10 Dec 2019 - by James Aiken

A4ID’s Chief Executive, Yasmin Batliwala, Speaks About Disability Inclusion – A Key Pillar to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

On the 28th November 2019, Yasmin Batliwala joined an illustrious panel of political, business and legal leaders at the CMS Office in London to discuss how the further inclusion of people with disabilities could be achieved across all industries.

The event was presented by CMS Senior Partner, Penelope Warne, and Yasmin Batliwala was joined by Katia Ramo, Founder & Chair of CMS ENABLE (disabilities & wellbeing) Network; Paul Polman, Former CEO of Unilever and Vice-Chair of the UN Global Compact; Lord Shinkwin, Member of the House of Lords; Dame Fiona Woolf, 686th Lord Mayor of London and Initiator of the Power of Diversity Programme; Oliver Wayman, Co-Founder of BOTTLETOP; and Caroline Casey, Founder of the #Valuable500 Campaign, appearing by video. The panel was moderated by writer, editor and television presenter Lady Neuberger and discussion focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Katia Ramo began the event by putting disability inclusion into context with the SDGs, highlighting that the rights of persons with disabilities apply to 14 out of 17 of the SDGs. For instance, SDG 4 is about achieving quality education and life-long learning opportunities for all, including people with disabilities. This extends to ensuring equal access to all levels of education, providing vocational training and building and upgrading education facilities so that they are accessible by those who are disabled. Meanwhile, SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth calls on the international community to achieve full and productive employment and decent work, including equal pay for equal value for all women and men, including for persons with disabilities.

In a room full of lawyers, Yasmin Batliwala, noted that the role of law in achieving the SDGs is often overlooked. In many countries, discriminatory laws, weak legal frameworks, and unequal access to justice undermine the realisation of the goals. A4ID’s forthcoming Legal Guide to the Sustainable Development Goals offers a foundational analysis of the role the law can and should play in the achievement of the SDGs. Each chapter provides an overview of the relevant regional, national and international legal frameworks that highlight how the law can be applied to promote implementation of the SDGs. For instance, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities seeks to promote and protect the rights and freedoms of people with disabilities. Signatory states are required to submit regular reports on how rights are being implemented, including the legislative, judicial, administrative or other measures they have adopted.

Recognising the barriers to disability inclusion

The panel unanimously agreed that the current levels of inclusivity of persons with disabilities in the workplace are insufficient, even though it often isn’t perceived as an issue. Government figures show that only 46.3% of working-age people with disabilities are in employment, yet the charity Scope’s studies have shown that in 2017 only around 22% of non-disabled people thought that there was a lot of employment prejudice against people with disabilities. Caroline Casey’s project, theValuable500, which is pushing to recruit 500 major global companies to put disability inclusion on their business leadership agenda, has shown that a lot of the movement to encourage disabled inclusion has not been effective so far.

Disability can be both a cause and consequence of poverty. Limited access to health care and preventive services, caused by poverty, increases the likelihood that a person may contract diseases or fall victim to injuries, resulting in a disability. But an individual with a disability may also have higher living costs. Scope research shows that the average person in the UK with a disability has additional related outgoings of £583 per month. This reduces their net income and increases poverty. In every case, increasing the employment prospects of people with disabilities can make a huge difference and drive progress towards SDG 1: No Poverty.

Ticking boxes vs making changes

Some industries have implemented individual campaigns, quotas or other number-based approaches to increase their diversity. However, the panel pointed out that these sometimes only have superficial effects. Lord Shinkwin illustrated the danger of superficial box-ticking when he discussed firms that his research uncovered, which were under pressure to fulfil quotas, and did so by hiring disabled graduates into entry level positions. They then left them there with no chance of promotion. In contrast, Unilever increased inclusivity in their hiring policy across gender and disability lines during Paul Polman’s time as CEO. Polman encouraged this increase throughout the company, right up to board level, in order to provide female and disabled input in executive decisions (including future hiring roles).

Large financial and tech firms such as KPMG and Microsoft have also taken great steps in increasing their hiring of neurodiverse candidates. These strategies represent a more legitimate approach, based on the value to everyone involved, and are intended to be sustainable. As Dame Woolf put it, while things which “get measured, get done”, this may – at best – only start the ball rolling and – at worst – only offer the veneer of change. Real change is achieved by changing the mindset behind the hiring process rather than simply the numbers involved.

Businesses benefit from different abilities

As each member of the panel agreed, hiring people with disabilities can be beneficial for businesses. Paul Polman noted that he prefers to use the term ‘dif-abled’ rather than disabled, illustrating that everyone’s abilities are different. Finance and tech companies have found that hiring neurodiversity offers significant advantages when dealing with numerical and logical systems, and they have benefited hugely from this change in approach. As Yasmin Batliwala stated, hiring people with disabilities also opens the employment pool to people with enriched life experiences. This can offer different forms of innovation and motivation, which can bring a positive disruptive influence to a decision-making group.

Lord Shinkwin’s research found that undergraduates with disabilities were highly motivated to find employment. Studies have also found that people with disabilities stay with companies 30% longer, illustrating more loyalty to the companies who hire them. Lord Shinkwin, and Caroline Casey’s Valuable 500 project, also found a prospective consumer group, which people with disabilities and their direct friends and families represent. The 2016 Annual Report on The Global Economics of Disability states that their combined spending power adds up to $8 trillion globally. This entire cohort has been found to respond positively to companies which are seen to be inclusive, as have a lot of younger audiences generally. As such, the employment of people with disabilities is an advantage to the workforce and adds to the company’s appeal to a large market.

Lawyers and business leaders must drive change

It is, of course, easy to talk about these changes in a room of like-minded individuals and, as Caroline Casey’s Valuable 500’s “Diversish” introductory video comically illustrated, much harder to actually convince business owners to change their strategy. Surveys of companies who were seen as positive forces for diverse employment found that their employees did not actually feel any pressure to change their behaviour. This suggests that they were either all already as open-minded as they needed to be (a suggestion not supported by the figures), or not actually being pushed to change their mindset. A4ID’s Legal Guide to the Sustainable Development Goals calls on lawyers to use their positive influence to encourage clients to implement policies that ensure disability inclusion, not only because it is the right thing to do to help achieve the SDGs, but also because it makes business sense.

Paul Polman and Oliver Wayman both suggested that the best approach to shedding unconscious bias was to introduce people directly to the capabilities of people with disabilities. As an example, Paul Polman introduced members of his team to students from the Perkins School of the Blind. When they met IT students who were as, or more, capable than the company’s IT team, he reported that it had a significant effect on the company executives and their open-mindedness to future employment options. Yasmin Batliwala agreed, drawing comparisons with the LGBTQ+ movement, she stated that open mindedness was vital and that, in accordance with SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals, we all need to start talking about disability, expose people without disabilities to bias-breaking experiences and allow people with disabilities to illustrate their strengths.

In all, the panel discussion offered a fascinating exploration of the theory and practice of increasing employment of people with disabilities. As Yasmin Batliwala stated, the biggest decisions have to be made in the boardrooms, and the decision for business owners should be clear. The advantages of hiring disabled people outweigh the costs.

For more information about A4ID’s Legal Guide to the Sustainable Development Goals and how you can get involved please contact Thomas Istasse, A4ID’s Learning & Development Manager.