucks Corp., Twitter Inc., and Amazon.com Inc.

The 2021 DEI report—which surveyed a smaller pool of companies—showed that only 10% said they had any senior executives who identified as disabled.

“If we want to advance and make a culture where people with disabilities belong, we need to know about people with disabilities, leaders with disabilities,” said Jill Houghton, president and CEO of Disability:IN, a nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion that compiles the report. “It starts at the top.”

About 80% of employers list disability inclusion in statements about commitment to diversity, according to the DEI Report.

Yet a May 2022 study from the World Economic Forum found that just 4% of global businesses prioritize disability inclusivity, despite 90% expressing a commitment to diversity overall.

“Disability inclusion is yet to be seen as a driver of market opportunity, reputational strength and long-term value creation,” said Robert Ludke, a senior fellow at the Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement.

But compiling data on retention of disabled employees can be difficult, Ludke said. Many companies may not even keep track of employees’ disability status as a measurement of diversity. Even the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau don’t collect data on disability employment on a regular basis.

Homing in on Boards

This is the Disability:IN report’s eighth year. But Houghton said the group started asking about disability representation in leadership and boardrooms after the US Securities and Exchange Commission in August 2021 approved a Nasdaq Inc. proposal requiring companies traded on the exchange to disclose the gender and ethnic makeup of their boards—but not disability status.

What really matters is how people in those boardrooms take action, Ludke said.

He pointed to Microsoft Corp.'s efforts to prioritize people with disabilities in their products and workplace. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, whose late son was born with cerebral palsy, has pushed the company to create products accessible to those with disabilities. The topic even comes up during investor calls, which is “extraordinarily rare,” Ludke said.

“You’re not going to have that dynamic unless boards and the executive team are thinking about disability in that way,” he said.

The report also grades companies on their inclusive practices, such as having employee resource groups and making it easy to self-identify as disabled and request accommodation.

Some reports on corporate diversity practices don’t paint a full picture and even can hurt those with disabilities in the workplace, said Liz Jackson, founding member of the Disabled List, an organization that advocates for inclusivity.

“Why would a company who gets 100% disability rating have any motivation to meet a disabled employee’s needs after the report comes out?” Jackson asked.

Retention, Advancement

According to the Disability:IN report, 62% of participating companies require that their digital products be accessible to job candidates and employees, and 61% said they make all job candidates aware of the option to request accommodations when interviewing.

About 80% of those same companies also have employee retention and advancement programs that focus on or include employees with disabilities.

The report also found that most participating companies have hiring goals for people with disabilities and track that progress.

But just focusing on hiring goals isn’t always sufficient, Ludke said.

“Many times those numbers can be misleading,” he said. “Simply hiring a person with a disability and confining them to an entry-level position is not good enough.”

To contact the reporter on this story: J. Edward Moreno in Washington at jmorenodelangel@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com