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Change is happening, says disabled rights campaigner

Caroline Casey is campaigning to put disability on the corporate agenda

The Irish woman who made it her mission to put disability on the corporate agenda is nearing her goal.
Caroline Casey from Dublin, who is legally blind, set up The Valuable 500 to end workplace discrimination based on disability and says diversity has to take in people of different abilities.

The Valuable 500 is a global movement calling on major corporations to commit to disability inclusion. Over 360+ global brands have made a commitment to disability inclusion, from Microsoft to Unilever to some of Irelands biggest companies, Aer Lingus, AIB Group, Greencore Group, Keelings, Linde plc, Kerry Foods, Ornua Group, Perrigo, Smurfit Kappa.

Speaking to us recently on what was the International Day for Disabled Persons, Caroline said she is excited to see major brands show they are also serious about making a change but that she is also conscious of the work still to be done.

Caroline told The Irish World: ” There’s a real seismic momentum in the change happening. It’s great.

“It’s the international day of people with disabilities. It’s a moment to recognise that 1.3 billion people in the world who have lived experience of disability, which is 15% of our global population, one in seven of us, who often have remained on the margins or sidelines of society and particularly business.

“We have just added another 44 companies to this historic community and that’s incredibly exciting but what I’m finding more exciting today is more businesses, more people, more next generations are talking about the global community of people with disabilities. That’s exciting. I’m one of 1.3 billion. That’s not why I’m excited. I’m excited to start seeing the change and see disability become part of the inclusive conversation.”

Although the pandemic has been hard for those with disabilities, Caroline says it has proved inclusive societies are possible.

“You hear people saying that people with disabilities have been more vulnerable as a global collective. You cannot deny that that’s true particularly when you’re talking about care and access to care that you will need during lockdown which is absolutely impossible.

“On the other side, the breakdown that has happened in our world is actually the greatest breakthrough- I know that sounds like a cliche but it’s true- It’s the greatest breakthrough to globally change the business system, truly shake up the business system.

“If you look at the figures of the Valuable 500, you know that that’s real. There’s an opportunity here and we’re going to grab it. Businesses are aware and, as we try to recover from this pandemic, they need to be aware of the inclusive growth.

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“As we move on from the pandemic we all know what it was like, every single one of us having a disability or not, we know what it was like to not be able to determine our freedom of movement or what we were going to do. That’s how an awful lot of people with disabilities have had to live. I think people are starting to understand.”

Diagnosed with ocular albinism as a child, Caroline was unaware of the condition until she was older. In 2000, at the age of 28, she left her job to set up the Aisling Foundation that aimed to improve how disability is treated. In 2001, she trekked across India on an elephant to raise €250,000 for the National Council of the Blind of Ireland and Sightsavers. In 2005 she set up the Ability Awards to recognise organisations that promote disability inclusion.
“This is an Irish success story. This is a global movement but it began in Ireland. I am so proud of the Irish companies that have joined.

“Ireland made this happen. This is all the Irish business leaders who backed me for years when everybody thought I was crazy. We took what we learned in Ireland and shared it across the world.

“The tiny little island again has done something that nobody could have imagined.

“It was 20 years ago I came out of the closet about my being registered blind. I’ve been operating disability business inclusion for nearly two decades.

“The Valuable 500 was born out of my frustration that i couldn’t see accelerated change. I just couldn’t see it. Despite the fact that every one of us at some point in our lives is going to be touched by disability, why was it on the sidelines of business? I truly believe that’s because we never had a CEO stand up for this.

“This was not even launched two years ago. We launched it on the main stage of the World Economic Forum in Davos where everyone said we were crazy.

“Today we stand here with 366 global companies. We are talking the biggest brands in the world with the CEO giving a commitment. That represents 13 million employees, 31 countries, 56 sectors, $5 trillion in revenue. We are the largest CEO leadership community in the world on any issue other than UN global contact. That is extraordinary.”
Although discrimination is no longer acceptable on any other basis, Caroline says equal opportunities have to be that when it also comes to the disabled.

“54% of boards around the world had never had a conversation about disability. 90% of companies say they are passionate about inclusion and only 4% consider disability. That’s a delusion.

“We’re only 134 companies away from closing our community at the end of January. This is historic but it’s not just for people with disabilities. It’s for all of us. Inclusion should mean all. If we include disability and we include gender and race, we shouldn’t be categorising our humanity and prioritising one aspect over the other.

“Inclusive business creates inclusive society. What business includes, society includes. We have the power of 13 million employees behind us right now. Imagine what we can do with that.”

The disabled are hugely under-represented in the media with just 0.06% of advertising showing someone with a disability.

“The issue is how the world perceives us and how society is designed.

“I would love for the work that we do not to exist. I don’t want to be hustling and justifying why this community should be included.

“I really want to see the figures of disability representation in media go up.

“I would like to see people with disabilities sitting on boards of businesses.

“I would like to see the end of this competitive inclusion agenda and I really would like to believe that my five and a half month old nephew can grow up in a world were he is good enough the way he is.

“I hope in a few years time it won’t be about one day to celebrate one part of our humanity, we will celebrate it every day. Today we celebrate disability inclusion but every day we live it.”

Caroline points out that anyone can become disabled at any time.

“80% of disability is acquired between the ages of 18 and 64. Disability doesn’t discriminate. You can be completely fine one day and you can acquire a disease, get knocked down in a car crash. Many people acquire sight loss. It doesn’t care about our age, colour of our skin. 80% of it is invisible as well.”

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