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Ad campaign for Zalando's first Adaptive Fashion collections embracing the disabled community.
Courtesy of Zalando
January 12, 2023 9:03 AM EST

After having been cast aside for years, equality of gender, race, and sexuality have risen up the ranks of importance to become issues that are addressed in the boardroom. Yet one category is strikingly absent: disability inclusion. Perhaps this is because disability comes in many forms, and as a result necessitates a multi-layered, thorough approach. One could also argue that there is an unconscious bias and fear within business leadership of “getting it wrong” and being called out for doing so. Whatever the reasoning, one thing is clear—people with disabilities are being neglected.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 15% of the approximately 8 billion people on the planet experience disability—a figure that might surprise many, and which is only expected to grow, because of factors including an aging population.

And yet this community remains largely side-lined by business, with only 4% of the 90% of companies that claim to prioritize diversity and inclusion considering disability in their initiatives, according to a report from the Return on Disability Group. In contrast to equality pillars to which it is often compared—such as gender, racial, and ethnic representation—there are intricacies that make it harder to retrieve clear and standardized data. A fundamental issue lies in the fact that 4 in 5 disabilities are invisible, such as heart disease, lung disease, hearing loss, and multiple chemical sensitivities. Employees are also hesitant to disclose whether they identify as disabled for fear of discrimination, prejudice, and bias within their working environments. The quality of disability data is, therefore, incumbent on the presence of an organizational culture in which employees feel comfortable to self-disclose.

There are many obstacles in the way of progress, but one of the most significant is the reluctance of senior leaders to disclose. Research from the Valuable 500 shows that only 3% of leaders would speak openly about their disability or caregiving role. Furthermore, disability matters are largely excluded from the board agenda. And the laws in place, like the Americans With Disabilities Act, mandate that businesses do just the bare minimum to achieve equality in the workplace, so the responsibility falls to businesses to take action.

Ensuring business-led inclusivity of disabled consumers and employees alike is no longer an invitation. In addition to being a moral imperative, failing to account for the disabled population poses a risk to a company’s brand. Together, the disability market controls over $13 trillion. By ignoring the diverse wants and needs of consumers, businesses risk losing out on the immense spending power of disabled households. New legislation, such as the European Accessibility Act and the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act in the U.S., increases the risk of businesses incurring reputational and financial damage if they fail to treat disabled employees fairly.

In recent years, we have seen some exceptional examples of leadership and commitment to disability inclusion, including the October launch by the German retailer Zalando of its first adaptive fashion collection, Telefonica’s recent pledge to double the number of employees with disabilities in its workforce by 2024, and Channel 4’s launch of an extensive examination of access and inclusion for disabled talent in the British TV industry.

Despite this progress, there is still huge variability in these efforts. Without standardized, publicly disclosed data, it is nearly impossible to create meaningful change, as there is no benchmark to measure against. Business leaders have the power to rectify this glaring inequality themselves—and they must take on the responsibility with urgency.

Polman is chair and Parker is chief innovation officer of the Valuable 500, a business network supporting disability inclusion

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