What's Your Disability Equality Index Score?
Approximately one in five people in the United States has some form of disability. Now, a new tool can help employers improve the effectiveness of their disability-inclusion practices.
By Jill Cueni-Cohen
In the 25 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, companies have yet to realize the untapped potential of the disabled community as suppliers, consumers and employees, says Keith Wiedenkeller, the Kansas City, Mo-based chief strategy officer for the Disability Equality Index.
A joint initiative of the American Association of People with Disabilities and the U.S. Business Leadership Network, the DEI is a national, transparent benchmarking tool that objectively scores businesses on a scale of zero to 100 regarding their disability inclusion policies and practices.
Created by a diverse group of business leaders, policy experts and disability advocates, this innovative survey was designed to help companies identify opportunities for continued improvement, he says.
"The ADA was groundbreaking legislation that took down physical barriers and made it illegal to discriminate against employees, but it didn't change people's hearts and minds and give employers a reason to hire people with disabilities," says Wiedenkeller, who is a former DEI Advisory Committee member as well as the former chief people officer for AMC Theatres. "That wasn't what the ADA was for."
Compliance is one thing; but competitive advantage is another. "The USBLN is not an advocacy group, and we don't support disability inclusion as a noble goal," says Wiedenkeller. "It's business people who agree that we can do a better job leveraging the potential of people with disabilities. There's no shortage of disability advocacy groups, but there's a shortage of opportunities for businesses to learn from each other.
"Business's first priority is to make a profit," he says. "The USBLN was founded on the premise that businesses can be more successful if they do a better job with disability inclusion. Then it's a win-win."
The first annual DEI was completed by 80 Fortune 1000-size companies, and results came out in April. Nineteen of these companies received a perfect score of 100, with points awarded in four major categories: culture and leadership, enterprise-wide access, employment practices, and community engagement and support services.
According to Ron Gier, vice president of human resources operations at Sprint's headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., the communications services company has developed a unique work culture of diversity and inclusion for employees with disabilities through an employee resource group called the REAL DEAL.
"This stands for Resourceful, Empowering, Awareness, Limitless for Disabled Employees Accessing Life," says Gier, noting that Sprint encourages its employee base to be active in their communities and pursue inside and outside interests.
"Whether they're private or state-run, you want to make sure you're utilizing your local agencies," says Gier. "You also need to do everything you can to remove barriers to application and make it clear as early in the process as possible how someone can get disability-related services from your organization."
He says most people often require some degree of support to be successful.
"When you are searching for talent, you search for what people can do-what are their abilities? Whether it's a different chair, a better ergonomic set-up, a more flexible work schedule... everyone requires something to perform their very best work. And when people do good work, you're willing to address what that requirement is," says Gier. "There's a huge business advantage to being seen as a company that employs people with disabilities."
Carly Williams, the Atlanta-based U.S. diversity recruiting leader of PwC agrees: "It's all about giving every person the opportunity to add their value, and employees with disabilities often show [their employers] more loyalty and commitment. The amount they give back to have an opportunity is often greater than someone who doesn't need to fight for what they have."
Achieving a top score on the DEI was solid recognition of PwC's most recent efforts to include disabled people in its workforce, says Williams.
"Getting 100 was extremely meaningful to us," she says, adding that recruitment efforts have been focused on seeking out disabled college students through new relationships with the disability-service offices on campuses nationwide-as opposed to just targeting college career centers.
One particular program called Explore, which introduces college students to PwC and its career opportunities, was transformed into Explore Ability. "We targeted students with disabilities and added elements about what it means to get an accommodation in the workplace, as well as how to talk openly about and disclose your disability," Williams says.
Companies that want to explore the benefits of hiring people with disabilities can get a jump start by visiting www.disabilityequalityindex.org.
"If you make a change in policy at a large company, the leverage is indisputable," says Wiedenkeller, adding that this is a secure, online and anonymous process. "The point of the survey is not a 'gotcha.' If you participate, no one knows but you and our team. If you score above an 80, we publicize that. If not, that's an internal benchmarking."
Unlike other groups that are underrepresented, some disabilities (dyslexia, for example) are not obvious; and some-such as hearing loss-can get worse over time. The Department of Labor's new regulations for federal contractors that invite applicants and employees to self-identify as disabled have started a conversation that has pushed its way into the C-suite.
"There's no doubt we have executives with disabilities who we don't know about, because people are afraid of the stigma," says Wiedenkeller, "but it's got to be part of the conversation. The more executives we can get to be loud and proud, the better it will be."
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