Comment: 1.2 billion people have a disability. So why are they left out of the ESG conversation?

Caroline Casey, Founder and Director, Valuable 500
Caroline Casey, founder and director, Valuable 500, speaking in the The Geography of Diversity session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 19 January.

April 4 - I’ve lost count of the conferences about corporate responsibility and sustainability that I have attended/spoken at over the years, in more than 50 countries.

It has been fascinating and energising to see the evolution of thinking and practice about the role and responsibilities of business in society, the maturing of the field and the growing understanding that businesses can find profitable solutions to the problems of people and planet.

The range of topics covered in these conferences continues to expand. They can range from the technical: how do businesses measure their scope 3 carbon emissions, to big, philosophical debates about stakeholder capitalism.

There is one topic, though, that has stayed largely invisible and that’s disability. There are some notable exceptions: the British organisation Business Disability International (originally the Employers’ Forum on Disability), established by the indefatigable social entrepreneur Susan Scott-Parker), has been engaging businesses on disability as a workplace and a marketplace issue for more than 30 years.

More recently, the inspirational disability rights campaigner Caroline Casey has got disability on the main stage of the World Economic Forum in Davos. The organisation she has subsequently established with the backing of Paul Polman, The Valuable 500, has persuaded 500 companies across the world to commit to making disability inclusion a boardroom agenda item.

Yet disability has largely been absent from the work of the responsible business coalitions across the world, and from the programmes of sustainability conferences.

Women work at a Japanese owned factory at the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone (PPSEZ), on the outskirts of Phnom Penh December 17, 2014. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Even when there are conference sessions on diversity, equity and inclusion, the discussion tends to focus on gender and race (and sometimes sexual orientation and age), but rarely disability.

Yet we disabled people account for 15% of the world’s population – that’s 1.2 billion people. If disability was a country, it would be the world’s third-largest.

Tackling discrimination and fighting social and economic exclusion is clearly established as part of the corporate responsibility/sustainability agenda.

Many disabled people experience harassment, prejudice and discrimination. In parts of the world, disabled children are denied an education. Many more disabled people suffer the bigotry of low expectations. People with moderate to severe physical disabilities typically have a higher cost of living because (say) they need expensive medical equipment, or need to pay for more heating, or find it hard to access public transport to get around so have to use more expensive taxis, hire cars etc.

In the UK, disabled people of working age have an “employment gap” of almost 30 percentage points versus non-disabled people of working age. (A figure consistently higher than many continental European countries and much higher than it need be, if the right training, workplace adaptations and support was available from employers).

A 2020 survey by the media platform Tortoise for The Valuable 500, which looked at publicly available data about the boards of the FTSE 100 (the 100 largest, publicly quoted companies in the UK), showed that no board member publicly identified as disabled. As the average age of FTSE directors is 62 and we know the incidence of disability increases with age, this is – to say the least – a surprising figure.

Business-led campaigns have driven up the proportion of women on boards and there are parallel efforts – at least in some jurisdictions – to drive up the proportion of board directors from more ethnically diverse backgrounds.

You might have thought that consumer-facing companies, at least, would be interested in knowing whether a substantial chunk of their potential customers are able to access their goods and services and, therefore, would consider inviting someone with lived experience of disability to join their boards.

Designer Victoria Jenkins poses following her catwalk show "Unhidden: A New Era in Fashion", with designs presented by models who all live with a disability, chronic condition or visible difference, during London Fashion Week in London, Britain, February 17, 2023. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Similarly, as more organisations adopt comprehensive sustainability strategies that address not just the environmental but also the social and economic pillars of sustainability – “putting the ‘s’ in ESG” (environmental, social, governance strategies) in the jargon – you would have hoped that disability inclusion would be an integral topic, and, therefore, of more interest to the organisers of sustainability conferences.

The good news for them is that there are some exciting innovations out there in assistive technologies from Big Tech companies like Google and Microsoft. There is good practice in recruiting and supporting disabled employees at work. PurpleSpace, for example, is the world’s only networking and professional development hub for disabled employees, network and resource group leaders and allies from all sectors and trades.

So, my plea to conference organisers is to think more comprehensively about diversity, equity and inclusion and to recognise that improving employment opportunities and services for disabled people is an integral element of ESG. It is time to make disability visible on the corporate responsibility and sustainability conference circuit.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

David Grayson is emeritus professor of corporate responsibility at Cranfield School of Management and co-author of the Sustainable Business Handbook, with Chris Coulter and Mark Lee.