Multinationals must ensure policy, not geography drives disability inclusion

There is often a certain pride associated with working for a multinational corporation or global brand. This is, perhaps, even more the case for disabled staff, who may face additional barriers to entering the workforce in the first place.

It is, therefore, not so difficult to imagine why it could be frustrating for disabled employees to know that their experience with the same organization might vary considerably, depending on the country they are working in.

This is often, not a sin of commission on behalf of the organization but rather, one of omission. What is missing, is the adoption of a global strategy for disability inclusion, which seeks to establish a consistent approach across all geographies where an organization has operations.

Towards a Disability Smart World

The absence of a global disability inclusion policy may result in an arbitrary, ad hoc approach where pockets of good and bad practice may arise, depending on the competence and commitment of the local leadership teams.

Keen to address the need for consistency, earlier this month, Business Disability Forum published its report “Towards a Disability Smart World: Developing a Global Disability Inclusion Strategy,” which was sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell.

The report outlines a roadmap to evolving a strategy by highlighting best-practice but does not shy away from the significant challenges of tackling complex issues at a global level.

The report, which surveyed 115 global brands including the likes of Accenture, HSBC, GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever found that only 23% of respondents were actively resourcing a global disability strategy. A further 35% reported that they were in the process of developing a global strategy and 22% said they were in the early stages of formulating their approach.

Cultural differences ­ — a major hurdle

Key cultural differences in attitudes towards disability across different countries were identified as a challenge to harmonizing a global disability policy by 71% of organizations surveyed.

When one considers that in some parts of Africa and the Middle East, disability is stilled viewed by some as divine punishment for past misdeeds, the prevalence of cultural barriers seems hardly surprising.

Additionally, in some parts of the world, disability is seen through the prism of pity and charity. This can have an impact, not only on disabled people, but on their families too.

Naturally, there will always remain some important regional variations outside of a corporation’s immediate control. These can include attitudes and expectations related to the education of disabled children in a particular country and the accessibility of local transport infrastructure.

Cultural differences can be amplified by the complexities in establishing a common language around disability.

As Diane Lightfoot, Chief Executive of the Business Disability Forum explains, “in the U.K. we talk about disabled people based on the social model of disability, the U.S. is more orientated towards people-first language and the U.A.E. refers to ‘people of determination’.”

Leading from the front

Business Disability Forum’s research did point to a critical, potentially quick win being the appointment of a senior disability champion to work across the entire geographic span of the organization.

This buy-in at a leadership level was viewed as an essential step for creating a global disability strategy by 91% of organizations, where it was felt that only visible senior leadership team commitment would produce the requisite cut-through.

However, Lightfoot cautions that the global disability champion role involves maintaining a delicate balance.

“The central coordinating lead will always need to be cautious in their use of language,” she says. “Where you are highlighting very good practice in some countries, you need to avoid pulling out poor practices in other countries, as this can interfere with engagement.

“It’s a very sensitive line to tread in terms of keeping everyone engaged, motivated and positively learning from each other in an open, non-patronizing way. There is always an enormous amount of cultural sensitivity to navigate.”

The “Developing a Global Disability Inclusion Strategy” report was sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell, a global corporation prioritizing the implementation of best practice in what remains an emerging field.

In an interview conducted earlier this week, Lyn Lee, Shell’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer explained,

“We know that most of our employees will be touched by disability in some form, either through having an impairment, caring for a relative with an impairment, or knowing friends or family with a disability.”

By Gus Alexiou

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