Individuals with disabilities make up 15% of the world’s population – that’s 1 billion people – and this is likely a significant underestimate. Despite being one in five or six of us globally, people with disabilities are half as likely to be employed as their non-disabled peers. In the US in 2016, for example, 36% of working aging Americans with disabilities were in the workforce compared to 79% of workers without disabilities. This is despite US legislation passed in 1990 to extend employment nondiscrimination protections to all persons with disabilities. Of current global significance, these same kinds of protections are now a part of the worldwide regulatory environment with the passage of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2006, which 177 countries have ratified to-date.

A discussion of the worldwide employment participation disparity for individuals with disabilities is imperative, because disability is a thread that can be woven into every conversation regarding the economy, global health and wellbeing and the environment, as well as technology and the arts. For example, consideration of the needs of people with disabilities in the design of digital products and services has long been in the view of IT giants such as Apple, IBM and Microsoft. These interests are increasingly being infused into the product design of social media corporations like Facebook, LinkedIn and Google. These companies realize that designing elements that make websites accessible to blind or deaf users are also likely to make these products usable and attractive to the world’s growing population of older people. This significantly extends the potential market share for such products, while also enabling ease of use for older workers and those with disabilities who want to participate in increasingly technology-driven workplaces.

Improving employment participation rates for people with disabilities in today’s labour force is a critical global issue, particularly in the tech sector, where there are increasing numbers of open jobs and a significant need for new talent pools. An example of one emerging innovative practice is how tech sector leaders such as SAP, DXC Technology (formerly Hewlett-Packard Enterprise) and Microsoft have become ardent advocates for the pursuit of qualified persons with autism to fill their open positions. Select characteristics of autistic individuals – such as an ability to focus intently on details and identify patterns – have been identified as useful in tasks related to cybersecurity, for example.

So it’s time for disability to be at the heart of any discussion centred on the economy, technology and global wellbeing. A critical part of this conversation is the role of the private sector in contributing to improved employment outcomes for people with disabilities. There are many opportunities throughout the employment process where employers can facilitate disability inclusion, such as recruitment and hiring, career development and retention, accessibility and accommodation, compensation and benefits, and diversity and inclusion, as well as the metrics and analytics that companies can use to measure their progress across each of these areas (an online organizational self-assessment of six related checklists is available at no cost here).

Research in this area – published in the journal Rehabilitation Research, Policy, and Education – has identified certain employer practices in recruitment which yield a much higher probability of a company having successfully hired a person with a disability in the past year. When nearly 700 human resource professionals were surveyed about their workplaces’ disability-inclusive policies and practices, those who reported providing internships for people with disabilities were almost six times more likely to have successfully hired a person with a disability in the past year. A visible commitment to disability-hiring initiatives by senior management resulted in the company being five times more likely to have done so. The use of other good practices – such as setting explicit goals for hiring persons with disabilities, actively recruiting individuals with disabilities, including people with disabilities in the company’s diversity and inclusion strategy, and companies establishing relationships with community organizations to assist with sourcing candidates with disabilities – led to companies being three to four times more likely to have the desired disability hiring outcome in the past year (see Figure 1 below).

 People with disabilities are more likely to be hired by companies that use these recruitment strategies

People with disabilities are more likely to be hired by companies that use these recruitment strategies
Image: Erickson, W.A., von Schrader, S., Bruyère, S.M., VanLooy, S.A., & Matteson, D.S. (2014). Disability -inclusive employer practices and hiring of individuals with disabilities. Rehabilitation Research, Policy, and Education, 28(4)

People with disabilities are a large part of the global population and yet are significantly underrepresented in the global labour force. This is a critical issue; not just for individuals with disabilities, whose talents are going largely untapped, but also for business and the economy, as well as society as a whole. It is time that we look to business to provide better leadership in this area, by applying employer policies and practices that are proven to increase the likelihood of improving the employment outcomes of people with disabilities.