The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Special intelligence Unit 9900 is dedicated to everything related to geography, including mapping, interpretation of aerial and satellite photographs, and space research. Within this unit there is another, smaller unit of highly qualified soldiers who can detect even the smallest details—the ones usually undetectable to most people.
These soldiers all have one thing in common; they are on the autism spectrum. Their job is to take visual materials from satellite images and sensors in the air. 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 those planning missions. The IDF has 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 age five. The only thing I knew about autism at the time was Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman character. Raising a son on the spectrum drastically changed my point of view on disability inclusion, seeing strengths through the challenges, and cultivating those strengths while accommodating the challenges. He’s a grown man today, living on his own, working, paying his bills, saving money, and building relationships. His strengths outweigh his challenges.
The same reckoning with his strengths and challenges can lead to success with overseeing how an organization thrives, but how do you begin to ensure inclusion of disabled people’s strength in the workplace at scale with at an organization level? It has to start at the board and C-suite level.
The Center 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 do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).” A disability can:
- Be 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 longstanding condition (i.e. diabetes), which can cause a disability (i.e. vision loss).
In 2018 Accenture published an outstanding research report entitled Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage. Some of the statistics in the report are eye-opening:
- 29 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities participate in the workforce compared with 75 percent of Americans without a disability
- There are 15.1 million Americans of working age living with a disability
- If companies embraced disability inclusion, they would gain 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 Disability: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
- Enterprise-Wide Access
- Employment Practices
- Community Engagement
- Supplier Diversity
- Non-US Operations
Organizations complete a survey (DEI estimates between 30-40 hours to complete), send it into DEI, and receive an objective score on their disability inclusion practices and opportunities for improvement. DEI puts respondents achieving 80 percent or better on their website, with companies like Accenture, Microsoft Corp., AT&T, The Walt Disney Co., Capital One Financial Corp., and Boeing Co. achieving a score of 100 percent. DEI has an advisory committee comprised of corporate and nonprofit executives and advocates who advise on benchmarking topics and questions.
While it’s a commitment to complete the survey, it gives an organization an honest and introspective lens into their culture, policies, and practices on disability inclusion and is valuable to help identify areas where an organization needs to improve.
This isn’t fluff stuff. The Accenture report notes several tangible results of those organizations that embraced a disability inclusion culture.
- Companies that were DEI disability champions (score of 80% or better) were twice as likely to have higher total shareholder returns than peer companies.
- Companies that weren’t disability champions but had improved their DEI scores over time were four times more likely to have higher total shareholder returns than peer companies.
- Staff turnover is up to 30 percent lower when a well-run 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 disability inclusion is baked into the culture, not just an add-on project. Here are three things you can do to get started:
- Use the DEI Benchmark Survey to assess your culture as-is. Whether or not you submit your responses to DEI for scoring, at a minimum, download and complete the survey to understand your company’s strengths and weaknesses on disability inclusion. You’ll at least get an understanding of where your company need to focus on the disability inclusion journey.
- Name a senior leadership disability inclusion champion. Identify and empower a member of your senior leadership team to be an internal and external-facing voice on disability inclusion for your organization. The executive should 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 just give an exec the champion title if they’re not passionate about it.
- Put a disability inclusion advocate on your board. Whether a person with a disability or a passionate supporter, ensure your board has someone who brings both needed subject matter expertise coupled with a willingness to be a courageous disability inclusion advocate in the boardroom.
Disability inclusion is not just a social responsibility buzzword meant to enhance reputation. There’s tangible business value to be had. As a board, your accountability is to ensure your organization is promoting a culture where the business benefits can be realized.