Zahal Mohammad TP, an application development senior analyst, has experienced the positive impact of inclusive, accessible training to upskill him along his career journey. As a Deaf person, he’s learned to overcome all sorts of barriers. When he joined Accenture, his first foray into the working world, he admits to feeling a sense of trepidation—having little knowledge of what to expect, especially related to belonging, inclusion and accessibility.
What he found was a supportive and helpful environment and culture. And when, within five years of joining, a life-changing opportunity surfaced in Accenture Technology—specifically geared toward a person with Zahal’s skills and who lives with hearing loss—he jumped at the opportunity and got the training he needed to thrive.
Zahal’s story validates some key findings from a study I authored in 2021, Enabling Change, when we found that access to training was one of the eight fundamental cultural factors which unlock thriving among employees with disabilities. And by thriving, I mean having strong career satisfaction, aspirations and a sense of confidence and belonging…having the support and opportunity to give their best to the organization.
But not everyone shares this experience. In that same global study, we surveyed 1700 executives and asked them whether they feel their workplace enables thriving with the right technology, environment and support for their people. Sixty-seven percent of the executives said “yes” – this is what we do. But that dropped to just 41% of employees who agreed. Just 20% of employees with disabilities felt their employer is fully committed to helping them thrive and succeed.
New research highlights old problems
The disconnect we saw in 2021 was, unfortunately, amplified again in our 2022 global skilling survey which included responses from approximately 3,700 employees who identified as having a disability. Despite the ever-increasing challenges to meet the growing demand for digital skills, employees with disabilities, on average, are aware of only 6 of 21 key digital skills which could put them on the path of helping to meet this demand, trailing the global average of 9 of the same 21 skills. In fact, only 15%, on average, say they are familiar with key digital skills, compared to the global average of 25%.
And the sobering fact is they face more roadblocks in their skilling journeys at the individual, organizational and interpersonal (e.g., microaggressions) levels. For example, our research found that employees with disabilities report experiencing:
- Individual barriers at nearly 3x the rate of all workers
- Organizational barriers at nearly 2x the rate of all workers
- Microaggressions at nearly 2x the rate of all workers
When reviewing the individual barriers to skilling, it was hard to ignore the number of responses that aligned to factors related to financial impact. For example, nearly half of employees with disabilities (versus 18% of employees from the global sample) cite financial difficulties as a barrier to learning new skills that are needed for the future. Paying for a new degree or certificate and taking time away from work, life, and even important health-related tasks to accomplish this feat is costly and not always possible. Many who are in the workforce are underemployed, working fewer hours for lower wages. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau found an overall earnings gap (regardless of hours worked or occupation) where workers with a disability earn 66 cents for every dollar earned by a worker with no disability.
At the company level, accessible and reliable technology is crucial to delivering and maintaining equitable learning opportunities. Despite the advancements we’ve seen in technology and tools used for collaboration and virtual learning, especially driven by the pandemic, over one-quarter of employees with disabilities still experience barriers to access. Companies have a responsibility to do better and to ensure that all employees can tell stories like Zahal’s – especially given that 75% of persons with disabilities expect technology to play a more prominent role in their lives over the next three years. What I have come to appreciate is that Accenture acknowledges that we are on our own journey for disability inclusion and remain committed to continuously focusing on making our platforms, systems, and experiences as accessible as possible.
Being someone with multiple sclerosis (an autoimmune disease affecting the central nervous system), I can honestly say that so many of my own successes have been achieved alongside encouraging, supportive, and inclusive colleagues and supervisors (not to mention communities).
But all too often, persons with disabilities, especially with non-apparent disabilities who don’t feel safe or ready to confidently disclose, are left with a sense of isolation and a lack of belonging in the workplace. Our survey supports this, with 42% of employees with disabilities feeling this way, compared to only 15% of the global average. And, once again, we found a parallel with a finding from our 2021 Enabling Change study. In that study, we found that employees with disabilities were 60% more likely to feel excluded. Our skilling survey amplified the issue with nearly 40% citing various forms of microaggression as a barrier to enhancing skills. They feel alone, like contributions are less valued, like one’s lived experience doesn’t matter.
Questions for employers to get the ball rolling
- Employ: Are you overlooking adjacent, but relevant, skills in the hiring process because applicants might have non-traditional backgrounds? Are you actively engaging in a wide variety of disability-friendly and knowledgeable partnerships, like Rangam, Disability:IN, Best Buddies, Leonard Cheshire, to learn about the overwhelming talent and skills that are available among this untapped community of talent?
- Enable: Are you ensuring that everyone has the support they need (including financially) to access digital skilling and upskilling opportunities and that you are tailoring your approach to be as inclusive and accessible as possible given the very nuanced nature of disability and neurodiversity? Are you considering apprenticeships as a practical option for these oftentimes hidden workers?
- Engage: Are you actively and intentionally engaging with employees with disabilities to meet them where they are currently, and to determine and design – alongside them – the skilling pathways and solutions they need to thrive?
- Empower: Are you promoting empowerment and autonomy among your employees with disabilities such that they own this journey, confidently, and can feel safe raising the desire to grow their skills? And are you offering the coaching and mentoring that may be needed along the way to explore and/or apply new skills in current or even enhanced roles – providing the opportunity to experience the impact of their upskilling efforts and achievements?
Digital skills create a win-win situation
When you see employers following the above recommendations, the benefits are clear. My colleague, Zahal, took that position at Accenture Technology five years ago. Not only was he able to build his knowledge of client needs in this space, but he experienced the power of accessible training and accommodations to develop and grow his skills.
For example, his training is delivered using captions and he has sign language interpreters for one-on-one discussions and town hall meetings. He has also benefited from having colleagues who seek to understand to adapt their ways of collaborating. “One senior colleague even re-created a four-hour training session just for me,” explains Zahal. “So I could understand it better” Zahal is now trained in several tools including Ariba (procurement), ABACUS, Power BI, SMART and agile practices. Learning to use these tools not only unlocked his potential to thrive but also drives long-lasting value to clients.
The need for digital workers is growing with no sign of slowing down. In the US alone, the tech sector is a prolific job generator, with 682,800 new jobs projected in the United States by 2031. Yet the nation’s unemployment rate for people with disabilities is two times higher than for those without. This, despite the creativity, innovation, diverse perspectives, and other known benefits that come with employing persons with disabilities.
Closing the gap we discovered in our research—what executives think they’re doing to create a supportive, inclusive environment versus what employees with disabilities reported experiencing—is a call for change. Ensuring equitable and accessible upskilling opportunities for all is critical to not only ensuring that employees are put on the path to thrive but also to help meet this growing demand for digital workers. It’s a win-win for everyone.
With appreciation to the following contributors: Reggie Romain and Emily Kish