All companies are in part a reflection of their leadership. But what happens when leadership doesn’t reflect the lived reality of its workforce? The consequences can include marginalization and missed social and economic opportunities.
In my role as Chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, I lead a team that partners with a range of companies, organizations, and groups throughout the state to promote disability integration within their emergency operations plans (EOPs). It’s lifesaving work, and I’m proud to marshal it.
As a part of my work, I have spent a lot of time visiting with staff and touring the campuses of some of California’s largest employers. Interestingly, regardless of their size, I find that most company EOPs have at least one glaring commonality – they do not specifically address, account for, or call out the needs individuals with disabilities have before, during, and after disasters. When I point this out, I usually receive the same uniform look of surprise, and sometimes embarrassment, from whomever I’m meeting with. Fortunately, I also typically find the same uniform willingness to learn, address gaps, and create updated, more inclusive plans.
Seeing this pattern unfold over the past five years has led me to ask, how it is that so many companies, spanning such varied industries, sizes, and profitability, consistently exclude people with disabilities from their EOPs? The answer, as I’ve come to discover, is simple: People typically come at things from their own lived perspective and EOPs are usually written, developed, and implemented by emergency managers and security officers – the vast majority of whom do not have a lived disability experience.
Compounding the problem is that most companies are ill-equipped to address the issue of disability as a whole, which explains, at least in part, why we see that 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, individuals with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as their non-disabled counterparts. And while there is no single cause for this disparity, a major contributing factor is that traditional organizational structures often exclude people with disabilities from meaningful employment.
CEOs, COOs, and others who are serious about addressing and rectifying disability-related inequities should start by re-evaluating their existing organizational chart and taking an innovative step by creating a new position: Senior Vice President, Disability Integration.
While there are immediate costs associated with every position (e.g., salary, benefits, potential support staff, etc.), especially at the senior or executive level, most jobs cannot yield the same social and economic returns a Senior Vice President, Disability Integration can.
This new position will further representation, embrace members of the workforce with disabilities more broadly, and speak to a company’s culture and commitment to social justice. It will enhance business operation and profitability by getting more value from the existing workforce, bringing in previously untapped talent, creating products that – while focused on specific markets – cater to the accessibility and usability needs of customers with disabilities. It will also lead to a more integrated operation that avoids or limits the liability costs associated with lacking particular plans or provisions, such as the EOPs. In other words, there are social, moral, and business cases to be made for this important change.
Too often, companies view disability through the lens of their human resources departments (i.e., what can or cannot be asked in an interview, what reasonable accommodations must be made, and whether facilities meet ADA physical access requirements). Too often, companies develop products that do not account for the needs of consumers with disabilities. Too often, companies hire employees with disabilities to fill lower level positions and fail to retain or promote them into higher level positions. And too often, companies create inclusion programs with a skewed view of diversity that does not feature disability.
A Senior Vice President, Disability Integration is needed to adopt an enterprise-wide approach to recruit, hire, promote, and retain employees with disabilities; create physically and programmatically accessible buildings, services, and resources; build and develop products and offerings with the disability perspective in mind; and ingrain disability integration into the company culture and DNA.
The world has changed enormously. Integration, social justice, and awareness are at the forefront of the national conscience. Disability is an essential element of that movement. Failing to springboard toward integration threatens to redraw the lines of exclusion that advocates have spent decades working to erase.
What remains to be seen is if companies will rise to meet this moment.