The value proposition of disability-driven innovation

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How can you enrich your company, drive up profitability, and increase shareholder returns? Competitive, integrated employment (CIE) is your answer. But how does CIE work and why is it valuable for your organization? We asked Robert Ludke, Senior Fellow at Harkins Institute about the benefits of disability employment and the payoff in innovation and market value for organizations.

Text: "The value proposition of disability-driven innovation" Photo: Robert Ludke speaking at a podium at Harkin Summit 2022 in Belfast.

Competitive, Integrated Employment

I recently authored Competitive, Integrated Employment: A Driver of Long-Term Value Creation. Its premise is that fostering competitive, integrated employment for persons with disabilities is a driver of long-term value creation for companies and society alike. 

For companies the value proposition is about attracting top talent to innovate products that grow market share, reach new customers, and solidify their reputation as leaders in the global economy. Companies like Microsoft, Google, Bank of Ireland, and Unilever are examples of organizations that believe disability inclusion is a competitive advantage for the business rather than charity or philanthropy. As a result, these companies consistently rank as leaders in their respective markets by any number of measures – profitability, shareholder return, and employee loyalty to name just a few. 

Sustaining Success 

Furthermore, a commitment to competitive, integrated employment allows for the success of companies to be sustained over time. A key reason: those companies cultivate access to a deep, committed, and qualified talent pool, even in turbulent times like today. Sasha DeMarino, Client Engagement Director at Turnberry Solutions, an information technology consulting firm that actively fosters a diverse workforce, succinctly stated, “I've got lots of people who can fill in and back each other up, because we've created an environment that can do that. The pandemic showed you need a committed workforce that can be flexible. If not, your business is at risk.”1 

Accenture has quantified the benefits of disability inclusion in the workforce. According to its 2020 study, Accenture found that “organizations most focused on disability engagement are growing sales 2.9x faster and profits 4.1x faster than their peers.” A key reason for the success of these companies is that the market opportunity for disability innovation is massive. For example, Return on Disability, a Toronto-based a data-driven insights and design firm that leverages disability (identity and functionality) in working with clients, found that “With an estimated population of 1.85 billion, people with disabilities (PWD) constitute an emerging market the size of China plus the European Union. Their Friends and Family add another 3.4 billion potential consumers who act on their emotional connection to PWD. Together, they control over $13 trillion in annual disposable income.” 

All of Us Benefit from Competitive, Integrated Employment 

Arguably, the rewards of competitive, integrated employment for society are even greater than those for specific organizations. Consider just a few of the products innovated either by persons with disabilities or for persons with disabilities to help them adapt to a world that is not very accessible: the typewriter, cruise control on vehicles, the voice activation feature on your smartphone.  

And don’t forget the widespread adoption of curb cuts on sidewalks in cities and neighborhoods around the world. Every parent pushing a stroller or traveler with a roller bag suitcase has taken advantage of a disability-driven innovation.  

Each of these innovations has had a positive benefit to in the lives of billions of people, disabled or not. 

Competitive, Integrated Employment Doesn’t Just Happen 

Realizing the maximum value of competitive, integrated employment requires a full organizational commitment, from the board of directors to the teams of employees on “front lines”. Success will not be achieved unless the board, CEO, the executive team, and middle managers appreciate and understand the value proposition of disability inclusion and engage on it every day. 

The most important step in making that commitment is embracing the honesty, openness, and authenticity that comes with all forms of inclusion. Leaders must appreciate that, if they are not open about their connection to disability, few in the organization will feel comfortable disclosing their disability. As a result, employees will not bring their best self to the job, which stifles their ability to collaborate, innovate, and foster value creation across the organization. 

Leaders and managers in organizations must be more proactive in advancing a professional environment conducive to disability-driven innovation. When employees are expected to constantly advocate for themselves in seeking reasonable accommodations in the workplace they are less focused on excelling and more focused on just trying to meet the stated requirements of their position.  

As one U.S.-based employee was quoted in Accenture’s “Getting to Equal 2020: Disability Inclusion” study, “[My employer] just helped me out and made me feel better about myself, and to know that I can actually be a productive person. To me, that always helps to have that encouragement to work, to have that extra help to find devices or software or just things to help you do your job better.” 

The Payoff is Worth It 

Consider that research by McKinsey found that “Business leaders predict that by 2026, half of their revenues will come from products, services, or businesses that haven’t yet been created.” Put simply, the immediate market opportunities before every organization are immense – a significant portion of the global economy will be shaped for generations to come by the innovation over the next three years. Those that use this moment to foster competitive, integrated employment will position themselves to transcend their market and add value to society far into the future. 

As I wrote in Competitive, Integrated Employment: A Driver of Long-Term Value Creation, “Now is not the time to be sidelining talent. Instead, we can use our collective talents to improve society while achieving a competitive advantage to innovate for a better future. By doing that we will change the arc of our economy and ourselves as a community of people for years to come.” 


By Robert Ludke, Senior Fellow at The Harkin Institute. He has advised policymakers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, taught at the United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, and provided counsel on sustainability, CSR, and ESG strategies for companies in the retail, oil and gas, transportation, and finance industries.

Photo credit: The Harkin Institute 


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