We use cookies to collect and analyse information on site performance and usage to improve and customise your experience, where applicable. View our Cookies Policy. Click Accept and continue to use our website or Manage to review and update your preferences.

Disability inclusion

21 Feb 2023 / employment Print

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it

There are rich benefits to be gained from disability inclusion within organisations, such as critical leadership qualities that feature resilience, adaptability, and innovation. Martina Larkin flies the flag for ‘DI’.

The term ‘diversity, equality and inclusion’ (DEI) has become a popular phrase on the HR agendas of many organisations across the world. There are numerous pieces of research outlining the social and economic value of having a diverse and inclusive workplace.

For example, research that charts how jurors assess evidence has shown that people who work as part of a group that is diverse work more intentionally, increase their focus and, as a result, perform better.

However, a very interesting report from a US-based consultancy, Heidrick and Struggles, shows that studies like this focus mostly on particular aspects of diversity, such as on ethnicity, gender, or LGBTQ+. The research on disability in this context is not as prevalent. However, the report points to the rich benefits to be gained from disability inclusion within organisations at a number of levels.

The case for disability inclusion

The Heidrick and Struggles report bases its research on a number of large multinational companies located in the USA and notes that, while there are increasing numbers of targeted programmes to attract disabled employees at entry level, the representation of disabled people in leadership positions and boardrooms is remarkably low.

The report engaged with disabled high-level executives and noted that many of the leaders reported having to put disproportionate effort and energy into hiding their disability, or in consistently having to prove their ability. In fact, while the research showed that approximately 30% of employees had a disability, only 10% disclosed it. Therefore, 20% of the workforce are using valuable resources and energy in trying to hide their disability.

The primary reason for the reluctance to reveal their disability was reported to be due to the fear of being perceived as being less able. However, the report goes on to say that, with increasing numbers of people having disabilities or who will acquire a disability, it is a market benefit to incorporate and embrace the perspectives of disabled people in the workplace.

Their input may ensure that a product or service will be more suitable to the ultimate consumer who is likely to have or experience disability at some point of their lives.

Not designed for them

Allied to the increased engagement and productivity that an employee could bring if they didn’t feel the need to hide their disability and, given better customer relatability, as identified above, the case for disability inclusion gets even stronger when you look at the common gifts, strengths, and assets a large number of disabled people have by virtue of living in a world not designed for them.

Heidrick and Struggles outline a number of ‘critical leadership qualities’, which include resilience, adaptability, and innovation. Given that people with disabilities often embrace these qualities inherently by virtue of their lived experiences more generally, they may be better equipped to lead organisations.

This is increasingly relevant now, when many other employee skills are becoming increasingly automated and robotised. It prioritises the need for experienced people who bring skills that automation cannot supply, such as imagination, innovation, and the ability to navigate complex social systems.

Accenture (USA) takes this further: it completed research with 140 respondent organisations that identified as ‘disability-inclusive’. It analysed those organisations across four years, and identified 45 of those as ‘disability-inclusion champions’.

Their research showed that those top 45 companies were twice as likely to have increased shareholder returns as their peers. The report also noted additional ‘beyond-revenue’ benefits, including increased innovation, increased shareholder value, improved productivity, improved market share, and enhanced reputation.

The Irish context

Ireland, compared with other OECD countries, has one of the worst recorded rates of employment of disabled persons.

A 2021 OECD report confirms that we are generally ‘not very inclusive’. Of the almost 13.5% of our society that identifies as disabled (based on the 2016 census), only between 30-36% are employed. This is particularly concerning, as employment equality is one of the key routes to tackle marginalisation and social exclusion.

Furthermore, Ireland is lawfully obliged – by virtue of its ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2018 – to meaningfully and purposefully fulfil its obligations thereunder.

A core responsibility under article 27 of the convention relates specifically to work and the employment of disabled people. It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability, but also obliges the State to promote and protect the employment rights of people with disabilities.

Reasonable accommodation

Irish equal-status and employment-equality legislation prohibits discrimination on nine grounds, one of which is disability. Case law, particularly in the area of employment equality, has interpreted disability very broadly – including long-term accessibility issues, addiction, and short-term medical ailments (such as back injuries and other such issues).

In the area of employment, where a person has a disability, an employer must provide ‘reasonable accommodation’ to the disabled employee to meet their workplace-related needs. In other words, the employer is lawfully obliged to put in place appropriate measures to enable the disabled person(s) to have equal opportunities in the workplace.

The term ‘reasonable accommodation’ is often construed as complex or challenging for employers – but it doesn’t need to be. The Heidrick and Struggles report goes so far as to say that, where appropriate measures are put in place (such as a hearing loop or captions to videos for people with hearing disabilities, or using videos with audio descriptions for blind or visually impaired people), the disability ‘goes away’.

Social construct

This proposition is strongly tied to disability being a social construct. In other words, it is not a disabled person’s attributes that prevent them participating fully at work, but rather the practices, facilities, and processes that favour the abled. If viewed from this perspective, reasonable accommodation amounts to no more than adjusting practices, facilities, or processes to enable access.

The pandemic has accelerated many routes to facilitate this in terms of working from home, hybrid arrangements, virtual meetings, and other information-technology accessibility tools. Irish research, on behalf of Employers for Change and the Open Doors Initiative, has nudged this accelerant even further by exploring The Future of Work and Disability – A Remote Opportunity (Joan O’Donnell, November 2021).

The report examines what could have the most positive impacts in this area, including connection, accommodation, and learning.

Chronic staff shortages

Almost every industry in Ireland has been featured in the media recently as being in crisis due to staff shortages and challenges in the recruitment and retention of staff. Without a doubt, this is having a negative impact on society at a number of levels.

In Ireland, the potential to attract new disabled candidates to the market is huge. Caoimhe Grogan, vice-chair of the DisAbility Legal Network, referred to the disability ‘talent pool’ that is waiting to be tapped.

Based on the total population in Ireland today, and the OECD figures of between only 30-36% employment of disabled persons, it means that there is a potential additional workforce of over 400,000 people in Ireland.

Given the valuable gifts, talents, and strengths often possessed by disabled people, if disability inclusion were prioritised and meaningfully promoted, it could significantly boost the economy at a number of levels in addressing unemployment of disabled people, in enhancing corporate performance, in meeting skills deficits, and in releasing more disposable income into the economy. This, of course, is secondary to the primary benefit of addressing social exclusion.


Numerous studies have documented disabled people’s experiences of ‘ableism’. Ableism is the conscious or subconscious belief that socio-typical abilities are superior. For centuries, ableism has been promoted through public order, criminal justice, and other routes to enforce normative conformity.

Society has historically tried to ‘help’ and ‘cure’ disabled people through segregation and expert intervention. This promotes the perceived distance from what is seen as the societal ‘norm’.

The benefit of the promotion of a human-rights based approach shows how absurd the ableist perspective actually is.

If not challenged, society could continue to portray disabled people as victims of circumstance rather than, as the sociologist Bill Hughes puts it, the “historic high achievers” and “agents against the odds” that they are.

Legal-sector market leader?

The legal sector has often led the charge in tackling issues of social injustice; in fact, it is the bedrock of the justice system itself.

Disabled people are often natural and skilled advocates, given that they have had to navigate a world that is not designed for them. Disabled people often report having to assert their rights on a day-to-day basis.

In order to address and tackle ableism, it takes skills that align very closely with those required in the legal profession, such as legal knowledge, empathy, negotiation, influencing, and communication.

The Law Society continues to encourage people with diverse lived experiences to join the profession. It ran a campaign in early September 2022 focusing on just that. It has also added human-rights law and disability law to its new ‘fused’ PPC course.

The future does offer great opportunities to see the increased participation of disabled people in the sector and a continued challenge of the status quo.

However, one key element in meaning-fully promoting disability inclusion in the sector is for those in leadership to ‘model’ inclusion. For many of us, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

We need to see disabled people in leadership roles, as this will combat inherent ableist practices. We need to promote psychological safety in teams that will enable people to move away from hiding their disability.

Look it up


Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Martina Larkin
Martina Larkin is the CEO of the Meath Foundation and is a non-practising solicitor. She is a passionate advocate for social justice and social inclusion, and has worked in the area of disability for the last nine years.