As business leaders, you probably dream of a thriving workplace where your employees are engaged, committed, happy, and productive – most of the organizations I serve do! But what if I told you that the vast majority of organizations have their fair share of employees who struggle, feel miserable, and feel like they are not supported in a way that allows them to meaningfully contribute to the success of the business they work for?

I’m not talking about the employees who no longer care or those who chose to quietly quit during or after Covid. I’m talking about another group, those who feel invisible and ignored – the 15 to 20% of your workforce living with various disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and who are not getting the support and encouragement that they crave to contribute meaningfully…

You know, the ones we never talk about? The ones we know next to nothing about?

It’s pretty clear in 2024 that diversity is no longer something we can afford to only pay lip service to. Organizations that really thrive these days are the ones that celebrate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) as a cornerstone of their success. With this mindset and commitment comes the vision that every person, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, is worthy of being valued, recognized, and empowered.

Yet, despite the data, disability inclusion is often a neglected aspect in the broader scope of DEI. More than a missed opportunity, this neglect is a significant oversight when it comes to harnessing a diverse workforce’s full potential! An essential aspect of benevolent leadership, disability inclusion is a game-changer for operations and a key pillar of any good business strategy.

Let’s explore why. And how.

The business case for disability inclusion

Hear me out; disability inclusion is one of your most under-utilized strategic advantages! With a growing portion of their workforce starving for support, recognition, and the opportunity to prove their value, leaders who embrace disability inclusion as the missing piece of their DEI initiatives are reaping the benefits of diverse perspectives that unlock even more innovation and creativity within the business.

A well-known example of this would be Microsoft, who never could have come up with ground-breaking technologies like the Xbox Adaptive Controller (designed for gamers with limited mobility) if it hadn’t been for its ability to leverage the concept of diverse thinking within its workforce – something they could only achieve by tapping into their team’s profound, personal understanding of what it meant to be a disabled gamer. This type of innovation, only available through the sum of lived experiences, goes to show how disability inclusion leads to products and services that cater to a wider audience.

But disability inclusion is not just about innovation; the financial implications are also significant! According to an Accenture report, companies with best-in-class disability inclusion practices witness as much as 28% higher revenue and double the net income compared to their peers who don’t. These organizations also see a 30% higher economic profit margin over a four-year period.

And if that wasn’t enough, disability inclusion also resonates really well with people… Not only does it attract a wider range of talents with fresh ideas, unique perspectives, and varied experiences that fuel more innovation and creativity in the workplace, but a 2023 research published by MDPI reports that 92% of consumers felt more favourable towards companies that hire individuals with disabilities! Showing that those who champion disability inclusion not only polish their brand image, but also win the hearts and loyalty of individuals and consumers who favour businesses with a strong value alignment.

Legal and reputational considerations

It’s not hard to imagine why legal compliance would be another compelling reason for businesses to prioritize disability inclusion. Across various countries, legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) in Canada, and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in Australia set standards for workplace accommodations and accessibility.

These laws are not mere guidelines but mandatory requirements. Am I the only one noticing a pattern here? Ignoring these laws increases the risk of significant legal repercussions – fines, lawsuits, reputational damage, etc. For instance, just a few weeks ago, I covered how UsableNet tracks the substantial number of disability discrimination cases filed annually against organizations operating inaccessible websites and applications – only one of the many ways in which not paying attention to disability inclusion can seriously impact your credibility, your reputation, and your bottom line.

But beyond the legal imperatives, there’s also a strong reputational aspect to consider. You’ll probably agree with me that nowadays, brand image is everything. Well, companies seen as champions of inclusivity certainly gain a positive standing in the public eye… A commitment to disability inclusion enhances a company’s reputation as a socially responsible and ethical entity. This certainly comes in handy when it’s time to attract and retain customers who increasingly make purchasing decisions based on a company’s social values.

After all, while positive stories about inclusive practices do go viral and win public admiration and loyalty regularly, a single misstep regarding disability inclusion can just as easily cause irreparable damage to a company’s reputation and the way the market perceives your organization. Google searches are full of examples of organizations which found out the hard way!

Celebrating disability inclusion as part of DEI initiatives allows companies to comply with legal standards and build brands that resonate powerfully with both consumers and employees. Would you agree that the dual benefit of legal compliance and enhanced reputation makes disability inclusion an essential consideration for any business leader?

Enhancing employee engagement and productivity

But wait, there’s more! We started this post by talking about the fair share of employees who struggle, feel miserable, and feel like they are not supported in a way that can allow them to contribute meaningfully… so let’s go back to that for a bit. As leaders, we already know that employee engagement is a critical driver of organizational success – what I’m inviting you to consider is how disability inclusion can also play a significant role in enhancing it.

When employees, regardless of their abilities, feel valued and included, they are more likely to be committed and engaged with their work – reinforcing their sense of belonging and leading to more positive work environments, higher job satisfaction, and retention rates! But hey, don’t just take my word for it; a Gallup study revealed that highly engaged teams show 21% greater profitability than those who tapped out.

Leaning into inclusive practices also extends to how companies choose to manage and support their employees; leaders who enable a wider range of perspectives brought by a diverse workforce encourage even more innovative thinking and problem-solving, leading to increased productivity and better business outcomes. Providing employees with reasonable accommodations, flexible working arrangements, and assistive technologies doesn’t just benefit those who need these adjustments. The overall work experience, satisfaction, and engagement of the entire workforce are increased as a result!

And it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it… Enabling employees to work in a manner that best suits their needs can only lead to enhanced productivity and more fulfillment. On top of that, inclusive workplaces are, by their very nature, more likely to attract a wider pool of talents, as legions of skilled professionals, especially in younger generations, are increasingly seeking employers who clearly commit to diversity and inclusion. Organizations that set themselves to tap into this talent pool are the ones that ultimately reap the benefits.

The role of leadership in fostering inclusion

The commitment and actions of its leaders set the tone for an organization’s culture and values; in that sense, leadership can very much be seen as a cornerstone of inclusive workplaces. Effective leaders do more than recognize the importance of disability inclusion – they invest valuable time and energy weaving it into every facet of their organization, facilitating disability awareness through training and promoting understanding and empathy among all employees.

Since the root of this integration is found in awareness and education, they have a responsibility to educate themselves and their teams on the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. This is why inclusive leaders need to lead by example when implementing inclusive practices: they need to ensure accessible recruitment processes, they must provide necessary accommodations, and have to foster environments where employees will feel comfortable discussing their needs. These are but a few examples of the ways in which leaders can model the behaviours they expect to see in their people.

While we clearly can’t downplay the crucial role of leadership in policymaking, leaders must still advocate for and develop policies that support disability inclusion – think flexible working arrangements, workstation adaptations, inclusive communication strategies, etc. Obviously, these policies are key – on top of establishing the mood and showing how committed the organization is to being inclusive, they also reflect the values of the business and those of the people who support disability inclusion within it.

Economic impact and expanding market reach

Last but not least, individuals with disabilities represent a substantial, untapped consumer base. A blessing in disguise for any organization looking to expand its market reach, this demographic unveils tremendous opportunities for growth! In the United States alone, the after-tax disposable income of working-age adults with disabilities is about $504 billion a year, according to the American Institutes for Research (PDF). In Canada, that same market is worth more than $55 billion annually, based on data released by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

The data clearly underscores the economic power of this otherwise underserved group – what business wouldn’t want to tap into that? And yet, very few actually do, as 96.1% of websites out there don’t even come close to meeting basic digital accessibility guidelines. By including disability considerations in product development and marketing strategies, companies get to better serve a much wider audience controlling incredibly relevant spending power. Doing so certainly improves accessibility for individuals with disabilities. Still, the impact goes further and leads to products that are simply easier to use, are more convenient for all, and enjoy a wider adoption rate by a broader range of consumers.

Whichever way you look at it, disability inclusion is a smart business move, as organizations focused on inclusive hiring practices also get the competitive advantage of understanding and serving a broader market, thanks to the insights and perspectives of their disabled workforce who share those lived experiences.

This, too, leads to more effective and inclusive product designs and marketing strategies, further driving home the point as to why leaders should care…

A critical component of any forward-thinking business

Leaders who choose to approach disability inclusion as a critical component of a successful and forward-thinking business strategy are the ones who commit to creating a work environment where every individual is valued and empowered to contribute fully. They understand that there’s much more to it than simply meeting legal requirements or ticking a box in the sacrosanct DEI checklist – their approach fuels diverse and innovative workforces, which automatically enhances their company’s reputation, legal compliance, and financial performances – not to mention engagement and commitment from the workforce and the consumer base themselves!

I firmly believe that the business case for disability inclusion is strong. Hopefully, you are also starting to feel this way if you weren’t already! Leaders like yourselves should actively include it in your core business strategies to increase employee engagement, improve productivity, and open new markets. So, stick around if you’re interested in discussing the benefits of opening ourselves up to disability inclusion. There’s lots to explore, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding the vision required to transform your businesses.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey – there’s lots to share! In the meantime, if you need to get a hold of me and discuss any of the ideas shared in this post or others like it, feel free to book some time on my calendar for a quick chat.

Source: Denis Boudreau