The Valuable 500, a global business inclusion revolution for people with disabilities, is gathering pace. The initiative has reached over two million employees, from 50 companies and a further 100 major companies are set to sign up.
Disability should not be left out of the diversity and inclusion momentum is the message from Caroline Casey.
To ignore people living with a disability means excluding 1.3 billion people worldwide who also hold a disposable annual income of $8 trillion a year. People with disabilities are 50% less likely to get a job and 50% more likely to experience poverty.
Caroline, who is registered blind, is spearheading The Valuable 500. Launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, this is a global campaign calling for 500 of the most influential businesses to include disability on their leadership agendas.
Among the first to sign up were Virgin Media, BraunAbility, Cinepolis, Unilever, Barclays, Accenture, Microsoft, Fujitsu, APM, Omnicom Group, Cerealto Siro, Bloomberg, Sainsbury’s, and Danske Bank.
And the number is growing. Speaking at the annual Bloomberg Equality Summit in London on 16 May, Caroline announced that ATOS, Boeing, Citibanamex, EY, Firmenich SA, ManpowerGroup, Merlin Entertainments, Sanofi, West Ham United, Xceed, and Zurich had agreed to join. Since then, more businesses have come on board and now means that over 50 businesses – totalling over two million employees – have signed up to be accountable. Discussions are underway with a further 100 global brands, and more announcements are expected shortly.
“We are proud to see so many businesses signing up to realise the true power inclusivity can have in business – but there is still a long way to go to create a truly inclusive society,” says Caroline. “As the gender pay gap and Gay Pride have shown, huge strides to inclusivity can be met when business and society work together. It is time we don’t leave disability out of this momentum.”
“I urge businesses to join The Valuable 500 movement and stop being ‘diversish’. It’s no longer good enough for companies to say, ‘disability doesn’t fit with our brand’ or ‘it’s a good idea to explore next year’. Businesses who are not considering becoming accountable to disability inclusion need to ask themselves if they are happy to remain diversish.”
Caroline was spurred on to create The Valuable 500 after her father died. He had been an entrepreneur and always inspired and encouraged her to be herself. Referring to what Al Gore achieved with ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, she says she wanted to, “create the ‘uncomfortable truth’ and bring disability into mainstream business with leadership. As my father was dying, I remember him saying, ‘well, what are you waiting for?’”
Over the years, Caroline had worked closely with One Young World and knew that the best chance of achieving disability inclusion was via young leaders. She believes that the next generation of CEOs are more positive about uniqueness and inclusion than previous generations. So, on 30 September 2017, she took to the main stage at the One Young World summit in Bogota, Columbia, to introduce the concept of #valuable.
“I hadn’t called it The Valuable 500 then, I just had the idea,” Caroline explains. “I said ‘I will not leave the stage until we have one CEO who will stand for and with disability’. And that’s how I met Paul Polman (former CEO of Unilever). For a year Paul and I worked together with One Young World, who stayed with us as a partner, to find the greatest leaders, brands, and platforms so that we could launch The Valuable 500.”
Throughout 2018 Caroline travelled around the world to gather support. Richard Branson was one of the first to join. Importantly EY carried out research which revealed that just 7% of the world’s leaders or C-suite had a disability. More striking was that four out of five hid their condition.
Caroline knows all about hiding; she did it herself while working at Accenture back in the 90s. She has ocular albinism but didn’t let it crush her spirit for adventure. Growing up, she was fearless and wanted to be a cowboy or an archaeologist. After studying archaeology at university, Caroline achieved the latter ambition, but only for a while.
“My vision was obviously not good enough, and there are a lot of funny stories – but also very sad stories – about how I couldn’t continue,” she admits. After a period travelling abroad and trying various occupations, including horticulture and qualifying as a masseuse, she opted for a Conversion into Business, followed by a Master’s in business.
During her stint with Accenture, she only disclosed her failing sight to one of the partners. Finally, at the end of 1999, she confessed to the head of HR that she couldn’t see. This lit the spark that set her off on a 20-year journey towards business inclusion for disability.
“It was a very important conversation because the real challenge was ‘why are you frightened to be who you are?’, she says. “Going back to the EY research and the four out of five hiding their disability. Why are those CEOs hiding it? The same reason I did. Fear that we would not be seen to be capable, that people would focus on our physical impairment, not on our capability and potential. What is fascinating about this research is that 56% of C-suite companies have never or rarely discussed disability at leadership or board level.”
Ignoring disability is diversish behaviour
As well as capturing the fear, she argues that the research demonstrates that companies don’t see the business case, the value of people with disabilities. When Caroline began campaigning, 99 of the 100 companies she wrote said they didn’t do disability. Accenture was the exception.
While establishing The Valuable 500, she found that although many companies had disability inclusion on the agenda, it tended not to be a high priority. In response, the #valuable organisation set up #diversish. This is a series of short films on YouTube where people with disabilities talk about the challenges they face.
“It wasn’t done to shame anybody,” Caroline explains. “It was to tell them that they cannot say they are committed to diversity and inclusion if they’re leaving out 20% of the population. That’s diversish behaviour.”
However, some companies are setting an example. These companies include Barclays, which is aiming to be the most inclusive and accessible FTSE company, while Channel 4 is inclusive through both its broadcasting and as an employer. The L’Oreal CEO wants to engage with the disability market, while disabled users favour Apple products because of their inclusive design.
Caroline wants to promote and create a platform for employee groups for people with disabilities and business disability forums.
Avoid pick and mix inclusion
When talking to companies about joining The Valuable 500, the same issues keep appearing. Number one is they say they are prioritising gender or LGBT. But, as Caroline points out, you can’t have
The third issue is that companies are afraid of criticism if they reveal that they have not been tackling disability inclusion. Lastly, disability is a complex topic.
So, what approach should companies take?
“There are loads of simple ways companies can come on board because it depends on where they are on their journey,” she offers. “We will be announcing a resource hub on our website for leaders. We’re also suggesting employee resource groups. For example, Purple Space, which helps companies to identify who is already in their business – 80% of disability is invisible.
“The quick wins are to pick up the phone and talk to one of our partners listed on our website, go to one of our events, invite a speaker to talk to the board or talk to one of the other companies in The Valuable 500. The big thing is the intention because all the solutions are there. We have more than 51 allies around the world who are waiting to help these companies.”
She points out that dealing with disability inclusion is the same process as for any other D&I issue so there should be no excuses.
“It’s very hard to be proud to be different when you’re discriminated against and excluded,” says Caroline. “It’s tough to be proud when you are struggling to have a normal life like everybody else.
“Getting the voices of 500 to 5,000 CEOS and the workforces of 500 to 5,000 companies would be so exciting. Because, if we get disability inclusion right, we get human inclusion right. It is the only intersectional topic; it touches gender, race, LGBTQ. It touches all.”