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The Power of (Dis)Ability as an Identity in Diversity-Equity-Inclusion

Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts need to include people with disabilities

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Who do you think is the world’s largest minority group? Would you have guessed that it’s those with disabilities? The staggering number of Americans – nearly 1 in 5 –  and about 15% of the total global population claim to live with some form of limitation in their daily living activities. While the World Health Organization tells us those numbers are increasing, it’s important to remember that disability can happen at every stage in life; from birth to accidents to ageing, and it reaches into virtually every geographic, ethnic, socio-economic, and religious crossroads of the world. In this regard, disability does not discriminate. But what’s different today is that disability has the opportunity to wield an impressive force of power in the Diversity-Equity-Inclusion (DEI) culture now appearing on the forefront of conversations across industries and media platforms.

We know that change is coming – and faster than ever before – as my young Millennial and Generation Z peers are insisting on DEI initiatives in all facets of life. But when it comes to employment, it’s up to us, the young entrepreneurs and transformers with disabilities, to position ourselves, front and center, for the most innovative, socially conscious, and profitable companies to claim. And while 2020 brought its own set of challenges, it also brought opportunities.

AAC, Employee Recruitment and AI

I graduated in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic from a top 10 public university and business school with a major and two minors. I did this with significant Cerebral Palsy, with 24/7 personal assistance while living four years on campus, and while launching my own e-commerce and consulting company before I finished. With my Cerebral Palsy comes a wheelchair and a speech disorder, the latter of which was a challenge in a large collegiate setting, but not a deal-breaker. In social situations, I still prefer my natural voice, but for keynote speeches, group projects, and interviews, I try to prepare in advance with my Tobii Dynavox I-Series, an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device which utilizes seamless eye gaze and speech generating technology. 

During campus events like job fairs, corporate recruiters were undeniably skeptical of a speech disorder, or really any visible differences. What I found was that many were unprepared or under-educated to realize that people with disabilities (PWD) are already adept in complex problem-solving. Further, there is the unspoken question of how hiring PWD could affect the company’s productivity or stated “collaborative culture” due to unfamiliarity with multimodal communication methods, which are often utilized by many people.  For example, Text-to-Speech can be just as effective as “verbal communication.” And multimodal communication can also incorporate visual elements such as graphics with powerful messaging in presentations. 

Another astounding statistic to consider is that in 2020 about 26% of civilians with a disability who attained a Bachelor’s degree or higher were employed, compared to 72% who are non-disabled. With these abysmal gaps, universities that actively and publicly take the initiative to recruit students with disabilities must also create more dynamically inclusive recruitment strategies. If the goal of diversity collaboration is to create real-world solutions to real-world challenges, then empowering the next generation of professionals to become disability allies is crucial to strengthening DEI practices. Eventually, these young professionals will gain leadership roles and reshape their company’s culture to embrace the full potential that PWD offers. But this needs to happen sooner than later because many companies today tend to be “diverish,” what Irish social entrepreneur Caroline Casey names companies who “…call themselves diverse but overlook, ignore, or postpone anything to do with disability.”

One game-changer on the global employment stage is artificial intelligence (AI). As businesses’ success becomes more reliant upon AI in day-to-day operations, the disability community is faced with a double-edged sword with its integration: is it going to bring unfair biases or equalized opportunity? Although these technological advancements have opened doors that wouldn’t be possible otherwise for individuals such as myself, I’m constantly unsettled by the chance that employers might be implementing AI algorithms during virtual interviews detecting my disability at face value. Will AI’s interpretation of my speech generating device like my Tobii Dynavox, or others’ unique facial expressions or quirky movements, suggest poor performance outcomes? Will biased, illogical or even illegal interpretations remove those who are “qualified outliers” from the job pool? In order for all individuals to gain confidence in the interview process, it has become crucial for diverse populations to help construct inclusive datasets at its onset, at the building of AI algorithms.

Once PWD are hired, will disability inclusion encompass the onboarding process and beyond? I hope so. I envision a future where the purpose of affinity groups eventually become obsolete as companies prioritize inclusive integration rather than inherently isolating commonalities. This would be true diversity collaboration!  Employees are a company’s greatest asset to innovation and should leverage unique perspectives in finding a common vision. 

What’s Next?

As the workplace finds a new equilibrium post-pandemic, the voice of the disability community will be critical to discovering untapped consumer needs, identifying market disruptions, and altering the norms of social culture.

Here are some next steps companies might adopt to ensure DEI initiatives encompass disability inclusion:

  • Educate recruiters on disability awareness and familiarize the multimodal communication strategies when interacting with potential employees with disabilities.
  • Adjust recruiting-style events and/or online interviews to be fully inclusive.
  • Groom and mentor employees with disabilities for leadership roles.
  • Foster cross collaboration and innovation among multiple affinity groups at universities and within companies.

DEI initiatives will only hold weight if companies give equal representation, equitable employment opportunities, and leadership roles to those who identify with disability. Disability brings perspective, perseverance, and engagement, all while improving profitability and social acceptance.

If you take one thing away from this article today, it is to remember that diversity inclusion is also disability inclusion!

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