A new study from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) found that, according to the 2015 US government's definition of disability, 30 percent of professionals have a disability. Fully a third of Millennial professionals have a disability--a higher rate than Boomers or Gen-Xers. The data is based on a nationally representative survey of 3,570 white-collar, college-educated employees.
Two phenomena contribute to the high number of Millennials with disabilities.
First, Millennials are the first generation whose education largely began after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Thanks to ADA-mandated support and accessibility in schools and in their communities, more people with disabilities are completing college than ever before.
Second, increasing diagnosis rates of certain conditions--mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, cognitive conditions like dyslexia, developmental differences like autism, and other forms of neurodiversity--may contribute to a higher proportion of disability in the Millennial white-collar workforce. Millennials are also more likely than Xers or Boomers to report that they have a mental health condition: Forty-four percent of Millennials, compared to 37% of Gen Xers and 25% of Boomers.
People may be surprised to learn how big this talent cohort is because, for the most part, they generally assume that a disability means having a physical condition that is quickly apparent. In fact, 62% of employees surveyed say that most people have no idea their disability exists unless they deliberately reveal it.
Many employees with disabilities don't disclose their disability for fear of discrimination and other negative repercussions. "I'm more concerned about disclosing my mental health condition to the people I directly interact with," says a Millennial in financial services. "Would I be passed over for certain assignments? Would I not get the promotion that I should get?"
It's a well-justified concern. Fifty-seven percent of employees with disabilities feel stalled in their careers, and 47 percent feel they would never achieve a position of power at their company no matter how high-performing or qualified they are. Further, 60% versus 44% of those without disabilities expend energy repressing parts of their personas at work. As one Millennial notes, "I lose so much energy walking on egg shells, lying about what kind of doctor I'm going to, fighting the urge to fight back when I hear my supervisor demeaning a former employee with my condition. It keeps me from being creative, from going above and beyond my duties."
That's an enormous waste of innovation potential. Moving through the world with a disability means, many report in interviews, developing strengths such as agility, persistence, forethought and a willingness to experiment-- all hallmarks of innovation. This constant need for innovative ways of navigating a world that wasn't designed for them may explain why some 75 percent of professionals with disabilities report having an idea that would drive value for their company (versus 66 percent of employees without disabilities). Yet among employees with disabilities who have market-worthy ideas, 48 percent say their ideas went ignored by people with the power to act on them.
That concerns people like Kam Wong of Prudential Financial. "With Baby Boomers retiring, we can't afford to miss out on any source of talent," says the vice president, corporate council. "We're thrilled to see that Millennials with disabilities have received the support they need to earn college degrees and enter companies like ours. What we now need to create are more companies that include and support them once they graduate."
CTI research shows that the same inclusive leadership behaviors that leverage diversity to drive innovation and market growth enable managers to support employees with disabilities and reap innovation dividends. Employees with disabilities who have inclusive team leaders are 37% less likely than those without to say they face discrimination or bias at work, 14% less likely to expend energy repressing themselves at work, and 32% less likely to feel stalled in their careers. The impact of an inclusive leader on Millennial talent is remarkable: Millennials with inclusive leaders are 60% less likely to say they face discrimination or bias at work than Millennials without such leaders.
While teaching and rewarding inclusive leadership behaviors is a start, companies need to send many other signals of support to create a truly inclusive work environment for employees with disabilities. These include:
- Encourage leaders with disabilities-- or those who are caregivers for someone with a disability--to talk openly about their experiences and strengths.
- Make accommodations and access easy by employing universal design principles in office spaces and digital tools.
- Encourage allies--especially colleagues who are familiar with the challenges faced by people with disabilities either through personal relationships or caregiving--to speak up and show their sympathy.
- Offer the same leadership programs to employees with disabilities that have been developed for other talent cohorts.
"For persons with disabilities, innovation is not an option, it is a requirement to get through the day," says Wendy Myers Cambor, managing director of human resources at Accenture. "I think that people who live with disabilities bring incredible ideas and creative solutions to the workplace, and I want them at my table."