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Global, Post-event round up

How do you tackle a job like global disability inclusion? Reflections from the Global Roundtable, 19 October 2023.

The Global Roundtable was kindly sponsored by HSBC.


By Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum

I’m sure many of you will have asked – or been asked – a variant of an equally tough question, “How do we approach disability inclusion as a company when we have a hundred offices in a dozen different countries?”

Building a global approach to disability inclusion is, simply put, a big job. When I joined a few senior leaders to talk about this a couple of weeks ago, at a roundtable, a key thing we all shared was having to accept how big and complex the challenge was.

Even the most experienced practitioners and drivers of change at the table accepted they didn’t have all the answers. But, very importantly, they recognised they didn’t have to have the answers in order to get started.

The saying goes “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. This was the standout message from our first global report, ‘Developing a Global Disability Inclusion Strategy’, sponsored by Shell and released back in 2020.  Focus on intention, not perfection. It’s a case, first of all, of not being afraid to start.

Let’s set out the challenge in brief. At Business Disability Forum our approach is rooted in best practice rather than compliance. That’s a challenge even at a UK level. But a global approach also means accounting for many different:

  • Laws and legal contexts.
  • Suppliers.
  • Leaders.
  • Communities.
  • Cultural models, views and definitions of disability.
  • Language around disability – including between different English-speaking countries.
  • Working environments, leadership and culture.
  • Legal entities: some parts of a global company may be entirely separate from the ‘parent’.

Formidable? Of course, especially when combined with all the ‘usual’ challenges involved with championing inclusion, such as limited resources (money and time), senior buy-in, and getting hold of and sharing knowledge and data. Finally, there’s the scale and fragmented nature of disability as a topic.

But also doable? Again, yes.

The power of small changes

A key bit of advice leaders agreed on at this meeting was “Don’t underestimate the power of small changes.” It’s the same advice we’d give to businesses using our Disability Smart Audit in the UK. Becoming an inclusive business needn’t – and likely can’t – be done ‘all at once’. But it can be effectively achieved by improving practices in different areas “small change by small change” to keep motivated and build momentum.

For example, a global organisation can start to become more disability smart by:

  • Starting to talk about disability inclusion as non-optional, shifting discussions away from ‘extra cost’ and compliance and instead focusing on talent and opportunity (in both the employee and customer space).
  • Getting disability onto the agendas of senior leaders, who can champion and drive the topic internally. This was another key message from our first global report.
  • Making workplace adjustments and accommodations easier to obtain, with fewer processes for disabled employees requesting them, and again, moving discussions away from cost and towards productivity. I often say that I’d like to move the discussion from “Why?” to “Why not?” From “why should I buy you this?” to “why wouldn’t I equip you with the tools you need to do a great job for us?”.
  • Challenging existing policies and procedures to remove ‘little’ barriers – for instance, asking for a driving licence as the only acceptable form of ID in recruitment when many people don’t drive.
  • Ensuring learning and development opportunities are accessible. Mandatory training must be accessible for all.
  • Use public commitments as a springboard: “we can’t sign up to these things and not do anything”.
  • Share knowledge – don’t leave it concentrated with one professional or team.
  • Ultimately, this is not just “doing the right thing” but essential for business success: it means welcoming more customers, enabling more employees to thrive and being a more successful business as a result.

Setting your own terms of reference as leaders and inclusion experts

In terms of tackling the bigger questions we touched on earlier – the varied definitions of disability, the legal and cultural contexts where different parts of a global organisation operate –a key theme from the roundtable was the importance of setting out your own definition of disability as an organisation and what you stand for.  This might mean saying “Just because x, y or z condition doesn’t “count” as a disability in a certain country, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter to us and this is our global definition of disability regardless of where we work” (the United Nations definition of disability is a very good place to start). As one leader put it, this meant asking “what do we believe in, as a global brand? What is working here actually like?”

Global organisations can, and should, define what disability (and inclusion) means at their organisation, wherever it operates. For disabled employees, it’s then not a case of where they work but the organisation they work for.

The Environmental, Social and Governance ‘control tower’

A global approach to disability does involve hard work. No one will know this better than those working on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting and in Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) teams.

The message from one participant at the roundtable was working in these functions effectively meant being alert and “horizon-scanning” all of the time. It also meant proactively and pragmatically working with colleagues at all levels (including the top) and all areas at large, global organisations, using their role as a bridge between different teams and different companies.

ESG and D&I professionals also have to keep up with the many global crises affecting diverse groups, including disabled people (climate change, COVID-19, and active conflicts are just a few). It’s not an easy job but their unique connectivity gives them a central role in global organisations: a kind of “control tower”, driving improvement and best practice across the piece, maintaining that crucial momentum in making change.

So how do you solve a challenge like global inclusion?

I could write much more on this topic, not just because the insights of our Members and Partners are so interesting and useful, but because there is simply so much to explore. It is certainly a topic we will be continuing to discuss in the coming weeks, months and years. And we will only make progress if we work together. “We all accept,” one leader said as the event came to a close, “that this is not easy. But as we learnt from pharmaceutical companies during the pandemic [in the development of vaccines], honestly sharing knowledge between organisations is one of the most valuable things we can do.”

I could not have agreed more. And that theme of partnerships is one we revisited this week at our Global Conference 2023: Better Together – Creating an Accessible and Inclusive World on 1 November, also sponsored by HSBC.

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