Let’s say it straight: we have a disability blind spot

Written by Patrick Dunne CMgr CCMI Friday 11 September 2020
If almost one in five of our working age population are disabled, where are the disabled members of FTSE-350 boards? I decided to try and find out...
disability sign image on a ceiling

I’ve talked about diversity and inclusion quite a lot over recent months as a panelist on various webinars. I have made the point that boards seem to have a blind spot when it comes to disability. When I mention it, the response can resemble the feeling you get when you’re talking to someone at an event and they look past you to see if there is anyone more interesting to speak to.

The horrendous death of George Floyd has jolted us into having important discussions about racial inequality that, I hope, will lead to substantial change. Progress has been made on gender but when it comes to social diversity and disability on boards, we don't even seem to have noticed it's an issue. I speak frequently about social diversity; my background provides credibility to do so. However, I haven't felt knowledgeable or confident enough to speak for disabled people. I know how jarring it can feel when those with no experience of facing the same challenges make it worse – despite their best intentions.

But it is an issue that is bothering me so I have decided to take the risk and jot down a few thoughts, in the hope that others who have lived experience or perhaps are more eloquent or influential than I am may help raise attention for this issue.

Whenever I feel ignorant, I start by looking at a few numbers and listen to people who have knowledge on whatever it is I feel ignorant about. So, let's start with the numbers. According to UK government statistics (last updated in 2014, which tells you something in itself!) there are more than 11 million people with a limiting illness, impairment or disability. The prevalence of disability unsurprisingly rises with age. The 2014 analysis stated that six per cent of children are disabled compared to over 16% of working age adults and 45% of adults over state pension age.

Scope, the disability charity, says that there are now almost 14 million disabled people in the UK and that 19% of working age adults are disabled. Its website notes that there are 3.7 million disabled people in work, but that disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.

So, how many of this group of 19% of working age adults are on FTSE-350 boards? Shockingly, I couldn't find any analysis online. I had a go at going through FTSE-350 websites trying to do my own DIY analysis – and stopped looking after 100 or so because it looked like there was nothing to count.

In 2016, the website commissioned an ambitious piece of research (with the Office of National Statistics, EU Equality and Diversity Commission, Department of Business Innovation and Skills, leading academic experts in disability, in social policy and in work and employment, Trade Union Congress (TUC), business surveys, policy documents and more). They discovered that no official or reliable data exists to show the number of disabled board directors. Moreover, there was no legal requirement at all to report this information.

A good example of blindness to disability is the FRC's 2018 report FRC Diversity reporting – try and spot the mentions of disability!

In 2018, KPMG made a valiant effort to call for all FTSE-350 boards to appoint a disability champion but this seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

How do disabled people feel about this? In summary: “No-one knows because no one has bothered to ask us.” What we do know is that, according to Scope, in 2017 one in three disabled people felt that there is a lot of disability prejudice

This matters for at least three good reasons:

  • It is socially unjust
  • It is morally wrong
  • Just as with gender, ethnicity and social diversity it means that we are missing out on the perspectives of almost 20% of the population. That seems dumb.

If you agree and would like to help me do something about it, here are my thoughts:

  • Learn more about the facts of this issue and find out what has already been done . My ignorance and limited research capability probably means that I have missed some great work that has already been done. Apologies to anyone who has really valuable insights to share that I have missed and please post them as a comment on this article.
  • Listen to people who are disabled about being held back by it and provide platforms to those who, despite all the odds, have made it onto boards.
  • Call it out and tell it like it is when we speak or write to influential audiences.
  • Identify an influential organisation that wants to pick this up and mobilise support for change, perhaps starting with a meeting for disabled leaders with the FRC, progressive investor groups and leading thinkers on the subject.

If you are interested please let me know.

Finally, let me end on the story of Mike Newman. Mike was born blind and broke the blind land speed record by going beyond 200mph. Disabled people are just as capable of extraordinary things and it is not only them that miss out badly if we don't give them the same opportunities to demonstrate that and contribute to make us all raise our game.

Patrick Dunne CCMI is the author of Boards: a Practical Perspective (Governance Publishing, 2019).

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Patrick Dunne CMgr CCMI

Patrick Dunne CMgr CCMI

Experienced Chair, serial social entrepreneur, Boards adviser and author of award winning "Boards". Executive career in Chemicals and Private Equity where he was on the Operating Committee of FTSE100 3i Group plc.

Patrick owns and runs Boardelta which advises boards around the world. Patrick also is Chair of EY Foundation and ESSA-Education Sub Saharan Africa, serves on the Board of CMI- Chartered Management Institute, is a Patron of Leap confronting Conflict and Founder of Warwick in Africa.

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