If you give any leader the opportunity to increase an organization's talent pool of potential employees by 15% — with all these new job candidates belonging to an underrepresented minority — they'd jump at the chance. Yet too few leaders realize that people with disabilities are the largest minority group in this country at 15% of the population.
Many executives feel concerned by the extra investments involved in providing accommodations for people with disabilities. Yet these accommodations might not involve anything besides full-time remote work, according to a new study by the Economic Innovation Group.
Employment rates among people with disabilities dropped, along with the rest of the labor force, early in the pandemic. However, they recovered quickly. People with disabilities aged 25 to 54, the prime working age, were 3.5 percentage points more likely to be employed in the second quarter of 2022 than they were pre-pandemic, while nondisabled individuals were still 1.1 percentage points less likely to be employed! The Economic Innovation Group finds that remote work is the key differentiator, enabling more workers with disabilities to be part of the labor force.
The benefits of remote work for people with disabilities bear particular relevance due to long COVID. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found in a just-released study that the number of disabled people in the U.S. grew by 1.7 million over the pandemic, due to long COVID conditions such as fatigue and brain fog.
Fortunately, about 900,000 newly disabled people have been able to continue working. Without remote work, many of them would be out of the workforce. The study notes that long COVID may be considered a disability under the Americans with Disability Act, and "telework and flexible scheduling are two accommodations that can be particularly beneficial for workers dealing with fatigue and brain fog."
Companies that offer more remote work options have already gained significant benefits in terms of diverse hires. Meta Platforms, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, increased its number of staff with disabilities from 4.7% to 6.2% of employees, which its Chief Diversity Officer Maxine Williams attributes to offering remote work options.
Unfortunately, many leaders fail to see the benefits of remote work for underrepresented groups such as those with disabilities. Some even claim the opposite: Thus, J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon claimed that returning to the office will aid diversity. What explains this poor executive decisionmaking?
One answer comes from a mental blind spot called the in-group bias. Our minds tend to favor and pay attention to the concerns of those we perceive to be part of our in-group. Dimon and other executives who lack disabilities don't perceive people with disabilities to be part of their in-group.
In-group bias is one of many dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases. These mental blind spots distort decisionmaking in all life areas.
The failure to empower people with disabilities will prove costly to the bottom lines of companies that don't offer remote work options to those who would benefit from such accommodations. They are limiting their talent pool by 15%. Moreover, they're harming their ability to recruit and retain diverse candidates. And as their lawyers and HR departments will tell them, they are putting themselves in legal jeopardy from violating the ADA. The future belongs to the savvy companies that offer the flexibility disabled people need.
Gleb Tsipursky is the CEO of the hybrid work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts.