This week, the great and good of the tech world landed in London, with over 55,000 tech enthusiasts attending London Tech Week, where prime minister Theresa May opened the event by hailing the “next industrial revolution” that technology is ushering in.
This year diversity was firmly on the London Tech Week agenda, with a real focus on improving gender and BAME inclusion in the tech sector. Sessions included a breakfast panel session on Tuesday looking at diversity in tech and one on Thursday looking at hiring and retaining women. While there’s no doubt London Tech Week has shone a light on diversity, inclusion and intersectionality, disability was notably absent from the line-up.
Discussion during the course of the week about technology companies having “a long way to go” in achieving a diverse workforce is focused on the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in the workforce – although it is fantastic to see this being championed during the week, without disability there cannot be true diversity.
What we’ve seen at London Tech Week reflects what we see across the corporate world: we know that while 90 per cent of companies claim to prioritise diversity, only 4 per cent include disability as part of their definition of diversity. This “diversish” attitude to inclusion can no longer be an accepted option; this needs to change.
One in seven people on our planet have some form of physical, sensory, learning or psychological condition. Fifteen per cent of the global population live with some form of disability, 1.3 billion people worldwide. If you add that number to their friends and family, the total annual disposable income of this largely undervalued group amounts to $8 trillion.
In the UK, huge numbers of disabled people are shut out of the workplace. The disability employment gap – the rate at which disabled people are employed compared to non-disabled people – hasn’t changed for more than a decade, with disabled people’s employment still stuck about thirty percentage points behind. This lack of inclusivity is reflected in the boardroom too, with only seven per cent of people in C-suite roles identifying as disabled, and one in five leaders saying they do not feel comfortable admitting their disability to colleagues, according to recent EY research.
Businesses can no longer pick and choose where they are inclusive – we need to put an end to the “a la carte” way businesses currently engage with inclusion. Inclusion means inclusion for all. Disability is one of the most overlooked topics on executive boards, with more than half of C-suite execs saying they rarely or never discuss disability on their leadership agenda.
Part of the problem is that the value that disabled people bring to the workforce is often overlooked. Research from the National Autistic Society found that just 16 per cent of autistic adults are in full time work and of those who weren’t, 77 per cent wanted to be.
Yet, the National Autistic Society suggests that – although no two autistic people are the same – autistic people are often able to maintain high levels of concentration, strong mathematical abilities and excellent memory – all qualities that are indispensable to the tech sector.
Some notable companies are already looking to create a neurodiverse workforce. Microsoft has an autistic hiring programme along with a growing number of other companies such as Ford, SAP, EY and Willis Towers Watson which have reformed their HR process to be more inclusive.
Assistive technology is a growing market with tools such as the screen-reader Jaws (Job Access With Speech) playing a large role in helping employers support disabled staff. Similarly, many smartphones are coming with built-in accessibility support. However, inclusion needs to be across the whole value chain, more than just employment but to supporting those within the workplace and ensuring the accessibility of products and services to all customers.
According to a 2018 report from Tech Nation, 83 per cent of the tech community in the UK believe their biggest challenge is accessing skilled workers. I strongly believe that recognising the value disabled people bring to the sector would help plug the gap.
My campaign, The Valuable 500 is asking 500 companies to sign up to become accountable for disability inclusion – leading companies including Microsoft, Fujitsu and Xceed have already signed up. We need more companies to join the inclusion revolution by signing up to the Valuable 500.
We’re beginning to see positive steps being taken to create more inclusive workplaces but 2019 must be the year where we accelerate this change for disabled people.
We all recognise that we are living through a digital revolution that is transforming every element of society – economically, politically, socially, as well as the way we create, consume and share information and knowledge. While London Tech Week aims to address how access to tech for all can have a profoundly positive impact in society and business, it is evident that it’s time for change. We need to live in a world that celebrates our differences and values everyone – only then can we start making our way towards the eight-trillion-dollar market opportunity.
Caroline Casey is a social entrepreneur, disability activist and founder of The Valuable 500