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29 May. 2018 | Comments (0)

Through corporate philanthropy, employers not only support the communities and societies in which they operate, they signal their company’s values and priorities to their own employees. By choosing to support people with disabilities through philanthropic efforts, companies also signal support for nearly a third of their workforce.

In Disabilities and Inclusion, a recent nationally representative study I led at the Center for Talent Innovation, we show that 30 percent of white-collar, college-educated employees in full-time positions between the ages of 21 and 65 in the US have a disability. That’s right, 30 percent.

Does that figure seem high? Perhaps that’s because we found that 62 percent of employees with disabilities have an invisible disability—in other words, people who meet them can’t tell they have one. Deafness, ADHD, Crohn’s disease, migraines, and bi-polar disorder are just a few of the many disabilities that can be invisible.

The other reason we propose that few people know nearly a third of their coworkers have a disability is because few people with disabilities feel comfortable disclosing their disability at work. Only 24 percent of employees with disabilities share with team members that they have one.

In interviews, we heard that employees feel uncomfortable disclosing because of enormous social stigma they’ve encountered about disabilities over the course of their lives. They fear colleagues, bosses, or HR departments will underestimate their capabilities if they know about their disability.

Yet, we also found employees with disabilities are more likely than their counterparts without disabilities to have ideas that would drive market value for their companies (75 percent vs 66 percent). Nearly half (48 percent) of employees with disabilities say their ideas would serve the market of consumers with disabilities. After all, people with disabilities innovate every day to navigate a world that wasn't built with them in mind.

But in interviews, respondents told us that if they aren’t sure employers will support them when they disclose their disability, they are even less sure their employers will support their ideas. Such fears are founded—employees with disabilities are 26 percent more likely than their counterparts without disabilities to say their ideas failed to win endorsement.

The benefits of supporting people with disabilities

Companies benefit, both from an innovation and a talent management perspective, from actively creating company cultures that support and include employees with disabilities. Employers use a variety of approaches to do this, from manager training to hiring programs. A key approach is sending signals of support to current and potential employees, which can range from profiling top leaders who are open about their disabilities, to setting up an employee resource group for employees with disabilities.

One crucial way to demonstrate that your company wants to reduce social stigma against people with disabilities is to direct philanthropic dollars to support them. Here are a few ways to do so:

  • Fund programs that tackle the deepest stigma In 2017, Aetna partnered with TheaterWorks in Hartford, Connecticut, to host a panel including Aetna leaders and other experts following a performance of the play Next to Normal. The goal of the panel was to combat the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace, and to make conversations about mental health easier at work. “We all know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack,” Barbara Van Dehlen, founder and president of Give an Hour and The Campaign to Change Direction, shared during the panel discussion. “But as a society, we don’t know the signs of emotional suffering.” Programs like these support and raise awareness of local change agents, as well as shape norms among company employees.
  • Support role models with disabilities In 2015, BP sponsored more Paralympians than Olympians on its athlete roster. It was the first corporate sponsor of the Olympics to do so. By giving Paralympians such broad platforms and financial backing, BP created role models for other aspiring Paralympians.
  • Connect students with disabilities to career prospects Companies can partner with organizations like Lime Connect, a global non-profit whose mission is to rebrand disability through achievement. Lime Connect connects leading companies with a network of over 12,000 high-potential university students and professionals with disabilities for corporate internships and careers. Corporate partners, which include Bloomberg, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Google, JPMorganChase & Co., Microsoft, PwC, and Unilever, work closely with Lime Connect to identify and hire outstanding employees with disabilities and prepare them for successful careers. By partnering with such organizations, these companies have found a win-win: their funding supports impactful work, and they receive access to a dynamic talent pool and employer training on how to cultivate their unique strengths. 

Not only is including employees with disabilities the right thing to do, it can boost engagement and progression for nearly a third of the workforce—as well as unleash innovative ideas. Signaling inclusion through philanthropic support is an important step companies can take, both for their employees and their consumers.

  • About the Author:Julia Taylor Kennedy

    Julia Taylor Kennedy

    Julia Taylor Kennedy is executive vice president and director of publications at the Center for Talent Innovation. She coauthored Disabilities and Inclusion, Mission Critical: Unlocking the Value of V…

    Full Bio | More from Julia Taylor Kennedy


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