Disability and leadership: Engendering visibility, acceptance, and support
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

Disability and leadership: Engendering visibility, acceptance, and support

This landmark report offers an overview of the case for inclusion of people with disabilities not only in the workforce but also in executive leadership roles. By recognizing the unique challenges faced by leaders with disabilities, organizations can build more comprehensive diversity policies to create an inclusive environment for all employees.

It seems that every conversation about the most critical leadership challenges facing our clients today includes a discussion of diversity: “How do we get more women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community into the boardroom and C-suite?” But the diversity discussion almost never includes leaders with disabilities. The conversation is complicated by the difficulty of defining the term “disability”—some people are physically disabled but cognitively unimpaired, others cope with mental illness, and still others suffer from conditions (such as addiction) that make employment difficult to sustain.

According to one study, 3 in 10 white-collar professionals in the United States have a disability.1 Yet, despite being “the nation’s largest minority,”2 people with disabilities remain invisible in the workplace. In fact, there is a widespread notion among senior executives that there are no people with disabilities in their ranks. Indeed, while chief human resources officers (CHROs) and chief diversity officers (CDOs) are increasingly likely to be well versed in the legal, practical, and organizational aspects of disability and inclusion, many of the executives they work with are not. As a result, they may have never taken the time to think about the topic of disability at all, let alone inclusion of people with disabilities as part of diversity and inclusion policies—and how a disability can be an asset in a skilled leader.

While some companies have started building inclusion policies that welcome people with disabilities in entry-level positions, the inclusion of people with disabilities in the ranks of senior leaders is still emerging as a priority. Our research uncovered that to succeed, many leaders with disabilities have had to hide their disability and its extent for as long as possible. If they received support, it was primarily under the radar when an observant and caring leader, boss, or mentor helped them navigate the organization to reach the top ranks.

Simply stated, we can do better.

This three-part article will explore the paths of companies leading the way on inclusion for people with disabilities. It is based on interviews with leaders with and without disabilities, an analysis of research on the topic, and our experience in executive search and disability and inclusion.

In part one, we detail the case for including people with disabilities in the workforce at all levels—from entry-level positions to the C-suite. In part two, we go in depth on the challenges of including people with disabilities. This sets the stage for part three, which focuses on how to create an environment for people with disabilities and the role of leadership in doing so.

Regardless of your role, personally seeking out opportunities to vocalize your support for hiring, promoting, and sponsoring people with disabilities is the best action any individual who cares about this issue can take.

About the authors

Lisa Baird (lbaird@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office and a member of the Human Resources Officers Practice; she coleads the firm’s employee resource group for persons with disabilities.

Victoria Reese (vreese@heidrick.com) is the global managing partner of the Legal, Risk, Compliance, & Government Affairs Practice and is based in the New York office; she leads the firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts globally.


1 Specifically, the study found that up to 30% of college-educated employees between the ages of 21 and 65 working full-time in white-collar professions in the United States have a disability. Most of the data in this report centers on the US population. For reference, the World Health Organization estimates that 15% of the global population has a disability, and across the globe, people with disabilities are less likely than able-bodied individuals to be employed. For more information, see Laura Sherbin, Julia Taylor Kennedy, Pooja Jain-Link, and Kennedy Ihezie, Disabilities and Inclusion: Global Findings, Center for Talent Innovation, 2017, talentinnovation.org; World Report on Disability: Summary, World Health Organization and World Bank Group, 2011, apps.who.int.

2 “Diverse perspectives: People with disabilities fulfilling your business goals,” US Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, accessed October 17, 2018, https://www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/fact/diverse.htm.

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