The benefits of attracting disabled consumers

The culture of excluding the disabled is changing, Katy Talikowska looks at the barriers and how to break them down

The representation of disabled consumers is no longer a mere suggestion for businesses. In addition to being a moral imperative, failing to account for the disabled population is a strategic business risk. With $8 trillion a year in disposable income, people with disabilities represent a largely untapped market opportunity.

The disability community still faces major challenges that must be addressed. The three largest system barriers to inclusion are leadership, reporting and representation. Through a programme of synchronised collective action it is possible to channel the power of organisations working in harmony – moving in the same direction, at the same time, against the same system barrier. Only through accurate, standardised disability reporting, empowering leadership and the C Suite of tomorrow with disabilities and authentic representation of people with disabilities, can inclusion be accelerated for the one in five people living with a disability globally.

The unmet need for disability reporting

Discrimination of people with disabilities is a protracted tale – but this should be an opportunity for businesses to be accountable and take action. Disability is invariably overlooked in the workplace and that must change.

Without standardised, publicly disclosed data, it is nearly impossible to create meaningful change, as there is no benchmark to measure against

Earlier this year, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, ESG and Disability Data – A call for Inclusive Reporting White Paper was released that proposes five KPIs that companies can begin to implement, ranging from the provision of disability inclusion training for employees, to publishing workforce representation data. The intention being, that by publicly disclosing their performance, companies could be benchmarked across a comparable baseline that would hold them accountable to action.

There are positives moves with companies making clear commitments.  Telefonica has committed to doubling the number of employees with disabilities in the workforce by 2024 and Unilever has the global target of having 5% of its workforce represented by people with disabilities by 2025. In April Lloyds Banking Group announced a goal to double the representation of colleagues with disabilities at senior management levels. Taking them to 12% representation by 2025. They believe that to be the best bank for customers, their workforce must represent the diversity of their communities. Sky has also invested £11m to help ensure those at risk of being sidelined are given the chance to succeed.

Despite this progress, there is still huge variability in these efforts. Without standardised, 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 as what is measured is managed.

Disability inclusion can only become a priority for companies and their stakeholders when there is greater public knowledge and measurable objectives. Not only does this ambition need to be communicated, but it must also be supported and followed through with campaigns that help to educate and support employees.

Leaders responsibility for inclusion

Leadership is another fundamental pillar to progress. Leaders should be leading by example as they set the precedent for what is deemed to be acceptable.

A recent survey conducted by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 16 countries revealed that some 25% of employees have a disability or health condition that limits a major life activity. However, about 13% to 30% of these workers don’t disclose their disabilities in the workplace fearing stigma or a negative impact on their job security or promotion prospects.

Discrimination is exacerbated by behaviour that gives the impression that it is ok to distinguish between employees based on a protected characteristic. Moreover, the silence within the C-Suite when it comes to disability is indefensible. Business leaders have not been encouraged to speak out about disability and do not have the confidence to even self-identify themselves.

Leaders who openly acknowledge their own identity can serve as exemplars to their workforce by showing that achievement is not solely the preserve of those without disabilities. A recent example is Jun Sawada, chair of the board of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, who spoke publicly about his eye condition called keratoconus, which causes irregularities in his corneas that result in vision loss. Equally inspiring is the case of Julie Teigland, EMEIA area managing partner at EY, who shared during this year’s World Economic Forum that she is partially deaf.

This is a significant problem. Research conducted in 2022 found that only 3% of leaders would speak out openly about their disability or caregiving role. When contrasted with the statistic that 16% of the world’s population have a disability – this simply can’t be the case.

The disabled community needs non-disabled allies to push for inclusion, it also requires leaders who lead by example by showing that it is acceptable to disclose their own disabilities.

Representation in advertising

In recent years, there have been some exceptional examples of leadership and commitment to disability inclusion in media, including Procter & Gamble’s recent initiatives in Europe and audio description across the majority of their ads, Nestlé’s recent ads featuring the first ‘Gerber Baby’ with a visible disability, and Channel 4’s extensive examination of disabled talent in the British TV industry.

There’s no doubt that the quality and complexity of disability representation in advertising seems to be slowly improving. But advertisements that showcase people with disabilities with a positive sentiment are still too few and far between. Only 4% of TV adverts in the UK feature disabled people, dropping to 1% of disabled people in lead roles, despite 22% of the UK population being disabled.

Media holds immense power to influence how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world around us. When certain groups are underrepresented or misrepresented, it perpetuates stereotypes, fosters discrimination, and marginalises communities.

But to achieve authentic representation, advertisers must have representation of those with lived experience in their teams to craft an informed and inclusive message. People with disabilities deserve a seat at the table and to see themselves as active participants in these narratives, contributing to the rich tapestry of human experience.

Inclusion is not simply the “nice” or “right” thing to do. People with disabilities have immeasurable talent, critical spending power and unique talent and experience. Dismissing their role both in the workplace and as consumers is a short sighted and financially unviable strategy.  

Katy Talikowska is the CEO of the Valuable 500

Katy Talikowska

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