Moving Past EEO, Disability as a Business Strategy

As he was born with cerebral palsy, Jonathan Kaufman’s disability has been a profound part of his personal, academic and professional life. Kaufman focused his academic career at Sarah Lawrence College and Oxford University on studying lifestyles, work and policy issues related to disabilities. Kaufman seeks to develop new strategies and initiatives in his work as the lead disability strategist for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., senior strategist at the National Business & Disability Council and adviser to Diversity Best Practices.

Diversity Executive recently spoke with Kaufman, and excerpts from the interview appear below.

What challenges do people with disabilities face in the business?

The fundamental challenge that people with disabilities face in the business field is “mindset.” Corporations in many cases still look at disability issues as either a compliance or EEO matter rather than a cornerstone to business strategy, whether that means issues of human capital or potential exposure to new market opportunities. These challenges would dissipate quickly if corporations saw this community as a powerful tool for business growth.

How can organizations accommodate those challenges for people with disabilities?

We live in the digital age where technology is redefining the way we work and making it easier to accommodate employees with disabilities. However, organizations need to rethink how they look at accommodations. Companies must look at accommodations more as a critical part of human productivity that can only help them retain valuable human capital and grow their business in new ways. This being said, companies must emphasize their commitment to inclusive design to get the best productivity out of all their workers, incorporating both disabled and non- disabled under one umbrella and creating a streamlined model.

Why should organizations make these changes?

We need to move disability away from the traditional civil rights/EEO model and be seen as a critical business strategy. Businesses need to rethink how they look at disabilities both from a human capital perspective and a key new market.

From a human capital side, between 12 to 15 percent of all college grads have some form of disability, and more aging workers are continuing to work or started “second acts.” For organizations, there must be a way to leverage this valuable pool of human capital. There is also a significant rise in the autism community that can be a valuable opportunity for the growth of STEM work.

On the market side, the global disability community, according to the World Bank, exceeds the size of China and is worth $8 trillion. Here in the U.S., the disability market has a buying power of $461 billion, and consolidated purchasing power of more than $1 trillion, according to a 2010 report from the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

What advice would you give diversity executives?

1. Move past the traditional EEO model of disability and integrate into a business role.

2. Create an enterprise-wide strategy that focuses on building “disability confidence” that will enhance recruitment, onboarding, career development and retention — use ERGs as a vital resource.

3. Build the business case for disability — See the potential to utilize disability as a tool for growth not only externally in new products and services and engaging new markets but as a way to educate employees in areas of innovation, leadership and change management.

What are some organizations that have set a good example in diversity and inclusion with people with disabilities?

There are many companies that have begun to really take disability seriously as part of the D&I conversation. Some of the perennials, however, are companies like IBM, Accenture, Microsoft, Ernst & Young and WellPoint.

?How can people with disabilities advocate for a change in their workplace culture?

This often times is a tricky question because there is still a stigma associated with disabilities. Those with disabilities need to take the lead and make companies understand that they can contribute to the business as a whole in a valuable way.

Utilizing ERGs can be a valuable tool to help spread the message, but it is critical to have a senior-level or C-suite executive to be the sponsor to get the message across enterprise-wide. Utilizing internal corporate blogs, publications, etc., to present the business case of disability within the workplace culture (i.e. profiles, etc.) can be extraordinarily powerful.

Often it is important to humanize the issue — putting a face to the name can go a long way.

Mary Camille Izlar is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at