30 Aug 2019
Ending the ‘à la carte’ approach to inclusion
She’s spoken at Davos, trekked across India by elephant and had 2m people view her TED Talk. But Caroline Casey won’t stop until business finally cracks its disability inclusion problem.
For 11 years, Casey had a secret that she kept hidden from everybody but family and a few close friends. She’d scaled the corporate ladder to become a global management consultant at Accenture, but bosses and colleagues had no idea she’d been legally blind since birth.
Casey says it was “fear of Accenture seeing my disability, not my ability”, that prevented her from disclosing her ocular albinism – a genetic eye condition that results in severely limited vision. But the impact of “coming out of the closet” was life-changing, recalibrating her entire view of what success means.
“If you’re not being yourself, you’re not at your most productive,” she says. “Being honest, authentic and having a clear understanding of what you’re doing – that’s success.”
Putting disability inclusion on the agenda
Quitting her job, she pursued a challenge far removed from the high-powered world of finance: trekking 1,000km across India on elephant for charity. “It was my childhood dream to become Mowgli from The Jungle Book,” she says. “Doing that as a blonde, visually impaired Irish woman certainly got attention.” She raised €250,000 for charities that support blind people and became the world’s first female mahout – or elephant handler – from the West.
It also helped to launch her career as a social entrepreneur. Since then, Casey, who grew up and lives in Dublin, has been committed to ensuring businesses recognise the value ofpeople working with a disability. Her TED Talk has been watched 2.1m times, and she has founded two companies, Kanchi and Binc, to promote equality in employment and engage with businesses to demonstrate the value of inclusion.
Caroline Casey on looking past limits:
In January, Casey launched her latest venture, The Valuable 500, at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The campaign calls on 500 global companies to put disability inclusion on their agenda, and take action on it in 2019. It has already secured the backing of Sir Richard Branson, Janet Riccio of Omnicom and Paul Polman, formerly of Unilever and now at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.
Moving from conversation to action
The disability pay gap stands at 13.6% in the UK, according to the 2017 Equality and Human Rights Commission report, while fewer than half of disabled people have jobs, compared with eight out of 10 non-disabled people. Yet despite recent interest in diversity, only 4% of companies are focused on making disability-inclusive offerings. EY research from earlier this year found 56% of global senior execs had never discussed disability on their boardroom agenda.
“With diversity, [CEOs] feel they need to focus on gender one year, then LGBTQ+ the next,” says Casey. “We need to get rid of this toxic, siloed approach to inclusion.
“We’re trying to normalise disability and equalise it on the leadership agenda,” Casey adds. “We need to stop this silent, ‘à la carte’ approach to inclusion.”
Businesses can’t afford not to embrace inclusivity
Creating an inclusive environment for people with disabilities also makes good business sense. The global disability market is believed to be worth $8trn and covering more than 1 billion people worldwide.
“You can’t serve that community if you don’t have that intelligence within your business,” says Casey, who points out that people with disabilities have inspired some of the most cutting-edge tech of all time. The typewriter (which beget the computer keyboard) was originally designed by Pellegrino Turri in the early 19th century for a blind Italian countess who couldn’t write her letters by hand. SMS texting was initially invented as a communication method for deaf people in Finland.
“Often people with disabilities are forced to come up with solutions,” says Casey. “Sometimes these solutions benefit everyone. A solution for mobility issues could benefit parents with buggies or travellers with suitcases.”
Like many people with disabilities, Casey believes her visual impairment has given her a “gritty resilience”, which she is using to encourage business-leaders to sign up to Valuable 500.
“Out of tough stuff, extraordinary things can happen,” says Casey. “What I’ve noticed is we find new ways to keep skinning the cat; it requires you to be constantly innovative. For me, Ineed to find tenacity and resolution to do normal things other people do every day. But on a good day, it’s like a superpower.”
Lysanne Currie writes about business and luxury travel for magazines including Robb Report, Luxury Plus, Glass Magazine and Meet The Leader.