The frenetic pace of change of today’s post-pandemic, politically polarized marketplace increasingly moves at the speed of social media which can often blur the boundaries of objectivity and opinion. Consequently, at the center of contemporary public discourse in the U.S. lies a debate surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion programming and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) priorities. Such initiatives gained momentum inside corporations following the murder of George Floyd, however these commitments appear to be receding amidst “anti-ESG” backlash and ongoing macroeconomic concerns such as inflationary pressures and the looming threat of a recession. These factors, in part, have contributed to a broad feeling of “diversity fatigue” across society and an overwhelming sense of burnout among corporate D&I practitioners who’ve seen budgets, headcounts and organizational support dwindle in recent months.
Despite these overarching headwinds, the commitment to advancing disability inclusion inside corporate America seems stronger than ever as evidenced by a 17% increase in Disability Equality Index (DEI) participation from 2022 to 2023. While disability is often opined as the “forgotten D in diversity”, corporate disability programming might be experiencing unexpected, albeit potentially short-term, insulation thanks to this phenomenon, generally seen as a negative, by which disability lies outside the scope of most ESG criticism.
Disability has largely been considered a politically neutral topic in the U.S. for decades as disability-focused legislation has been introduced from both sides of the aisle. The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which enumerates disability civil rights, famously garnered bipartisan support at the time of its 1990 passage. If disability-specific policies can continue to largely avoid association with the unfavorable sentiments attached to more broad-based ESG agendas while leveraging the ubiquity of disability within every demographic and political affiliation, there exists potential for progress towards even greater equity for people with disabilities in the workplace, marketplace, and supply chain.
There remains a compelling business case, first articulated in 2018 in Getting To Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage, that companies committed to disability-inclusive practices outperform their peers in critical financial metrics such as revenues, net income, and economic profit margin. There are sound indications that the business case has only strengthened in the subsequent years, and full findings are expected to be published later this year by Accenture in a refresh of the “Getting To Equal” research. When it comes to consumer behavior, an April 2023 survey of 2,200 U.S. adults conducted by Morning Consult, on behalf of Voya Financial, found that 84% of respondents have a more favorable impression of companies that are inclusive of people with disabilities in their advertising/marketing efforts and 80% want to do more business with these companies.
Finally, disability employment is perched on the precipice of perhaps the most promising positioning we’ve ever experienced for positive long-term, sustainable outcomes following the Covid-19 pandemic. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that while employment participation ratios at the outset of the pandemic dropped similarly for both disabled and non-disabled workers, by August 2021 the ratio for people with disabilities had fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels while the ratio for non-disabled individuals was still below what it was before Covid-19 as of January 2023. This accelerated recovery rate for disability employment ratios is attributed to the rise of remote options in the midst of the pandemic. As companies continue to pursue return-to-office solutions, it is critical that employers don’t sacrifice the progress that resulted from virtual and work-from-home opportunities that helped create more equitable employment outcomes for people with disabilities.