By David Hennessy
An Irish woman visited the UK recently to speak on BBC Breakfast about her mission to put disability on the corporate agenda.
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.
She is appealing for major brands over here to show they are also serious about making this change.
Caroline told The Irish World: “I set up The Valuable 500 with a simple mission – to ask world leaders in business to make tangible commitments to disability inclusion. There are 1.3 billion disabled people in the world, with a market opportunity of $8 trillion, and businesses have been failing them. I wanted to set a challenge for the most influential companies in the world to show real commitment to those with disabilities. Launched in Davos earlier this year in January, The Valuable 500 aims to get 500 international businesses to make this commitment. We are lucky to have some of the world’s most influential leaders already on board with the campaign – such as Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, and Jeff Dodds, Chief Operating Officer, Virgin Media.
“200 companies have signed up to the initiative since we launched in Davos this January – which is an incredible feat.”
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: “We have come so far in the last few decades in terms of diversity in the workplace, yet disability is an area where many people are still overlooked and underestimated – quite often it’s not included in inclusion rankings. 90% of companies claim to prioritise diversity, but only 4% include disability as part of their definition of diversity.
“We often hear business leaders say, ‘I can’t focus on disability this year, as we’re prioritising LBGTQ or gender diversity’. It’s very often sidelined. But if disability is not on your agenda, neither is diversity. It’s no longer good enough for companies to say ‘disability doesn’t fit with our brand’ or ‘it’s a good idea to explore next year’. Businesses cannot be truly inclusive if disability is continuingly ignored on leadership agendas. A huge part of the problem stems from the fact that 80% of disabilities are invisible, so companies need to ensure they have an inclusive environment that allows employees to speak up and be open about it.”
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.
“I was raised as a sighted child, and didn’t know that I was legally blind until I was 17 years old. Of course the stigma around disability affected me but I wanted to prove that I was no less valuable than anyone else. I hid my disability and worked in a high intensity job till my late 20s. When I was open about it I realised that there are many who aren’t and that was something I needed to change. I strongly believe that the CEOs and brands who have backed The Valuable 500 share the same mission and are committed to reducing this stigma.”
Paddy McGuinness recently fumed at being questioned by a stranger about why he had parked in a disabled space. His twins have autism.
“I think there is a lack of education when it comes to disability; many people have a very stereotypical idea of what disability means, and are therefore very quick to judge when someone they perceive as able uses resources for disabled people. As I said, 80% of disabilities are invisible, and it is important that people are aware of this and think more carefully about what disability means and the impact it can. I believe that business has the power to drive social change and so businesses have to lead on this. Once they start taking disability seriously – everyone else will follow.”
In just October this year in America, food giant Domino’s lost a case against a blind man who sued them for not making their website accessible for him despite his use of screen reading software.
“Disabled people see the world very differently, and when it comes to buildings that have not been designed with disability in mind, it can be frustrating. However, it’s not just buildings that can be un-inclusive, but things like inflexible working hours, or even things we take for granted, like ordering pizza online, as the landmark case against Dominos recently proved. We must drive change with education and awareness in business to make our cities and workplaces much more inclusive for people with all disabilities.”
Caroline spoke on BBC Breakfast recently as part of the global campaign: “It was fantastic to appear on BBC Breakfast in November to announce that 165 companies had signed up to the initiative, including energy companies like Shell and Enel. Every opportunity to spread the message and reach CEOs is incredibly useful and advances the cause of the campaign.”
To brand leaders who might be reading this, Caroline says: “Come and join the inclusion revolution, alongside some of the world’s biggest brands and most influential business leaders. Now is the time to start taking disability inclusion seriously and make a commitment to a truly diverse, and therefore more productive, workplace.”
For more information on The Valuable 500, go to thevaluable500.com.