Model Firms Say Disability Inclusion Helps Business

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By Katarina E. Klenner

July 31—Business leaders discussed successful disability inclusion strategies and competitive advantages of employing individuals with disabilities at a July 31 disability employment summit commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

EY Americas Area Managing Partner Stephen Howe, Jr.—the keynote speaker at the event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the US Business Leadership Network—emphasized the critical importance of “creating an abilities-inclusive culture” and leveraging differences to drive business growth.

During the sessions that followed, government officials and representatives of national companies discussed the ADA's impact on employment and ways firms may leverage accessible technology to enhance business, approach challenges associated with Title III compliance and change corporate culture.

The USBLN, a national nonprofit organization that helps businesses drive performance by leveraging disability inclusion, represents more than 5,000 businesses nationwide.

Tom Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber and the first recipient of USBLN's global disability leadership award, said there are “too many employers that are unaware of the valuable contributions that workers with disabilities can make to their businesses. They may not know how to reach them, or they may be concerned about the perceived costs and challenge of providing accommodations.”

Affirming the Chamber's commitment to educating the business community, Donohue said, “We've got to raise awareness. We've got to tell success stories, and we've got to provide models that other employers can study and follow.”

Summit Spotlights EY

“Past successful advocates are a model for other employers who want to create a more inclusive workplace,” Donohue said.

As a model company, Ernst & Young was one of 19 that achieved a perfect score on the first annual Disability Equality Index (DEI) survey—a joint initiative of the USBLN and the American Association of People with Disabilities that objectively evaluates disability inclusion policies and practices and encourages companies to become industry leaders. Eighty Fortune 1000 companies completed the survey in early 2015.

“Our goal is not just to be the most inclusive firm we can be but to help others be more inclusive as well,” EY's Howe said.

Discussing the firm's “commitment to inclusiveness of people with all abilities,” the managing partner described why inclusiveness “makes business sense.”

According to Howe, research shows that diverse and inclusive teams “can be up to 158 percent more likely to understand their customers and their clients.” He explained, “The reason for this is that individuals are better attuned to meet the unmet needs of consumers or clients who are like themselves, so having a diverse group of people trying to make diverse insights is critical.”

“We don't employ a single person with a disability—instead, around the world we have 210,000 people with different abilities,” Howe said. “Our experience is that by employing diverse talent and leveraging our people's differences—including differences in physical abilities, cognitive abilities, mental health—we create the highest performing teams, and they produce more innovative, higher quality solutions for our clients and drive growth,” he concluded.

EY expects growth from and successful careers for employees with diverse abilities—not merely retention, Howe stressed.

Inclusiveness in organizations means equal access, Howe said. To create an abilities-inclusive environment that inspires advancement, EY endeavors to make its physical places, tools, resources, technologies and processes accessible to all, he said. This involves creating websites and materials including images of people with visible disabilities, captioning videos and webcasts and creating opportunities for all people to participate in the community, he added.

Spurring businesses to be more inclusive, Howe said, “Yes, we have made significant progress since the ADA 25 years ago, but of course there is much more to do, and we need to focus on how we can continue to build on the legacy of the ADA.”

ADA ‘Only a Beginning.'

EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum and former U.S. congressmen Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) and Steve Bartlett (R-Texas) reflected on the ADA legislative process during a panel discussion facilitated by Randel Johnson, the chamber's senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits.

Bartlett said, “Employment is inclusion; it's independence versus dependence, and that's the core of it.”

In discussing congressional committee negotiations prior to passage of the ADA, Coelho said, “It was a tough fight all the way through.”

But “there was a real commitment to getting to ‘yes,'” recounted Feldblum, who played a leading role in drafting the ADA. The bill had to work as a law and had “to be something that will work for businesses,” and “that's what I think we got,” she said.

“Twenty-five years later we have a major civil rights law that has not been marked by litigation, has not been marked by enforcement—it's been marked by both a willingness and an enthusiasm for making it work by employers,” Bartlett said.

On the law today, the EEOC commissioner said the ADA is a necessary but insufficient condition for increasing the employment rate of people with significant, manifest disabilities. People with disabilities are part of the same community, but people with manifest disabilities have different challenges at the workplace, she said.

Recognizing the importance of the summit and the DEI, Feldblum said the only way to condemn the unemployment and underemployment rate of people with disabilities is through “efforts to say we affirmatively want people with [manifest] disabilities in our workforce.”

Coelho asserted the ADA was “a beginning—it wasn't the end” and that “technology is the thing that is going to make the next 25 years of the ADA extremely, extremely successful.”

Technology Levels Playing Field

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who shepherded the ADA to passage, said an important purpose of the summit was to identify and address areas that need improvement. Specifically, he said that we must ensure technological advancements are making the workplace more accessible and inclusive.

The congressman said the “ADA has just started to be the promise that America gives to its citizens” and that we are “on the cusp of real inclusion, real empowerment.”

Preety Kumar, president and chief executive officer of Deque Systems Inc., asked representatives from Wells Fargo Co., IBM Corp. and Comcast Cable to share personal experiences and company initiatives to remove barriers at the workplace.

Dena Wainwright of Wells Fargo said digital access is about empowerment and possibility and that “technology is one of those things that levels the playing field and eliminates false barriers to education, independence and to employment.”

The online accessibility program manager said she believes where accessibility is placed in a company and the effectiveness of that placement is partly a function of industry.

Frances West, the chief accessibility officer of IBM, agreed. “We really need to combine the diversity and HR function along with accessibility,” she said. “There is a natural convergence from the business side to become more human-centric.”

Given that one third of U.S. households have at least one member with a disability, “the market opportunity is clear,” said Thomas Wlodkowski, vice president of accessibility for Comcast. “If you're going to recruit people with disabilities and you want them to be performing at their highest level, you need employee tools that are accessible.”

Move Beyond ADA Compliance

“Title I and Title III work hand in glove,” said James Plunkett, the Chamber's director of labor policy, who moderated a panel on future compliance challenges for public accommodations. The panel was comprised of Paula Kelley, executive sponsor of Bank of America's Disability Advocacy Network, and two labor and employment law practitioners.

With the emergence of new technologies and the increased availability of auxiliary aids and services since the 1990s, Teresa Jakubowski of Barnes & Thornburg said that the definition of “equal access” has changed and that the focus has shifted from access to a more sophisticated analysis regarding the equality of access provided.

Noting compliance challenges associated with the “vastness of what Title III covers,” Jakubowski urged places of public accommodation to recruit people with disabilities into positions dealing with compliance, to consult employees with disabilities in their compliance efforts, to be proactive in reaching out to customers for feedback and suggestions (with more than a standard form letter) and to assign someone to be responsible for ADA compliance.

Joshua Stein, of Epstein, Becker & Green, echoed Jakubowski, saying, “Don't wait to get nipped in the heels.”

Beyond compliance, Stein cited “a big disconnect” between high level support for policies, practices and procedures that promote accessibility and efforts to make sure policies and training “are effectively carried out on the ground.”

“There's often a huge difference between what corporate passes out and what happens at the regional level, what happens at the individual facility or store,” he said.

Discussing BOA's goals and challenges, Kelley said, “ADA has to be beyond just compliance.” To change its culture, BOA is focusing not only on mandatory ADA training but also on inclusion training.

“We're changing the mindset of our employees, of our managers so that they understand what capabilities and abilities everyone brings to the table,” she said. BOA reaches out to agencies for help sourcing qualified candidates with disabilities, and hiring managers committed to having a diverse slate of qualified candidates for every job opening. “That diversity is not just gender, it's not just ethnicity, but it's ability and experience as well,” Kelley said.

Challenge Mindset to Change Culture

Representatives from PNC Bank, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Corp. and Cigna shared strategies for creating an inclusive corporate culture in an interactive session led by Joyce Bender, founder and chief executive officer of Bender Consulting Services, Inc.

All participants agreed corporate leadership is important. Cigna's chief diversity officer Rosanna Durruthy said leadership “clears the path,” highlighting the support of the company's CEO for a colleague resource group called People with Different Abilities.

Amanda Snow, a senior recruiting manager for PNC, described the bank's internal support for the disability community. She said an employee business resource group called “PNC Cares” supports employees with disabilities and family members, and colleagues or friends of individuals with disabilities by promoting awareness, acceptance and understanding.

Bender noted, “There is a difference between a welcoming and a tolerant culture” and asked the presenters to describe how their companies are working to create a welcoming environment.

Designing and constructing an inclusive workspace is one example, said Jamie Eden, human resources senior vice president of Boehringer. “We can never just assume that we are where we need to be,” he said.

Durruthy suggested training employees and management beyond compliance. Last year, Cigna piloted a react forum to train on employee experiences, she said. “The act of creating an inclusive environment is really about personalization and awareness and understanding not only what it's like for another but how our interactions with others impact the whole of the environment.”

Eden said his company is “very focused on a virtual series of trainings looking at unconscious bias and micro-inequities” but feels conversations on the topic are more important.

Snow suggested partnering with organizations to recruit talent and to review internal policies, issuing surveys to better understand employee talent and asking what changes can be made to facilities to make employees' jobs easier.

On how to promote employment opportunities, Durruthy also urged companies to re-think how work gets done and how to integrate technology to create a work environment that allows people to thrive based on their abilities.

To contact the reporter on this story: Katarina E. Klenner in Washington at Katarina E. Klenner

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Bodell at