“One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability.”
“Barriers to full social and economic inclusion of persons with disabilities include inaccessible physical environments and transportation…and discriminatory prejudice and stigma in society.”
What is the Ask?
The authors and signatories call on all General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officers to make a simple commitment in 2021 – take one concrete action toward improving the inclusion of People with Disabilities in their departments.
The State of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Companies
Companies worldwide have declared Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) a strategic imperative. We are inspired by legal and compliance department responses to the recent focus on race, gender, and social justice. However, despite the resources allocated toward DEI, the inclusion of People with Disabilities remains a footnote. Many organizations state they have limited resources and, while they are aware of the need for a focus on disability inclusion, they do not have the bandwidth or financial resources to do much. The implication is that disability inclusion is somehow a lower priority. It is our hope that the inclusion agenda be executed in parallel rather than serial fashion, with equal focus placed on the inclusion of People with Disabilities.
The State of Disability Inclusion in the Legal Profession
Thirty-one years ago, Congress passed The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In 2016, the American Bar Association (ABA) passed Resolution 113, urging all providers of legal services to expand and create opportunities for diverse attorneys at all levels of responsibility. In that same year, Fortune 1000 General Counsel issued a public pledge to increase the inclusion of diverse attorneys. Globally, The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the United Nations in 2006 and it currently has 164 country signatories worldwide.
Yet, despite this progress, the overall statistics surrounding disability inclusion in the legal and compliance professions are not encouraging. Disabled professionals remain highly marginalized, both in our profession and within the job market as a whole. Despite being the largest minority in the US, disabled people have by far the largest unemployment rate.1 Only 0.38% of all lawyers in law firms are disabled.2
That is shockingly low, leaving precious few disabled lawyers to act as role models for younger disabled professionals, with the result that pathways for success can seem hard to scale. Many get discouraged. A UK study found that, even though the scope and level of career aspirations of disabled and non-disabled 16-year-olds are similar, the gap between unemployed disabled and non-disabled people widens as they age.3 In the US, 60% of all 1.4 million disabled college graduates are unemployed.4 Those who do find work are 16% more likely than non-disabled graduates to be underemployed and working in service-related jobs that do not require a college degree.5
A culture of low expectations is pervasive when it comes to disabled professionals. As one disabled senior in-house attorney remarked, “[m]any professionals assume I am unemployed or work from home. Astonished to learn that I am an attorney, many proclaim me “an inspiration,” as if the biggest challenge in law school was negotiating hallways in a wheelchair, not mastering the rule against perpetuities.”6
An Ethical Obligation or Good Business?
Lawyers take an oath that obligates them to act ethically and use the law to advance justice. The ABA and other leaders in the profession have encouraged us to recognize that obligation in respect of our own profession by considering how we hire and promote.
Achieving fairness in that regard is not only the right thing to do – it’s also the smart thing to do. A 2015 international McKinsey study found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35 percent more likely to have above-average financial returns, while those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to financially outperform.7 Among US companies, there was a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and financial performance: for every 10 percent increase in the racial and ethnic diversity of the senior executive team, companies experienced an increase of 0.8 percent in earnings before interest and taxes.8 Conversely, those in the bottom quartile for ethnic and gender diversity were less likely to achieve above-average returns.9
If promoting diversity and inclusion of persons with disabilities is both the ethical thing to do and the smart thing to do, what is holding us back?
What is the Level of Commitment We Are Calling For?
We believe that even small actions are positive ones. These include, but are not limited to:
• Hiring at least one Person with a Disability
• Promoting at least one Person with a Disability
• Organizing a Disability Awareness Seminar for the Legal & Compliance Departments
• Publishing a statement encouraging Disability Disclosure
• Establishing tangible targets for Disability Inclusion in 2022
• Requiring your Law firms and legal service providers to serve your departments with a higher
percentage of People with Disabilities
• Creating Disability Inclusion Champions within the Legal & Compliance Departments
• Ensuring Department representation in your company’s Disability Inclusion Employee Resource
• Participating in a Disability Mentoring Program
Many of these steps require little in the way of cost or effort. Accenture has found for example that 59% of disability accommodations cost absolutely nothing to make, while the rest typically cost $500 per employee.10
General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officers have earned their place in the executive suite and at the business strategy table. That privilege comes with a clear moral responsibility. Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is very much on the legal and compliance department agendas. We ask that General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officers elevate Disability Inclusion as part of their DEI agenda to exercise this moral responsibility as a leading light for their company.