Embracing disability as a diversity factor in the 21st century’s world of work

Jürgen Menze

Jürgen Menze,
Disability Inclusion Officer

Including persons with disabilities as employees, customers and business partner is clearly the smart thing to do from a business point of view. Yet, while companies increasingly recognize the benefits of building and retaining diverse workforces, they often neglect disability in their inclusion practices.

What do businesses require in order to be successful in the long run? Internally, a workforce which can contribute to effective problem solving and innovation in a fast changing globalized economy. Externally, a positive reputation can help increase a company’s customer base and approval in society.

Including persons with disabilities as employees, customers and business partners can help companies meet these needs and be a step ahead of their competitors in the labour market of the future.

The business case for diversity has been well established by research in recent years. The benefits of diverse workplaces include an increased talent pool and employee satisfaction, strengthened customer orientation, improved innovation and creativity, as well as an enhanced company image.

A female worker using assistive technology in the office, Ethiopia

So far, the bulk of research has focused on the impact of workplace diversity in terms of gender and racial diversity. For instance, a study of more than 500 organizations has shown that every 1 per cent increase in gender and racial diversity is correlated with a 3 to 9 per cent increase in sales revenues, respectively. While companies increasingly recognize the benefits of building and retaining diverse workforces, disability as part of diversity has mostly been neglected both in research and company inclusion practices. Accordingly, a survey of over 300 executives at multinational enterprises has found that respondents identify disability as the diversity area which would need most improvement in their companies.

At the same time, people with disabilities have gained increased visibility and recognition in societies across the globe.

In 1983, employers, workers and governments adopted the ILO Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Disabled Persons) Convention (No. 159)  and its accompanying Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Disabled Persons) Recommendation (No. 168) . Along with the widely ratified United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities  (CRPD) of 2006, these and other international labour standards set the global normative framework for disability inclusion in the world of work.

This global momentum for disability inclusion is also reflected in the many disability references throughout the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) , agreed upon by all UN Member States. The SDGs represent an unprecedented opportunity for companies to align their policies and practices with these global targets for 2030, including the achievement of decent work for all persons with disabilities.

Such global commitments reinforce the change of perceptions and expectations towards people with disabilities held by companies, people with disabilities themselves as well as their families and friends, and society at large. More than ever before, companies are expected to contribute to positive social change and more inclusive societies.

A worker with a disability and his colleague are discussing, Bangladesh

There are a wide range of measures and activities  companies can take to reap even greater benefits of diverse workplaces and include employees, customers and business partners with disabilities.

Key among them are a company policy on disability inclusion supported by senior management, disability awareness training for staff and managers and an increase of the accessibility in the company, including its physical environment, recruitment process, websites, information and communication systems as well as emergency evacuation procedures.

To be able to use their skills and talents to full capacity, job candidates and employees with disabilities who have a need for a reasonable adjustment should be accommodated throughout the employment cycle, i.e. in the recruitment process, during a person’s professional development or when returning to work after an absence.

To help implement these measures, companies can benefit from advice of external partners like organizations of persons with disabilities or national networks of disability-inclusive companies  and the ILO Global Business and Disability Network .

Moreover, in line with the ILO’s tripartite character, ILO Convention No. 159  and Recommendation No. 168  stipulate the involvement of representative workers’ organizations in promoting enabling policy and legal environments for businesses to employ persons with disabilities and thereby create greater workplace diversity to succeed in the 21st century’s world of work.

Including people with disabilities is not only smart, it is the right thing to do.

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