Disability activist, social entrepreneur and founder of The Valuable 500 initiative, Caroline Casey, has told CNBC that business needs to be at the forefront of accelerating change to end the "disability inequality crisis," as the world emerges from the coronavirus crisis.
"This problem is too big for governments and charities alone to resolve. It needs the most powerful force on this planet, which in my mind is business," she said.
"As we reset our system, our recovery needs to be inclusive of everyone. There are no more excuses."
Casey told CNBC that disability is "still not understood as valuable," but with the exclusion of people with disabilities estimated to cost countries up to 7% of their annual GDP, according to the International Labour Organization, business needs to understand "the value, not just the cost" of inclusion.
She said people currently consider a disability as something more akin to being weak or dependent, "but actually this is an incredible market that has insight and innovation and potential."
Casey, who is registered legally blind, said she hid her own disability at work until she was 28 years old, mistakenly thinking that if she spoke up about it she wouldn't have the same chances.
She launched The Valuable 500 initiative — a "global movement putting disability on the business leadership agenda" — at the World Economic Forum, Davos in 2019.
Named to emulate the Fortune 500 list of top global companies by revenue, the movement aims to sign up five hundred of the world's largest multinational and private sector companies to commit to unlocking the "business, social and economic value" of the more-than 1 billion people living with disability worldwide.
Nearly 300 companies have already signed up across 30 countries, including Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Black & Veatch, Tommy Hilfiger, Voya Financial, Calvin Klein, Greene King and Roche Pharma UK.
Speaking alongside the former CEO of Unilever and Chair of The Valuable 500, Paul Polman, Casey told CNBC that it was "extraordinary" that "over 54% of our global boards have never had a conversation about disability."
Polman, who has championed business inclusion and sustainability, told CNBC that in the U.S. only four out of ten people with disabilities had a job, and while 98% of companies in America think inclusion is important, less than 4% include disability within that.
As such, he said there is an "enormous missed opportunity," with the disability community representing an estimated global spending power of $8 trillion.
"We're talking here about 15 to 20% of the world population. If you include their families with it, it's probably half of the people in the world affected with disability, and yet we prioritize that to a level that to me is incomprehensible," he said.
"Fifty percent of companies operating in the OECD countries (would) rather pay a fine than fulfilling the requirement, as written in the law, to include people with disability."
Asked whether corporates were likely to put inclusion initiatives before their bottom line given the current economic climate, Polman said inclusion was a major part of optimizing longer-term returns.
"We're seeing that now happening and unfolding in the U.S. around racial issues, we've also seen that with gender equality. Companies that are more gender equal tend to perform better, and we're just advocating for the same obvious reasons that it is the same with people for disability," he said.
Casey and Polman told CNBC that unconscious bias and stigma, misconceptions around costs of inclusion, and leadership awareness, motivation and accountability were some of the reasons disability had been on the "edges of business" until now.
Polman, who is also co-founder of Imagine, a foundation bringing CEOs together to drive change, said the Covid-19 crisis had disproportionately affected people with disability who often have less income, less access to health and less education.
But despite the current economic landscape, Casey said the response from business about inclusion had been markedly different to after the economic crisis of 2007/8.
"At that time, disability programs were discretionary. We suddenly stopped seeing the investments in companies. This time it's the complete opposite. Who would have thought at the beginning of this pandemic, that we would have got the engagement at the level that we have had in the last four months,' she said.
Casey, who is based in Dublin, said she believes the next generation — people with or without disabilities — will demand full inclusion from the companies they choose to spend or work with.
She told CNBC that in this new post-pandemic phase of living and business, it would be a "real business risk" not to prioritize inclusion.
Polman agreed. "We now need companies that are actively improving the state of the world. The CEOs that get that, and fortunately we see more and more of them, will do well. It is a more profitable route, it is a more motivating and rewarding route … the people that understand that will have a long and bright future," he said.