When we talk of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), from what I remember of organizational priorities, say 10 years back - we’ve come a long way. According to Gartner research, the number of HR leaders identifying DEI efforts as a top priority was 1.8 times higher in 2020 than in 2019. In India, while the focus has largely been on gender so far, a group that needs our urgent and focused attention is people with disabilities.

UN data on the subject that I came across indicates that in developing countries, 80% to 90% of persons with disabilities in the working age group are unemployed. These numbers are definitely disappointing. Here’s something to note though - the same numbers also point to the fact that people with disabilities are a source of untapped talent. No wonder then the UN theme for International Day for Persons with Disabilities this year is aptly titled: Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.

There are several myths associated with hiring people with disabilities, from them not being able to meet performance standards to needing more sick leaves. These are however not backed by data. In fact, Accenture research shows that organizations most focused on disability engagement are growing sales 2.9x faster and profits 4.1x faster than their peers.

In theory, we do understand the need to include marginalized and underrepresented communities. However, it’s now time for our actions to speak. As leaders we can definitely be the torchbearers for encouraging the inclusion of people with disabilities and helping organizations harness their full potential. 

Speaking of action, employers in India can start with relooking their hiring practices to eliminate unconscious bias. Talent, ability, skills, and perseverance are among the traits employers look for. These are however not visible at first glance. Like other candidates, persons with disabilities deserve a fair chance to prove their mettle. We need to go beyond what we perceive and provide them the right platform to be evaluated.

Organizations must ensure that once they hire people with disabilities, appropriate mentoring and coaching is provided for individuals to thrive. What is required is consistent involvement. We need to offer practical support too that will make a difference. A good example is to enable reasonable accommodation in the form of assistive technology, workplace adjustments and transportation arrangements as per the needs of employees.

Training to sensitize people, especially those at the managerial level and above would definitely help to create the right cultural climate for inclusivity and growth.

Another way to unlock inclusivity that our Getting to equal 2020 disability inclusion report uncovers is the presence of role models. Persons with disabilities holding senior positions are undoubtedly a great source of inspiration for others. Their story of struggles and success are motivating and also send a message that the organisation welcomes and values people with disabilities. 

The high rate of unemployment among people with disabilities is not a result of lack of desire, but rather of opportunity. As leaders, we need to be cognizant that there is a good chance individuals with disabilities may hesitate and not approach us at all. They may either not feel welcome or may be struggling with confidence issues owing to prior experiences of discrimination. If we truly wish to make a difference, we as leaders would need to support them. Associating with groups or agencies that work with or train such individuals may be a step ahead in the right direction.

I recently came across this wonderful quote by Robert Hensel, a man born with a birth defect who went on to become a Guinness world record holder for the longest non-stop wheelie in a wheelchair. He says, “There is no greater disability in society, than the inability to see a person as more”. It’s high time we explore the power and true potential of people with disabilities. This is not only about being conscious but also about gaining competitive advantage. There is no better time than now to realize that this is indeed a win-win for organisations and individuals.

Sanjay Dawar

MANAGING DIRECTOR AND LEAD – CAPABILITY NETWORK, GLOBAL NETWORK (ARGENTINA, INDIA & POLAND) AND STRATEGY

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