Disability in the C-suite

Breaking Down the Walls to Disability in the C-suite – by Louise Duffield

Overcoming obstacles to the integration of disabled people in the C-Suite should be at the top of every board agenda. Often, I hear about diversity, but diversity efforts alone do not  deal with the challenges facing disabled senior executives or aspiring leaders. These challenges can be addressed, and leaders have a responsibility to turn around the stigma surrounding disability in the C-suite.

I speak to senior executives everyday in my work and  am very open about my own disability and the need to promote a workplace that is more inclusive of people like me. Many senior level executives tell me they cannot be open about their disability as they are worried it would affect board confidence in their ability to do their day to day job, even affect share prices. I hear more from leaders who are hiding disability than those who are actively showing it as a strength. Unless this changes I find it hard to see how positive change can be achieved.

What needs to change to make the C-Suite more inclusive with disability? It starts at the top. Senior leaders in the larger organizations need to show that they are just as committed to disability on the diversity agenda as they are to gender. I’ve chosen gender because more often than not, I hear lots about gender equality,  but very little on disability in comparison. I don’t expect us to live in a world where all the major corporations are led by those with disability. But I do expect to see more opportunity given to those with disability to sit on boards where they can speak openly about their disability without threat of non-promotion, possible exclusion from co-workers or not being taken seriously.

The stigma attached to disability is very much alive. A group that I passionately follow, https://www.thevaluable500.com/, released some startling figures after conducting a survey over 17 countries globally and asking the opinions of senior level executive leaders (most of which had organization sizes over 5,000 people). The survey concluded that 1 in 14 board level executives considered themselves to have a disability, with only 1 in 5 of them executives feeling comfortable speaking about their disability to a co-worker.  This survey provides a snapshot of why change is not only essential, but vital if we are to evolve and become a truly inclusive global workforce.

In addition, there needs to be investment, particularly into HR departments, to educate these teams and employees on how to deal and spot disability issues in a positive way. Instead of the focus being on what leaders with a disability can’t do, let’s focus on what they can do. Equally, there should be a drive towards including disability in recruiting and promotion efforts. Emphasizing inclusion, it is not enough simply to hire any diverse group of candidates and feel that efforts stop here.

There is often confusion about  ‘reasonable adjustments’. Many employers and senior leaders do not know how to address this topic. It may come down to a lack of education and/or training from the employer to the employee, particularly regarding invisible disabilities. It could be organizations are struggling to recognize and overcome issues internally given unconscious bias. Or it may be simply that they are not aware that most reasonable adjustments can be done easily and far outweigh the negatives if not implemented. There are significant amounts of data and resources that support the theory that a culturally engaged workforce will produce higher levels of profit and productivity, boosting  shareholder value.

We have a long way to go with ‘big picture’ thinking when it comes to disability in the C-suite. But when  businesses take the issue of disability more seriously, it will relieve the stigma facing people like me in the workplace and on the journey to leadership, as well as  in day-to-day society.

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