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supporting the needs of people with disabilities at work.

a Q&A with Caroline Casey, The Valuable 500

Caroline Casey, CEO of The Valuable 500, is wearing a black turtleneck, facing forward and smiling at the camera. It’s hard to believe, but Caroline Casey didn’t realize she had been legally blind since birth until the day she turned 17. It wasn’t until years later that she became totally at peace with having ocular albinism — a genetic condition that causes severe impairment of vision.

When her career was interrupted by a worsening of her condition, she realized that she didn’t need to hide her disability from her employer or the world at large. That was a turning point that empowered Caroline to transition from a career in corporate management consulting to social entrepreneur. She went on to found The Valuable 500, a global CEO community revolutionizing disability inclusion through business leadership and opportunity.

In creating The Valuable 500, Caroline is committed to building a global inclusive business movement for the 1.3 billion people in the world with a disability, and over the past two decades she has set up multiple organizations and initiatives centered on disability business inclusion. Caroline is also a noted TED speaker, Ashoka Fellow, Eisenhower Fellow, a past advisor for the Clinton Global Initiative, a One Young World Counsellor and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

Caroline recently spoke with Randstad Sourceright to share her thoughts on the growing diversity and inclusion movement in the workplace, and why more awareness and action are needed to support the needs of people with disabilities.

Q: Earlier in your career, you didn’t disclose your own disability to your employer. Please tell us a little about your experience, and do you believe your story is a common one at many organizations?

A: Yes, back when I first started working, there was still a huge stigma around disability in the workplace. I didn’t want to be labeled or restricted due to a disability, so I hid my visual impairment. Like anyone, I was determined to be a success at work, so I was constantly trying to over-prove and over-compensate. It damaged my vision, weakening it significantly. In October 1999, I finally came out of the proverbial closet and was lucky enough to be working at the time for a business that was nothing but supportive. Unfortunately, there is still a big stigma attached to people with disabilities and businesses often disregard the value of the 15% to 20% of the population who have a disability.

According to EY research, 56% of boards have never discussed “disability,” and this is the reason we’re not seeing accelerated change within the business ecosystem.

More than this, the research shows that “7% of CEOs have lived the experience of disability, but 4 out of 5 are not publicly identifying," which confirms the culture of discomfort and unease around disability inclusion in business. There is a long way to go, but if we can open up the conversation, then we will start to make real progress.

Q: Your story illustrates one of the challenges that companies face trying to learn more about their workers with disabilities. Many employees don’t self-identify and some actively seek to hide their disability. How can companies overcome these issues while respecting the wishes of those who prefer not to reveal their disability?

A: The answer to this often sounds simple, but it requires a fundamental culture shift, which needs to be driven by leadership. Leaders make choices, and those choices create culture. The cultures that we all want are not specific to disability or any other part of the inclusion agenda. Once and for all, we need to take on the challenge of creating holistic inclusive corporate cultures that are built upon trust. People are more likely to reveal their authentic selves in a culture that’s led from the top and that demonstrates an openness and passion around difference. We also need to ensure that inclusion within a business is not simply a HR issue and categorized into segments and silos.

The value of difference and the insights and innovation it brings should be cross-functional within the corporate structure and be the responsibility of the CEO and board. P&G is a great example of this with their work around their Super Bowl ads this year. They ensured their ads were accessible for everyone, and it’s a big step forward for them in their journey to create a company where inclusion is achievable for all. If a company is outwardly honest and open about its acceptance of disability, its employees will feel included.

Employers need to ensure that there is an element of psychological safety in an organization, and that people with disabilities, like anybody else, feel comfortable self-identifying within the company. It is important to note here that no human being is defined by their disability. It is simply part of that human being and we need to remove barriers within our corporate structures that disable humans because of their impairments.

Q: You recently wrote in Forbes that the past year has brought about a lot of changes to the world of work as a result of the pandemic. You say it’s encouraging broad shifts and work flexibility, and working from home (and much more) are now being widely adopted. At the same time, these are changes that workers with disabilities have been asking for some time. What other needs have not been widely addressed by employers?

A: The most important thing that COVID has proven to us is, where there is compelling need and intention, things can and will change. The real barrier to moving towards inclusive business, that equally includes people with disabilities, is the true understanding of the value of the 1.3 billion people globally who have a disability and, with their families, represent 72% of our global economy. When we value people, we do not exclude them. In fact, we do the opposite — we do everything to engage them and retain them as customers and employees.

What needs to change is a real and deep understanding of the value a company misses out on, and that understanding needs to come from the top. It is extraordinary that, in this day and age, we have to continually make the case for inclusive websites and accessible communication, which serves only to help businesses gain a greater market share.

The only way that businesses will be able to serve a greater market is to have the intelligence within the business. Disability inclusion and innovation have moved society's products and technical development more than any other group, and evidence on this have been the tools we have used through COVID. What needs to change is our will and intention.

Q: You founded The Valuable 500, a movement and organization that seeks to raise awareness and drive action among private sector companies to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. Can you explain why you felt this was necessary and what your goals are?

A: The world has slowly been waking up to diversity and inclusion, which is great. However, it’s often the case that disability gets left out of the D&I debate, with conversations usually focusing on gender, race or sexuality. It’s what I like to call “inclusion delusion.” Research shows that while 90% of companies said they were passionate about inclusion, only 4% considered disability, which also goes back to my previous answer around the EY research and the fact that over 50% of boards have never discussed disability.

If we look further afield, then we’ve also got research showing that, in the media, only 3% of articles that talk about diversity reference disability. This is incomprehensible in 2021. Inclusion is everyone for all, regardless of how difficult that is. You can't have a pick and choose attitude to who you include. The Valuable 500 was created to end "diversish" inclusion through breaking the CEO silence on disability inclusion.

The Valuable 500 is about creating a global community, a safe and progressive collective where we can learn, innovate, fail and develop together and systemically change the way businesses integrate disability inclusion across their supply chain. The Valuable 500's sole purpose is not to exist. It is a catalyst for global system change that is dependent on the commitment, openness and willingness of leaders to support their business on the long journey to true inclusion.

We should have 500 businesses signed this year, and will be moving on to launch phase two. This phase will connect and activate the community, as well as roll out much needed guidance and services. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of like-minded companies coming together to learn from each other.

Q: Since founding The Valuable 500, have you observed significant changes in attitudes and awareness from employers? If so, what are some of the noteworthy shifts that are happening? Where are companies falling short?

A: We nearly have 500 companies signed up from 64 sectors across 35 countries comprising $7 trillion in revenues and 17 million employees. As much as I would love for us to all change the world overnight, it doesn’t happen that way — and a lot of this is about the journey. The Valuable 500 members now share best practice as a community, which will help us all move forward faster, smarter and better.

Companies are realizing that they can no longer overlook disability, and we will see change. It will just take time. No particular company has it all right, but those willing to make a commitment to investing in the journey, to try and innovate in this area will ultimately be sustainable.

Q:In the past year workforce diversity has become increasingly important to the C-suite. Can you explain why most organizations have set targets around gender and racial diversity but have given little thought to disability diversity and inclusion — either in their business or hiring practices?

A: Gender and racial diversity are more commonly talked about, however, disability inclusion is the next big step. Eighty-three percent (83%) of millennials have said that they want to work and buy from companies and brands that share their values, and this is already starting to change behavior among businesses.

You simply cannot get away with having “a la carte” inclusion anymore and you can’t only focus on one aspect of diversity and inclusion because that leaves people out and means you’re actually becoming non-inclusive. Employers need to be intersectional in their approach to diversity and inclusion.

It’s not an easy thing to do by any means; in fact, it can be quite hard as we do need to see that culture change. Historically, it’s also been harder with disability as legislation rightly protects individuals with disabilities not to publicly identify.

Also, many disabilities are not visible. If disability has not been considered valuable to the business system to date, it is therefore understandable where gaps in targets and reporting in measurement lie. However, there are ways that we can change this, and it is one of our clear focus areas for phase two for The Valuable 500: how we hack disability targets in reporting.

Q: You’ve shared some powerful economic considerations for being more mindful of the needs of people with disabilities — both as consumers and workers. Do you think the business case is sufficiently articulated to organizational leaders that they need to make more investments to support consumers and workers who have disabilities? If not, how can we elevate the conversation?

A: If you ever needed evidence to prove the case for inclusive business, benefitting the bottom line with universal design at its core, it's Apple. Apple makes the case for inclusive product design better than anybody on the planet, and it did so before anybody else.

Other businesses are starting to catch up. We saw that recently with the new hands-free shoe unveiled by Nike, which has taken the world by storm. It was created for those who have trouble with shoelaces and is just one example of how a big brand is adapting to be more inclusive to its target audience.

You can also look at sustainability and how quickly environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) is becoming a critical business objective for companies. There is huge evidence to show that businesses are changing their ways to ensure they are listening to consumers. The unmatched momentum of The Valuable 500 also shows this with companies such as Microsoft, Verizon, Daimler, Nestle, P&G, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Airbnb, Salesforce, Sony, Mahrindra and Virgin Media signing up. These are incredibly influential companies and they will be the ones to change the way business operates.

But, I really am wondering, do we need to make the business case for human beings living with disability? Do we need to keep banging the drum for the $8 trillion market? Do we need to keep trying to convince companies about the opportunity for brand differentiation as an employer brand and a consumer brand? Do we really need to keep speaking to the insight and innovation that the experience of disability brings to universal product solutions?

Honestly, I think the “business case” and that approach is out of date. I really think this is about future-proofing business and, on the negative side, about risk mitigation.

The companies that have thrived during these unprecedented times are those that have recognized and integrated disability business inclusion as a strategic driver for success.

Q: When it comes to workforce inclusions, there are many challenges for companies to be aware of the need for greater inclusion of the disabled, report data about their workforce, form strategies for supporting talent with disabilities, and protect the privacy of employees with disabilities while doing all of the above. So how does an HR leader or a member of the C-suite get started if they have had little experience in addressing this issue?

A: No one said this is easy. The small word “disability” covers a huge complexity of lived experience, which is further made more complex by different cultures, different legislation and different interpretations. But, because it is difficult, it does not mean we cannot find a way.

I think the only way we are going to resolve this is through collective intention, shared wisdom and best practices that communities, like The Valuable 500 now make possible. The only way we are going to resolve this is through collective intention, shared wisdom and best practices that communities, like The Valuable 500, now make possible.

Check out additional ways to build a more inclusive workplace in our diversity & inclusion Insights stream.