Psst! Disability Competitiveness: Pass It On!

Just because I have a disability -- my right leg was amputated when I was 5 -- doesn't make me an expert on issues relating to disability and employment. Like everyone else, I have to work at educating myself on facts and realities for people with disabilities.
09/12/2014 07:16 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Just because I have a disability -- my right leg was amputated when I was 5 -- doesn't make me an expert on issues relating to disability and employment. Like everyone else, I have to work at educating myself on facts and realities for people with disabilities in the same way I read up on research about, say, women's leadership or African-Americans in the workplace.

Recently, I came across something new in the disability space that made me sit up and take notice -- and I immediately wanted to share it far and wide.

Meg O'Connell, Managing Partner of a breakthrough new company called Global Disability Inclusion shared with me that her most impactful work at the moment is helping companies "Evolve toward Disability Competitiveness."

"Doesn't that sound like an oxymoron?" I asked her. "What does 'Disability Competitiveness' mean?"

Here's our dialog on the subject:

MEG: A company has Disability Competitiveness when they are savvy about (1)Attracting talent with disabilities; (2) Maximizing the contribution of people with disabilities whom they already employ; and (3) Positioning themselves to capture a leading share in the over $225 billion market opportunity that people with disabilities represent. By leveraging their ability to understand and engage people with disabilities (PWDs), companies can increase their profitability and gain a competitive advantage.

BONNIE: It seems to me that most organizations are only beginning to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace; very few are actually treating disability as a competitive advantage. That's rare.

MEG: It is an emerging concept. Including people with disabilities in the talent pool, and as a target market, is not new but it is one that only a handful of businesses recognize and have worked toward over the past decade.

Leading companies in this space, like Walgreens and Nordstrom, have long understood the benefits of employing and marketing to those with disabilities...and both have reaped the benefits.

We are showing more and more companies a vision of where they could be, illuminating the road map to get there and, in the process, making it clear to them whether they are near the beginning, middle or end of that journey toward real inclusion for People with Disabilities.

BONNIE: I like that a lot. If you can make it easier for a team or an organization to talk about disability issues and see the path ahead, then we can begin to change together, to "evolve" as you put it. So, what are the steps on your road map?

MEG: In its simplest terms, what we have created is a maturity matrix. In our work with companies we help them see disability inclusion not just as a "check-the-box" exercise to become compliant but instead as a competitive advantage. Our model breaks this progress into five stages:

1. Not Important or Not on my Radar: This is the stage the majority of companies have been stuck at for over 25 years. There will always be companies where the leadership just isn't thinking about disability as a business issue.

2. Compliance: With the recently released Department of Labor regulations about employing PWDs, many companies quickly moved from the "not important" stage to the "compliance" stage. Compliance is how most other diversity groups historically got their push in corporate America. At this stage, companies are updating systems and processes just enough to pass an audit. There will be a large group of companies that will never leave this stage. Either they won't know how, or they won't see or understand the opportunity to keep pushing ahead.

3. Competence: At this stage, companies are building their core competencies around disability inclusion: they are adjusting policies and procedures, creating programs, and training all employees on disability inclusion. We also begin to see shifts from viewing disability as a charitable endeavor to viewing disability as part of their overall diversity efforts.

4. Confidence: Companies here are developing a mastery of disability inclusion. Dedicated in-house professionals are on hand to respond to disability needs. Applicants, candidates and employees know where to go to get their questions answered and the organization addresses them accurately and effectively. At this stage, we also see the company able to identify new opportunities to enhance disability inclusion as well as able to respond to new challenges. Building the expertise and changing the culture of an organization takes time and sustained efforts, but companies at this stage are clearly seeing the benefits.

5. Competitiveness: The most informed and beneficial stage. Companies no longer have a "special" initiative on disability inclusion -- it is part of the very fabric of the organization. Cultural shifts have evolved internally. Disability inclusion is part of the overall talent management strategy and is leveraged across all lines of business. True, there are not a lot of companies at this stage, yet. But over the next five years we expect to have many more organizations achieving disability competitiveness. As I said earlier, these companies will be gaining market share by better serving this $225 billion-plus segment. With the war for talent continuing to heat up, they will be attracting the top candidates with disabilities and getting more productivity out of the aging workforce with increasing disabilities of all kinds.

BONNIE: Meg, this is great. Making change is not easy. You mentioned under the "Competence" stage that companies in that phase begin to incorporate disability into their diversity programs. I bet most people reading this wouldn't even realize that the majority of corporate diversity programs have little, if any, focus on disability!

MEG: It is a little shocking that diversity programs tend to overlook disability when you consider that 'People With Disabilities' are the largest minority group in the world (there are 56 million people with disabilities in the U.S. alone). However, with the new Department of Labor regulations, companies all across the U.S. are intensely seeking out those with disabilities. Suddenly, finding candidates with disabilities is becoming a competitive exercise, and the winners will have a significant advantage.

BONNIE: You've mentioned the new regulations on employing PWDs twice now. Can you give us a quick overview on that?

MEG:
To put it simply, the Department of Labor recognized the national opportunity cost of not including the disabled community as workers and consumers. With unemployment rates of over 70 percent among PWDs, we have lower GNP, lower tax revenue, and higher entitlement costs. So it made sense to release new regulations that will compel companies to move toward disability inclusion. Specifically, the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) amended Section 503 of the rehabilitation act and has made hiring those with disabilities a priority for federal contractors and subcontractors.

This is a true sea change; there are over 250,000 companies that have contracts with the federal government and they must comply with these new regulations. So there is an enormous push right now for companies to get up to speed on disability inclusion: what it means, how to do it, and how to do it better than their competitors.

BONNIE: It is truly an exciting time -- I feel the energy shifting as the conversation on disability inclusion is reaching a fever pitch. Thank you so much for sharing your Evolution of Disability Competitiveness framework -- I hope it creates a lot of discussion...and ultimately clears the way forward for people and organizations.

For more information on DISABILITY COMPETITIVENESS go to: http://www.globaldisabilityinclusion.com