Shattering The Illusion Of Inclusion


When asked about Diversity & Inclusion as part of a global survey back in 2015, only 7.2% of CEOs claimed they were addressing or planning to address disability as part of their D&I efforts1.

Fast forward to 2019 and the evidence suggests that little progress has been made. According to a labor force characteristics summary issued by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in February this year, during 2018 the rate of employment for persons with a disability was less than half the rate for persons without a disability. For people with intellectual disabilities (ID), it’s estimated to be in the range of 17%2 to only 6%3.

Some positive steps are evident. In the UK, for example, significant advancements have been made on disability awareness, confidence and protection over the last ten years. 2010 brought in the Equality Act, which incorporated the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) into a comprehensive and more forceful piece of legislation. The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games challenged societal perception of the abilities of disabled people, leaving a positive legacy that, for example, includes ‘The Last Leg’, a popular TV series that uses comedy to make disability non-taboo.

Looking to the Middle East, the Abu Dhabi 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games has led to a decision by the Government of the United Arab Emirates to make every public school in the country inclusive of people with ID. More recently, there have been renewed calls for disability inclusion in the workplace from political figures in the U.S., such as Ted Kennedy Jr. and investors representing more than $1 trillion in combined assets led by New York State Comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, and Oregon State Treasurer, Tobias Read. So why has change been so difficult to achieve up to now, especially for people with ID?

Whilst cultural change is necessary and positive, it undoubtedly introduces fresh challenges for employers. The combination of new legislation and evolving social attitude has led employees to have greater expectation of employers. In the cases of the ME TOO movement, shared parental leave legislation, and same sex marriage legalization, employers have responded by placing more value on the power of diversity in their workforce. Many have adapted their workplace policies and procedures to reflect this, such as enhanced sexual harassment training and new more flexible maternity/parental leave policies. Whilst employers have expressed challenges in facilitating this, they have seen many positives through lower staff turnover and higher staff engagement.4

However, for people with disabilities, they are often looked at through the lens of their disability, rather than their capabilities. This may be further compounded by fear and uncertainty around how to approach, communicate with and respectively support people with disabilities. Furthermore, if a disability is hidden or invisible (such as specific intellectual disabilities), many employers are unsure of how to detect the need for adjustment or support.

This inevitably means that it can be hard for people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, to enter the workforce, and even if they do, they may not be comfortable with current working structures and practices.

One of the authors of this piece, who has an intellectual disability, describes how he was made to feel like he did not belong and felt excluded, despite being successfully recruited to an organization’s Board of Directors:

“I was given a different term limit to all other members, in the interest of ‘creating more opportunities’ for other people with disabilities, despite the fact that I had been very active and achieved results. I was confused why there were different terms for disabled board members and that my position had been terminated early with no relation to performance.”

The reality is that many working cultures are broken, because nobody has sought to change them. They may not be perfect, but they are comfortable for many people, particularly those that lead them, and often there is a dominant ‘in-group’ with shared demographic and cultural backgrounds that knowingly or unknowingly exclude others.

An uncomfortable environment can manifest itself in different treatment, or a failure to adapt working norms. It creates what we call the ‘illusion of inclusion’, where diverse groups are represented yet unable to fulfil their potential.

According to Stephen Frost and Raafi Alidina, authors of Building an Inclusive Organization, “it’s the dominant group that needs to adapt”.

For too long, non-inclusive work practices designed by the majority or dominant group have been not just accepted but positively endorsed. They negatively impact on many groups – working parents, people of different faiths and those with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

For example, employees are regarded as hard-working and loyal if they work excessive hours and are always in the office. ‘Bonding’ meetings may take place in pubs, golf courses or at client dinners out of usual hours. These work practices and environments are simply inaccessible to some, and are often linked to reward, development and promotion, and may naturally exclude diverse groups.

Employers must seek to level the playing field for all. One such example of this is the introduction of shared parental leave, which provides both women and men with more choice in managing their careers and work life balance, and has opened up access for women who have for so long been career limited by the ‘norms’ applied to working motherhood.

So what lessons can we take from this to make the working environment more comfortable and how can we change workplace policy and procedure to adapt for people with disabilities, in particular people with intellectual disabilities?

In 2018, Kerry Group, the world’s leading taste and nutrition company, arranged for a leadership cohort from its consumer foods division, Kerry Foods, to work on a project with a group of people with intellectual disabilities and their families.

The project started through Special Olympics, a movement which promotes inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in over 190 countries. As a direct result of the program, Kerry Foods now has six new employees, and the impact on the sites where they are based and the enterprise as a whole has been profound.

According to Emma Rose, Director of HR at Kerry Foods, “It’s not about being nice or doing something good. These new employees are doing value-added work with performance expectations. The difference is the personalities and attitude of our new employees, which have had a positive effect on colleagues and helped everyone to be more open.”

The Kerry Group story provides a great example of what is possible, and employers reporting a positive impact on morale and on business is not unusual.

The catalyst was direct interaction between people with and without disabilities that promoted experiential learning and developed inclusive leadership. It is an experience that Special Olympics has seen on and off the sports field for over 50 years. And it is the basis for a new approach that Special Olympics calls Unified Leadership.

The premise is that people with intellectual disabilities influence others to be different. They do it by being who they are, people who haven’t really fit into a world that is built around education, background, income and aesthetics.

By simply engaging and working with people with intellectual disabilities, leaders and employees build empathy and see the workplace and wider world through a different perspective. They get past any bias they may have around intellectual disability by simply educating themselves through experience. They also develop an understanding of leadership where everyone has value, vulnerabilities are accepted and power is shared rather than exercised.

The Unified Leadership approach starts with lessons learned through sport, complemented by training for people with intellectual disabilities during which they look to improve skills and behaviors. Following the training, they connect with leaders without disabilities, who learn from interactions and experience a powerful mind-set change. In that sense, inclusion is a ‘two-way street’ where both parties take responsibility for adapting to help create more inclusive workplaces and communities. In the business world, the approach is reflected in reciprocal mentoring, a practice increasingly embraced by inclusive employers, where mentors learn from the experience of working with junior mentors, empathize with members of staff who are different from themselves, and benefit from authentic feedback for personal development.

Special Olympics implements its own model internally across its programming, and now plans to extend the approach so that it integrates with the corporate world. The advantages for business are huge. Beyond challenging traditional perceptions of what it means to be a leader, companies can gain different perspectives to problem-solving and communication, reflecting an enhanced degree of neurodiversity.

Embracing enhanced diversity of thought, perspective and opinion also helps companies foster greater creativity, increase innovation and mitigate against risk.

Perhaps, most importantly, employers gain access to an untapped talent pool of potential employees who are resilient, loyal and committed – all traits that any employer is looking for.

Here are our top tips for creating this in the workplace:

1. Educate: Provide training for everyone on recognizing behaviors and verbal cues, supporting and initiating adaptation that creates an empowering environment for people with disabilities, and simply ‘letting go’ so that people with disabilities can fulfil their potential.

2. Engage: Make ongoing efforts to engage with and learn from people with disabilities, through forums and other initiatives that create a safe space for everyone to share. This will lead to improvements that make the workplace more inclusive, and help with early identification of potential impacts when changes are being considered.

3. Check: Ensure that solutions are appropriate by gathering feedback from people with disabilities and asking their preference before taking action. For example, people with intellectual disabilities could review a recruitment process, because typical hiring practices such as interviews and psychometric tools may be barriers if utilized in traditional ways. This could help develop a process that facilitates neurodiversity while still maintaining a solid rigor, which is not just a benefit to people with disabilities – enhancing understanding of difference, and the power of adaptation, has value for everyone.

4. Adapt: Commit to and implement changes identified through engagement. Examples of potential changes that may enhance inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities include:

a. A flexible approach to working hours and location. Like many staff today, people with intellectual disabilities may benefit from and be more productive through flexible hours or home working to avoid traffic and disempowering office cultures.

b. Managing noise levels in the workplace, for example in an open plan office. Some people may find loud noise distracting, so creating quieter spaces or even a quiet room might empower them to be more productive.

c. Allowing more time to answer questions or learn new tasks. People with intellectual disabilities will be able to perform many tasks very well, but it may just require more time initially to learn or perform new tasks proficiently.

5. Discover: Tap into the diversity of thought and input of staff with disabilities, which has been linked to problem solving and creativity, by utilizing them to help shape new products or services that have benefits beyond facilitating customers with disabilities. In addition, partner with other disability-confident employers to learn from each other. This could be formal or informal, but most organizations are willing to share their experiences because of greater recognition that diversity and inclusion are critical to long-term sustainability.

It is now up to employers. They need to be sustainable in a modern and increasingly global market where disabled people are speedily more prevalent within the labor market. Inevitably, policy, process and system changes will require some financial and resource investment. Just as they would invest in new IT systems, or a more suitable office, companies must invest in the future of their working culture. This investment will undoubtedly unleash new talent, and it will end the illusion of inclusion by creating a more engaging, empowering environment for all employees.

Progress has been made, but not enough – this is your chance to help it along.


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