When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, it provided the first-ever federal equal rights protections for people with disabilities. That meant that a disability could no longer be used as an excuse not to hire an otherwise qualified employee; it also meant that workplaces had to become fully accessible to those employees—at businesses with more than 15 workers, at least. The ADA opened up a new world of opportunities for people who had largely been shut out of the corporate world.
Sunday was the 30th anniversary of the ADA’s passage, and a flurry of online events have marked the occasion throughout the month. The anniversary has also given a push to ongoing diversity and inclusion efforts that aim to measure and standardize disability inclusion in the corporate sphere.
Among those efforts is a CEO-driven campaign in partnership with the advocacy organization Disability:IN. In a letter signed by the presidents and CEOs of 15 major brands, companies are asked to commit to disability inclusion by participating in a benchmark tool called the Disability Equality Index (DEI).
The brands that initially signed on to the letter are Best Buy, TD Bank, Bristol Myers Squibb, Discover, Siemens, Boston Scientific, Voya Financial, Walmart, CVS, Microsoft, Grant Thornton, T-Mobile, Intel, Accenture and the ASL accessibility tech company Zvrs. The organizations behind the letter hope more CEOs will continue to sign on, and Disability:IN is in ongoing talks with brands.
One in five Americans have a disability, and the CEO letter says that by hiring more people from this talent pool, “leading disability-inclusive companies stand to gain as much as 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins than their peers.”
When Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities published the first DEI in 2018, they were inspired by the LGBTQ corporate equality index created by the Human Rights Campaign, according to Disability:IN president and CEO Jill Houghton.
“The CEO Letter on Disability Inclusion shows the time is now to drive inclusion. We know disability inclusion in business is driving higher revenue, net income and economic profit margins,” Houghton said. “The CEOs who choose to sign on understand this is not just the right thing to do, but it also makes business sense.”
The DEI measures inclusivity through factors such as accessibility, supplier diversity, and culture and leadership. The 2020 report showed that a total of 247 companies representing over 11 million workers participated in the index, with technology and finance brands overrepresented.
One vital takeaway from this year’s DEI: Only about 5% of current employees and 3% of new hires identified openly as having a disability. Those numbers show that workers with disabilities are either under-hired, or that people are fearful of disclosing their disability at work.
Fear of disclosure is a common obstacle for employees with cognitive and mental health disabilities especially. According to a 2018 report from the Working Mother Research Institute, only half of workers disclose mental health disabilities, along with around 60% of those with autism and other cognitive disabilities.
Why aren’t workers identifying as disabled more openly? In these cases, the report found, they either didn’t feel comfortable revealing their condition, or they didn’t feel that it impacted their ability to work. When asked about improving the hiring process, workers with cognitive and mental health disabilities said they would like to see recruiters show knowledge, be offered access to other workers with disabilities, and have a better understanding of disability accommodations and resources.