One in four Americans lives with a disability, but boardrooms frequently lack diversity when it comes to including people with disabilities.
With a seat on the board of directors for the Association of Military Banks of America and as the manager of Service Member & Veteran’s Affairs for Regions Bank, and a former Army officer with more than 20 years devoted to serving in the military, Steve Beres has accomplished much in a relatively short life.
But he says it’s the things that challenge him on a near-continuous basis that give him a unique point of view: Since a fateful event in 2004 while serving in the Middle East, Beres has been 100% blind.
But that hasn’t stopped him. In fact, he says, it’s created a new perspective that helps him aid others in similar situations. What may be a minor inconvenience for a sighted person, Beres says, can be a monumental challenge for someone with diminished or disabled vision.
“I remember attending a board meeting in a building where the front entrance was under construction,” he says. For a sighted person, a detour like that means a minor inconvenience and following signage to the temporary entrance. But for Beres, it’s a more complex challenge.
“They had a sign pointing everybody around to a side entrance that I have never been to before,” Beres says. “That’s just one thing most other people don’t have to take into consideration because when you walk up you see the detour sign, you walk around the corner, and you walk in the door.”
Disabilities Don't Discriminate
One in four people in the United States – more than 61 million Americans in total – live with some form of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees those living with disabilities have equitable access in areas such as public transportation, building design and planning, and other interactions such as finance and banking, the boardroom often lacks diversity when it comes to including those with disabilities.
This comes despite the fact that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become perennially important topics to board composition in the last two decades. In OnBoard’s recent Board Effectiveness Survey, nearly half of all respondents (48%) indicated that their boards considered improving DEI a serious strategic priority and have created concrete plans to achieve that objective.
However, Beres says it’s common for people with disabilities to be an underrepresented minority on boards — and it’s relatively easy to understand why.
“Those with disabilities are the largest [minority] group out there because anybody from any other group can find themselves a single car accident, workplace accident, or simple slip and fall away from being part of the disabled community — whether you wanted to be or not,” he says. “I went from totally sighted to totally blind in a millisecond; before that, I didn’t know anybody that was blind for my entire life up until then.”
Nasdaq Attempts to Tackle Board Diversity but Leaves Out an Important Group
Nasdaq’s recent rule change is a prime example of great intent in attempting to solve the challenge of improving board diversity but overlooking those with disabilities. Under its proposed rule Release No. 34-90574, companies listed on the NASDAQ exchange will be required to note the composition of their boards of directors, including gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
The proposed rule, approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission, would also mandate that boards have at least two directors from under-represented groups. Notably absent in the new rule, however, is the disabled community, despite being the largest minority group in the United States.
“The disability community comprises 1.3 billion people worldwide, including nearly 33 million working-age Americans, and should be included in corporate diversity initiatives and in the national conversation around diversity and equality. We repeatedly engaged Nasdaq and the SEC to make the case that people with disabilities are a marginalized minority group akin to women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+. While these populations were rightfully included, people with disabilities were wrongly left out,” stated Ted Kennedy, Jr., co-chair, Disability Equality Index, a joint initiative by AAPD and Disability:IN in a press release.
“By omitting people with disabilities, Nasdaq sends the message to corporate America that people with disabilities don’t count in diversity metrics—in sharp contrast to the increasing number of civil rights organizations, CEOs, companies, institutional investors, and shareholders who say disability is a vital aspect of diversity.”
How Businesses Benefit from Diverse Boards that Include People with Disabilities
Considering those with disabilities as contributors in the boardroom doesn’t just make sense from a diversity perspective, Beres says — it also makes sound business sense.
According to a 2018 report by the American Institutes for Research, as a group, Americans with disabilities command $490 billion in spending power.
“As a business, if you’re if you’re looking to increase business, that’s a pretty big chunk to try to gain,” Beres says.
But beyond adding to the bottom line, the unique experiences of people with disabilities can directly contribute to improved effectiveness in the boardroom.
“During a year when many have been re-evaluating traditional assumptions about how we work, the case for workplace disability inclusion as a business advantage would appear clearer than ever,” writes Gus Alexiou, a Forbes contributor who covers DEI issues involving people with disabilities.
Alexiou cites several ways people with disabilities create more diverse boards, including:
- Unique approaches to problem-solving. Unfortunately, living with a disability is a full-time exercise in problem-solving. People who live with disabilities can bring a diverse and creative viewpoint to board challenges that might not otherwise be apparent to able-bodied board members.
- Experience-based understanding to reach people with disabilities. As mentioned above, with 60 million Americans living with a disability, businesses and organizations would be wise to make accessibility and equity for disabled people a part of any organizational strategy if and when the organization engages with the public.
- Potential for higher performance. Alexiou notes specifically that people with disabilities due to neurodivergence may actually perform better than their non-neurodivergent peers in some tasks and activities.
How Boards Can Improve Accessibility & Diversity for People with Disabilities
“A lot of companies need to take accessibility into consideration from the start,” Beres says. After all, it’s much easier to be inclusive of people with disabilities into scope when building a new program, process, or initiative at the beginning than to retrofit it later.
Here are three ways organizations and their boards can improve boardroom accessibility and create more diverse boards:
- Make accessibility and inclusion an official board policy. If your board doesn’t already have a documented position on board diversity — or if that statement doesn’t include people with disabilities, update your policy. Starting at the top and communicating this policy clearly with the board and organizational stakeholders will make it clear that accessibility and inclusion are important priorities.
- Consider potential barriers to board meeting activities. As in Beres’ experiences, it can be hard to imagine the challenges faced by those with disabilities until those experiences are learned firsthand. Straightforward board activities such as logging onto a Zoom call, reviewing a board book, or finding previous meetings’ minutes can represent significant challenges for a person experiencing disabilities. Beyond having a greater awareness, consider hiring a consultant or expert to help identify otherwise unknown barriers.
- Adopt tools and processes that employ accessibility and ease of use. Not every tool or solution bakes in accessibility from the start. Board portals and other board management solutions that focus on ease of use and increased accessibility increase the chance that your board will be accessible if and when a person with disabilities joins.
Beres, who has sat on up to six boards simultaneously, says the central question for increasing boardroom diversity and inclusiveness for those with disabilities comes down to a single factor.
“It really all comes down to access,” he says. “It’s hard to walk in someone’s shoes if you haven’t been there, but quite frankly, it’s a heck of a lot easier to build something up with accessibility at the forefront than it is to try and add it in later.”
About The Author
- At OnBoard, we believe board meetings should be informed, effective, and uncomplicated. That’s why we give boards and leadership teams an elegant solution that simplifies governance. With customers in higher education, nonprofit, health care systems, government, and corporate enterprise business, OnBoard is the leading board management provider.