Caroline Casey, The Valuable 500: Disability is everyone’s business and global companies need to realise the opportunity that inclusion presents

Diversity and inclusion cannot be tick-box activities for companies, they need to be the values upon which businesses are built. Too often, companies do not prioritise people with disabilities when they create strategies for diversity and inclusion. “Although 90% of companies claim to prioritise diversity, only 4% consider disability in this definition, and only a small subset truly serves customers with disabilities,” says Caroline Casey, Founder and Creator of The Valuable 500. In this exclusive interview, we talked about creating an inclusive workplace for people with disabilities, the future of diversity and inclusion in business, and the benefits of diversity in its fullest sense to companies.

How did you start Valuable 500 and what do you aim to achieve through this movement?

Caroline Casey: I launched The Valuable 500 at the World Economic Forum Annual Summit in 2019, where I succeeded in bringing disability inclusion onto the main stage at Davos for the first time ever, with the support of global business leaders including Paul Polman, Peter Grauer, Julie Sweet, and Carolyn Tastad among others. The Valuable 500 is a global movement, the first phase of which aims to get 500 CEOs and brands to put disability inclusion on their leadership agendas. Where business leads, society follows, and we need global businesses to realise the opportunity that inclusion presents. The Valuable 500 is the only CEO community committed to business disability inclusion. Having created The Valuable 500, in phase 2 we will share best practices and use the collective information to revolutionise the business system, to equally include people with disabilities and their families across the entire value chain. Together we are transforming business for the better, unlocking the social and economic potential of 1.3 billion people living with disabilities, and accelerating an inclusive world where everybody wins.

What were some of the biggest challenges and what are some of the key lessons you have learned along the way?

Caroline Casey: I started speaking to businesses about disability inclusion many years ago. The 3 biggest barriers I have witnessed are:

  • A key lesson for me was to start at the top. Without leadership, nothing happens. You need to gain the attention of leaders and they need to be intentional, about the choices they make as these create cultures.
  • Businesses choose an “a la carte” inclusion model – pitting humanity and inclusion initiatives against each other whether that is in terms of gender, ethnicity, or sexuality. When this happens, disability is always at the bottom of the list. Although 90% of companies claim to prioritise diversity, only 4% consider disability in this definition, and only a small subset truly serves customers with disabilities. We must look at inclusion for all, and this does not mean picking and choosing who has access to equality.
  • Businesses and business leaders can see disability as a “health or charity“ issue, not a business differentiator. The spectrum of disabilities can make inclusion appear complex and daunting, and businesses also lack disability confidence and are worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.

What will the ‘new normal’ look like in the workplace after the world comes out of quarantine? How should leaders and managers plan their future ED&I strategies?

Caroline Casey: The world over recent months has been thrown into a state of social and physical exclusion – something those with disabilities feel daily. Hopefully, there will be a lot more understanding and empathy for those with disabilities going forward.

Almost overnight, the business world proved it could make many of the accommodations that it previously deemed impossible, such as flexible home working, virtual events, and online meetings. If we learn all the lessons and respond correctly to this crisis as we rebuild our business systems, we have a real opportunity to create a much more positive and inclusive world than the one we left behind.

Coronavirus has brought into sharp focus not only the careers of those with a disability, but also those of the ageing and elderly, and those with underlying health issues. The learnings are not purely a niche market for business, but for all, and the fact is that this touches everyone, so disability is everyone’s business.

How do you form a lasting partnership between people with disabilities and corporations? 

Caroline Casey: In order to attract and retain talented employees, accessibility and inclusivity must extend beyond the recruitment process. People with disabilities need to feel included in the culture and need to feel comfortable with their working environment, and office design needs to take this into account. For a business to reach its true potential it needs to ensure inclusion is represented across the whole supply chain. In 2019, the UK’s Click-Away Pound survey found that businesses lost £17.1 billion due to customers abandoning a retail website because of a lack of accessibility.

How can employers make the workplace a more inclusive space for people with disabilities? 

Caroline Casey: It is essential that we bring those with disabilities into the debate. Human-centric inclusive design is critical. If we design for extremes, there is far more chance of innovation – just look at Apple Inc and the benefits of universal design from the outset. Many of the solutions we need when it comes to designing offices or services, will require the input, intelligence, and experience of those who have lived through accessibility issues.

What needs to change to create a workplace culture that embraces inclusivity in all its forms?

Caroline Casey: We have to end what I refer to as “divers-ish” behaviour – creating a competition between gender, race and disability. We need to become allies of full inclusion. Businesses need to start by being open to all potential employees and recognising the value they can bring.

They need to understand the barriers that discourage people with disabilities from applying for a job, such as the recruitment processes, application format, online accessibility, and even the language of job descriptions. From this, businesses need to ensure their workplace is inclusive and open – people need to feel comfortable and included in the workplace where they can bring their “whole selves” to work.

What is your advice on having conversations about disability in a respectful manner? How can managers and leaders create a space for these conversations to take place? How do you create a space for vulnerability?

Caroline Casey: Without creating an open and inclusive workplace, businesses will never be able to tackle this issue. The majority of disabilities are hidden, and 80% are acquired during your working life, so anyone can be impacted by a disability at any one point during their lives.

Communication is incredibly important if we want to get this right. We need to make this an open dialogue so people feel comfortable coming forward and also discussing their disability. To do this, we need to make inclusion and accessibility obvious so everyone feels welcome. 

Looking at the things we have learned during the crisis, what are some of the things that companies should take forward when it comes to human resources?

Caroline Casey: Making this change should not be a chore. It is a business opportunity. There are more than one billion people worldwide – around 15% of the population – living with a disability. As consumers, they represent a market the size of the United States, Brazil, Pakistan, and Indonesia combined, and have a disposable income of more than $8 trillion. As workers, they have talents and add to the organisational diversity that drives better decision-making.

As the world starts to recover from the Coronavirus pandemic we should move on from “Diversity and Inclusion” to “Corporate equality” or “Belonging” as a key part of business sustainability, hence becoming more strategic and more systemic. This is not necessarily the remit of HR but I urge HR teams to work closely with people with disabilities and to proactively ask them for their input – there really is no excuse not to. Insights are vital in ensuring initiatives work well for as many people as possible, employees and customers, across the vast array of needs and requirements. This isn’t just an add-on at the final moment – the considerations must be part of the R&D stage and every other milestone along the way.  HR teams can be a powerful driving force in this – working on removing the barriers that people with disabilities often face, from recruitment to onboarding and from workplace adjustments to internal communications, ensuring that people with disabilities can flourish and bring their best selves to work.

There are more than one billion people worldwide – around 15% of the population – living with a disability. As consumers, they represent a market the size of the United States, Brazil, Pakistan, and Indonesia combined, and have a disposable income of more than $8 trillion. As workers, they have talents and add to the organisational diversity that drives better decision-making.

Caroline Casey is an award-winning social entrepreneur and founder of The Valuable 500 – a catalyst for an inclusion revolution that exists to position disability equally on the global business leadership agenda. Committed to building a global movement on inclusive business for the 1.3 billion people in the world with a disability, over the past two decades she has set up several organisations and initiatives centred on disability business inclusion. 

Her latest initiative, The Valuable 500, is a campaign to get 500 businesses to commit to putting disability and inclusion on their leadership agendas.  Launched at the World Economic Forum Annual Summit in 2019, Casey succeeded in bringing disability inclusion onto the main stage at DAVOS for the first time ever with the support of global business leaders. 

The Valuable 500 is supported by a host of global leaders including Sir Richard Branson, Paul Polman, and global brands including Microsoft and Sky.  Casey is also a TED speaker, Ashoka Fellow, Eisenhower Fellow, a past Advisor for the Clinton Global Initiative, a One Young World Counsellor, and is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

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