The Competitive Advantage of Disability Inclusion

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Tuesday, July 5, 2022
By AACSB Staff
Photo by iStock/Edwin Tan
Companies should make disability-inclusive policies an integral part of their ESG strategy to create long-term value for society—and their businesses.
  • People with disabilities are often struggle to find employment, or are underemployed, not because they lack talent, but because they lack opportunities.
  • Companies can address the current labor shortage by hiring more people with disabilities.
  • Organizations need to establish more metrics to track their progress toward disability inclusion and measuring its impact on long-term value creation.


Companies that embrace disability inclusion as part of their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies aren’t just doing the right thing for society—they are giving themselves a competitive edge in the market. That is the main takeaway of a joint report from The Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa; and Voya Cares, a program of Voya Financial Inc. that serves people with disabilities (PWD) and special needs and their caregivers.

Titled “Competitive, Integrative Employment: A Driver of Long-Term Value Creation,” the report builds on the vision for PWD inclusion that the institute lays out in a 2020 paper, In addition to providing an action plan, it outlines the following the advantages for achieving that vision:

It addresses the labor shortage. The report points out that, even in a tight labor market, people with disabilities often struggle to find jobs. By hiring these individuals, organizations could ease their worker shortages.

Ironically, the report also hopes that making the workplace more inclusive will enable people with disabilities to be less loyal to their employers and more willing to negotiate for better opportunities. As Steve Foresti, chief investment officer of Wilshire Advisors, puts it, it can be a “nightmare” to try to find another position. “The onboarding, the reentry, getting people comfortable with my disability, getting myself comfortable with a new environment just to earn a few thousand bucks more a year was never on my mind.”

It opens up market opportunities. Workers with disabilities can help organizations create products and services tailored to the PWD population, as well as their friends and families. This market is “massive,” according to the report. It is estimated that there are currently 1.85 billion people worldwide currently living with disabilities; this population wields spending power of approximately 13 trillion USD of disposable income.

It spurs greater innovation. The report points to several past innovations that were invented by people with disabilities. These include typewriters, cruise control in vehicles, the electric toothbrush, text and touch features on smartphones, and even the internet. Vint Cerf, known as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” is hearing-impaired; he used an early form of text messaging to communicate with his wife, who is deaf.

Many such innovations are invented to better serve people with disabilities, the report notes. But once these new products and services hit the market, they end up “fostering a positive change in how billions of people work and live.”

Inaccessibility ‘Does Not Make Sense’

Some companies have embraced disability inclusion. Voya Financial, for example, reviewed its financial products to discover any aspects that might be discriminatory and worked to make its digital tools and call centers more accessible.

The report provides detailed case study of Microsoft, which “has integrated inclusion into every aspect of the business—physical design of its facilities, development of its workforce, product innovation, and sales and marketing.” Its attention to inclusive design is driven by its CEO Satya Nadella, whose oldest son was born with cerebral palsy.

Nadella has noted that his son’s experience has “helped him see the need for Microsoft’s products to be accessible to all and made him a more empathetic leader.” Nadella also has addressed the need to close what he calls the “Disability Divide” in a letter to shareholders.

Companies ignore the PWD market to their detriment, says Tamara Giltsoff, director of the Global Disability Innovation Hub’s Assistive Technology Impact Fund. “Just consider,” she says, “the lost revenue of investing in infrastructure, transportation, mobility, education, or the future of work solutions … that are not accessible to persons with disabilities. It simply does not make sense economically or socially.”

“If you want to serve a bigger market, you have to bring in different opinions, different lived experiences, different ways of problem solving, different ways of seeing the world,” says Caroline Casey, founder and CEO of Valuable 500, a collective of 500 companies creating innovations for disability inclusion. “It’s those differences that actually break open the innovation. The best and most game-changing innovation comes from bringing together people with different lived experiences.”

Recommendations for Action

The institute’s paper offers ten recommendations for companies to achieve “competitive, integrated employment.” Among them are the following:

Take a holistic approach to disability inclusion. It’s important to address the issue not just in hiring, but in employee training, product and service development, and marketing.

Focus on middle management. Because middle managers often make hiring and promotion decisions, it is critical that they are committed to inclusion.

Address disability inclusion across the supply chain. The report points to organizations such as The World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense Fund have encouraged companies to encourage their suppliers to adopt more sustainable business practices. Companies could follow this model and “use their purchasing power to incentivize competitive, integrated employment throughout their supply chain.”

Collect more data. The report also calls the current supply of disability-related data “woefully inadequate,” and calls on companies to collect more relevant and accurate data. This would allow them to track progress toward diversity inclusion (providing a “way to hold companies accountable for their performance”), as well as measure the impact of disability inclusion on long-term value creation.

Such tracking could become especially important for U.S. companies later this year, the report points out. Many expect that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission soon will announce rules requiring companies to disclose their strategies for attracting, developing, and retaining workers.

Strategy, Not Philanthropy

In the end, organizations should not address disability inclusion only to comply with government mandates or view it as “charity, pity, or philanthropy,” says Robert Ludke, a senior fellow at The Harkin Institute and author of the report. Rather, they should adopt it as sound business strategy.

“It is part of a comprehensive ESG business strategy focused on creating sustainable, long-term value,” Ludke says. “Companies that create inclusive cultures to maximize the talents of every employee are more innovative, more profitable, and better positioned to tap into a global marketplace of consumers.”

The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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