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To build truly inclusive economies, disability needs to be part of the conversation

by Caroline Casey | @CarolineBinc | The Valuable 500
Thursday, 14 May 2020 13:56 GMT

Commuters walk past a giant Mondaine electronic station clock near the Swiss railway company SBB building in Bern, Switzerland December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Executives need to look beyond narrow accessibility issues, and realise diversity is good for society and business

Caroline Casey is the founder of The Valuable 500, a business initiative working to increase disability inclusion.

Inclusion is something that is talked about widely and is slowly becoming a priority in the business world, but disability is seldom included in the conversation.

One reason for this is that 80% of disabilities are invisible, which can create an out of sight out of mind mentality.

While there have been important accomplishments in relation to disability awareness, accessibility and inclusion, the issue is still seen by much of the business community as a niche or the domain of charity or welfare programmes, meaning many businesses fail to include disabled people at the most basic level.

Just recently, Dominos Pizza was defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court case when a blind customer sued the fast food chain on the grounds that its website was not accessible to those with impaired vision.

Disability is a wide-ranging topic, but when business leaders hear about ‘disability performance’, they often think narrowly: about providing accessible toilets or hiring people with disabilities to fill targeted vacancies. Those are important endeavours, but the inclusion agenda is a lot bigger than that.

When businesses commit fully to disability inclusion, they often see profits, performance and innovation rise. And the innovations that emerge from this behaviour can enrich the rest of the world.

We know that if business takes a lead on this issue, society and government will follow. In other words, inclusive businesses can build inclusive societies.

Ensuring inclusion for disabled people not only benefits those with a disability. It benefits brands, who can access an $8 trillion market globally, and a consumer base the size of the United States, Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan combined.

Social enterprises and charities like Pluss, Clarity and UnLtd are doing a great job of bringing those with disabilities into the workforce and businesses are increasingly designing for disabled people.

There are notable examples of brilliant brands whose philosophy has inclusivity at its core, which has led to industry leading innovation and significant business growth – Nike, Gilette, Mars, and Microsoft come to mind.

Tech giant Apple became the first trillion dollar public company because it put user centricity and simplicity - and therefore, inclusive design - at the heart of its creative ethos. Apple approached design as a way to remove barriers for people and gained huge market share as a result, meeting the needs of more people than ever before.

The Ford Focus car was designed with older people in mind – with larger heater controls for easy use - but it is bought by many families who just want a simple, comfortable car.

Similarly, the Eone Bradley braille watch was designed for blind people but the majority of sales go to business people who want to surreptitiously check the time in meetings.

Until all big businesses start to understand the economic, creative value and opportunity they are missing out on, our progress towards a fully inclusive society will be slow and stagnant. With ageing populations in many major economies, businesses cannot achieve sustainable growth without making disability inclusion a priority.

As with any organisational culture change it needs to start from the top. In social enterprises this is easier, as they are mission-focused, while in large businesses it is crucial that accessibility is recognised as an issue at board level.

By accessibility I am not merely talking about wheelchair ramps or tokenistic inclusion quotas; working environments must be totally redesigned with accessibility and inclusion at their centre.

The first step in that process involves companies embracing inclusivity and serving the needs of all their employees and their customers. We need to create an environment where people can thrive.