It's Time to Include Disability in All Corporate Diversity Requirements | Opinion

When the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission gave the green light to Nasdaq for its new board diversity reporting initiative, it rightfully included women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+ individuals. But people with disabilities were left out.

As a childhood bone cancer survivor, amputee and disability rights lawyer, I view this decision as the latest snub for the 33 million working-age people with disabilities in corporate America. Several states, including California, Maryland, Illinois and New York, also failed to include disability from board diversity-related requirements for companies headquartered in those states.

Even 31 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, systemic bias still has a strong grip. The ADA calls people with disabilities a "discrete and insular minority" that has been subjected to discrimination and unequal treatment. But we are still not viewed akin to other underrepresented minorities like women and people of color. We are still not seen as important enough to count in corporate diversity metrics, nor given the same business opportunities afforded to other diverse groups.

The argument from Corporate America against including disability in corporate diversity metrics often rests on the lack of data. Companies and regulators routinely say there's not enough data to support the case that people with disabilities can improve financial performance and contribute to good governance. But they can—and do.

An Accenture report, Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage, found that companies that champion disability initiatives performed better than their peers. On average, over a four-year period, these companies reported 28 percent higher revenue, two times the net income, and 30 percent higher economic profit margin. Total shareholder returns were higher, too. Plus, a more diverse labor force that better reflects the makeup of today's society appeals to younger generations of workers.

disability in corporate setting

The challenge to gathering empirical data around disability is that not enough employees self-disclose their disability at work, and not enough companies measure disability inclusion. Many workers fear "coming out" will hurt their careers due to the stigma surrounding disability. In the latest Disability Equality Index (DEI), of the 319 companies that participated—including 67 Fortune 100s—only 5 percent of employees and 10 percent of senior executives disclosed having a disability.

This is precisely why disability should be included in all corporate diversity requirements. When employees begin to see disability as a strength, they'll be more comfortable working as their authentic selves and asking for the accommodations they need to succeed in their jobs. Businesses then gain more accurate data and can start to benchmark their disability inclusion efforts—and financial performance—against industry peers.

70 top CEOs have signed the CEO Letter on Disability Inclusion. Many civil rights organizations have also voiced their support, including The Leadership Conference on Human Rights, National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, National Veteran-Owned Business Association, US Black Chamber, United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, US Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce, Women Impacting Public Policy, and Out & Equal.

People with disabilities bring diverse skills and unique perspectives to all levels of a company, including corporate boards. Nasdaq would have done well to take cues from the Toronto Stock Exchange, where listed companies must disclose the number and percentage of board seats and senior management positions occupied by women, Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.

Or they could have taken cues from the U.K.'s Financial Conduct Authority, which plans to consider disability in broad new transparency rules and targets for U.K.-listed companies. Or they could have taken a page from the SEC itself, which recently adopted disclosure rules to include human capital management: U.S. public companies are now asked to report material information such as initiatives and statistics relating to diversity and inclusion in their 10-Ks and other filings.

Investors increasingly view diversity and inclusion as a vital component of environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. The representation of people with disabilities in diversity sits squarely in the "S" of ESG and is rooted in materiality. That's why 30 institutional investors representing $2.8 trillion signed the Joint Investor Statement on Disability Inclusion, calling on corporate America to take the DEI and report their disability advancement initiatives. Massachusetts and New York also revised the proxy voting guidelines for their public pension funds, vowing to scrutinize boards that are not sufficiently diverse, including people with disabilities.

Seven years ago, Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities launched the DEI to give companies a tangible way to measure and report on disability inclusion and equality. In light of Nasdaq's decision, the 2022 index will include three new questions to ascertain whether companies are pursuing the nomination of board members with disabilities as well as publicly reporting this information. Disability:IN has also partnered with data solutions firm Equilar to add a database flag to help more than 1,000 companies identify candidates with a disability for executive team and board member appointments.

For too long, people with disabilities have been marginalized in employment based on fears, myths and stereotypes around their ability to do well in their jobs. That alone is enough reason to include them in diversity measures. While Nasdaq and others missed an opportunity to hold the torch, the disability community is now tuned in to the fact that they're being excluded again.

There is strength in numbers, and with the right corporate leadership, people with disabilities will have an opportunity to prove they belong in business.

Ted Kennedy, Jr., is a disability rights lawyer, Co-Chair of the Disability Equality Index and Immediate Past Chair of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

The views in this article are the writer's own.