Law360 (July 11, 2023, 1:55 PM EDT) — People tend to underestimate the number of disabled lawyers in the workplace, but because many attorneys feel they need to project strength and not weakness, most of them hide their disability, according to several experts. So one of the most significant ways to enhance inclusion of disabled lawyers would be for companies and law firms to encourage self-identification programs, according to attorneys with disabilities. Ben Lumicao, for 28 years an in-house counsel with Allstate Insurance Co. in Chicago, has a visible disability. He was born with cerebral palsy and underwent several operations in order to regain some mobility.

“I think the painfully low numbers of attorneys with disabilities in law firms, legal departments, and the profession as a whole is, in part, a reflection of hesitancy for lawyers with disabilities to identify themselves as disabled,” Lumicao told Law360 in a recent interview. “Part of what I think would help transform the view of disability in the workplace, and in the legal profession in particular, would be a better understanding that we are already working with more people with disabilities than we think.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that more than one-fourth of all U.S. adults have a disability, but 70% of those disabilities are not apparent. The good news is that the 2023 Disability Equality Index, a benchmarking tool for Fortune 1000 companies to measure disability workplace inclusion, reveals a marked increase in voluntary self-identification campaigns among corporations. The index results were released Monday to kick off a weeklong conference in Orlando, Florida.

While fewer than 5% of employees publicly identify as having a disability, that number is up from 3% last year. But disability representation in the corporate boardroom remains nearly nonexistent, the report adds, citing it as an environmental, social and governance issue to be considered. The index was launched in 2015 by Disability:IN, a global nonprofit advocating for disability inclusion in business, and by the American Association of People with Disabilities, or AAPD. This year, 485 corporations, including 71 Fortune 100 companies, and nine major law firms took part in the index survey.

Of the law firms, seven had scores of 80 out of 100 and were recognized as best places to work for disability inclusion: Ballard Spahr LLP, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Epstein Becker Green, K&L Gates LLP, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, Reed Smith LLP and Steptoe & Johnson LLP. Health care rights attorney Ted Kennedy Jr., a pediatric bone cancer survivor and amputee, co-chairs Disability:IN’s annual index and is a board member and past chair of AAPD. He is an attorney at Epstein Becker Green’s office in Stamford, Connecticut, and also a member of Law360’s 2023 Diversity and Inclusion Editorial Advisory Board.

“Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act is now over 30 years old,” Kennedy told Law360 Pulse, “we really have not seen very much progress in labor force participation among people with disabilities. And people with disabilities who are able and willing to work still face enormous barriers to employment.” Kennedy said disability inclusion is not just the right thing to do, but is also good business. He cited a 2018 report by Accenture showing that companies that performed better in the Disability Equality Index also were more profitable than those that did not. “My ultimate goal here is to try to make disability inclusion one of the next themes of corporate social responsibility, and ESG investing as well,” he added. When there’s a conversation happening about inclusion and diversity at the corporate level, Kennedy said, “we want to make sure … that it also includes disability inclusion.”

He said his group’s newest initiative is asking companies to update their nominating and governance committee charters to specifically include disability as part of their definition of diversity for new board members.

Jill Houghton, CEO of Disability:IN, said the organization has seen considerable progress. Companies like Accenture, Google and Microsoft now release disability data as part of their annual diversity reports, she said. And numerous companies have sought the group’s help in enhancing disability inclusion in the six key areas of leadership, culture, employment practices, accessibility, community engagement and supplier diversity.

Some of that progress is apparent to Kareem Dale, a senior counsel with Discover Financial Services for the past 10 years in the Chicago area. His disability began with eye disease in his youth that grew progressively worse as he aged, leaving him nearly blind now. Dale said the inclusion of people with disabilities must start at the top, with the CEO and general counsel setting it as a goal and adopting programs for hiring and retention of disabled workers. Companies are beginning to understand that hiring a diverse workforce is better for the bottom line, Dale said.

For example, “one thing I was able to do is to sit down with our tech teams and really show them how to make our Discover mobile app more accessible to people with disabilities,” he explained. “It’s one thing to tell them to do it; it’s another to show them how.” Dale said when he started practicing law around 1999, “it was still a struggle to [get] these companies to talk about disability as a part of diversity. But it’s much more the exception now when a company or law firm talks about diversity without including disability.”

Prashant Dubey, chief strategy officer at business software provider Agiloft Inc. and former vice president of contracts solutions and disability inclusion for the legal services company Elevate, has worked for years on improving inclusion for workers with disabilities.

The driving force, he said, was when he injured his spinal cord several years ago in an accident and was paralyzed from the neck down. Through five years of hard work, he gradually regained movement.

But Dubey said he has a lot of empathy for those who don’t understand clearly because they “are not yet disabled — because at some point everybody will be, either because of an accident or just age.” That’s why he doesn’t think “general counsel and their legal teams understand how to create an inclusive environment beyond just checking the ADA compliance box,” he said.

General counsel should better reinforce policies around accommodation of a person’s disability, he suggested. They also need to offer better accessibility to technology, and create or encourage participation in company employee resource groups. Dubey said general counsel can also work with their law firms to make sure people with disabilities are part of their staffs.

And, like others interviewed, Dubey said leaders should understand the fear of disclosure among many in the disabled community. The number one thing a general counsel can do, he said, “is create a safe space for disclosure without stigma.” One way to do that is to disclose one’s own weakness or disability, he suggested — something most leaders do not like to do.