When I was paralyzed 12 years ago and embarked on a return to work at the Coca-Cola Company following rehabilitation, I was certainly operating on new terrain. I had to help form an employee resource group (ERG) from scratch. I was extremely fortunate that my manager was sympathetic to my situation and had an unshaken belief in my ability to return to full productivity—but he was also working within unfamiliar territory.
Now, new employees with disabilities at many major corporations have established business resource groups (BRGs) and ERGs they can rely on for support. More and more companies have formalized protocols to request accommodations and are taking the need for fully accessible work environments more seriously. The recent renaissance of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives has led to an explosion of hiring of DEI professionals, who can help shepherd companies toward better disability hiring practices and foster a culture of disability awareness.
However, this is only the beginning. People with disabilities aren’t just a mass of equals on a level playing field. We are also leaders, intellectuals, trailblazers, inventors and virtuosos. It’s in everyone’s interest to build a corporate culture where people with disabilities can excel. Now, the corporate world and the disability community have to take it to the next level—together—and ensure that people with disabilities can have their seat at the table as valued employees and leaders in the business community.
The nonprofit I currently lead, United Spinal Association, has nurtured its Pathways to Employment (PTE) program for many years—and through PTE, has nurtured our community’s potential to make a collective breakthrough. We mentor members returning to work after spinal cord injury and work closely with corporations on recruiting, accommodating, integrating and lifting up their employees with disabilities. We are always looking for that win-win where people with disabilities can express their talents and to stoke corporate growth and innovation.
We know that people with disabilities aren’t exceptional simply because we are a minority. It’s about mindset. Navigating a world that’s not built for you means you’re conquering challenges as part of your second nature. Consider the classic characteristics of great employees and leaders: resilience, perseverance, creativity and problem-solving skills. We come by them honestly through everyday victories.
Start with education and awareness.
A key objective should be to improve awareness and knowledge of people with disabilities. The paradigm shift will happen with greater inclusion of people with disabilities in our society, as our peers, and as our leaders. I know from my work with United Spinal, and my days with the Coca-Cola Company, that raising awareness also takes authenticity, education—and powerful storytelling from those with the lived experience of disability. I also know that our collective destiny lies in inclusion.
Focus on inclusive marketing, communications and hiring practices.
Corporations can responsibly use their power to change the portrayal of people with disabilities as victims and helpless charity cases. Inclusive marketing, media and internal communications that normalize people with disabilities are key to removing the stigma around disability that perpetuates our exclusion from the labor market. Hiring people with disabilities, who can speak authentically for themselves, is necessary to make this a reality. Moreover, people with disabilities and our families represent a tremendous consumer market. When companies’ marketing and R&D efforts authentically take into account our lived experiences, they can capture this market and build brand loyalty.
Consider everyone in your initiatives.
Investment in DEI initiatives and the future of disability employment should also be tailored to include those from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and LGBTQ people with disabilities. This, in turn, can bolster your efforts to empower these employees and their communities. Immigrants with disabilities on the pathway to citizenship and women, transgender and nonbinary people with disabilities trying to start a family may also require extra accommodations. Applying an intersectional framework to support all people with disabilities who are employees and stakeholders in your company will put you on the right side of history on the forward march to equality.
Forging alliances and partnerships with disability organizations and our community is the smart thing to do. Unleashing the collective abilities of the disability community in turn taps into the disability market. Companies can become more profitable—and governments can receive more tax revenue—as people with disabilities increasingly join the workforce as full-time employees, thanks to right-minded accommodations becoming the norm. Then, of course, there are the societal benefits: Communities and families truly become whole when people with disabilities thrive—that’s real equality.