(Dis)Ability and Business School: Breaking Barriers

(Dis)Ability and Business School: Breaking Barriers

For business schools, addressing the needs of persons with disabilities should be seen as an opportunity.

Heads of state and governments, as well as businesses and institutions around the world, have committed since 2015, through the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to building a better future for all people and to helping them achieve their full human potential. One important group included in the SDGs that was not in the earlier Millennium Development Goals, is persons with disabilities.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, defines persons with disabilities as “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” While traditionally the term “disabilities” has been used to describe victims or individuals with health problems, it is now used to refer to people who experience environmental, social, economic, and attitudinal barriers that prevent them from fully participating in society. These barriers include inadequate policies and standards, negative attitudes, lack of service provision, inadequate funding, lack of accessibility, inadequate information and communication, and lack of participation in decisions that directly affect the individuals’ lives.

Consequently, according to the World Report on Disability, people with disabilities have worse health and socioeconomic outcomes, lower educational achievements, less economic participation, and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities.

Over a billion people are estimated to live with some form of disability, about 15 percent of the world’s population, and this number is growing not just because of health conditions but also other environmental factors such as road traffic accidents, work place accidents, natural disasters, social and political conflict, diet, and substance abuse.

What Are Business Schools Doing?

For business schools, addressing the needs of persons with disabilities—both in their immediate communities and outside of them—should be seen as a challenge but even more so as an opportunity.

You should already be enabling access. Schools must look at barriers that different students, with different impairments, face. Grenoble Ecole of Management in France, for example, has responded by offering disabled students a suite of specialized services and initiatives called GEMaccess, which is customized to each student's requirements. Additionally, the school has a group of student ambassadors who organize events related to issues faced by those with a disability.

The University of Technology Sydney has focused on making changes on their campus that would contribute to creating a more inclusive environment for those with not just mobility, vision, and hearing disabilities but other, lesser-understood disabilities, such as autistic spectrum disorders and mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression.

These barriers are not just physical. While physical access to spaces makes up a large part of the challenges disabled people face, the issue is much broader. People with disabilities face widespread barriers in accessing a whole range of services including, but not limited to, health, education, employment, transportation, and even information. These obstacles impact learners’ ability to study, their time on campus, and their employment opportunities post-graduation.

Some schools are responding with programs targeted at bolstering this community. Students with a physical disability interested in attending IESE in Spain can apply for the Fundacaio ONCE Scholarship, a foundation that focuses on providing employment opportunities for professionals with disabilities. Students at Bowling Green State University College of Business Administration are matched as student mentors with disabled individuals to learn from one another. The University of Sydney's uni2beyond program embeds paid interns with intellectual disabilities in leading Australian organizations, such as the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

Increase public awareness and understanding among students and staff. The IBS-Moscow student club MOST has been focused on creating friendly environments and accessible facilities at the university for people with restricted mobility. The club organizes a variety of educational, entertainment, and sports events aimed at bringing together students with and without disabilities in order to increase understanding and awareness.

Other examples of schools increasing awareness include a free online course on Disability, Diversity and Inclusion offered by the University of Cape Town, an annual Disability Awareness Day at Bentley University, and organized events around Learning Disability Week in June, observed by several schools in the United Kingdom, including Leeds Business School.

Look at it as an opportunity. Out of the more than 1 billion people with a disability, 80 percent are of working age, but according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), fewer than 20 percent of these individuals are currently working. Schools can tap into this opportunity through education, employment, and partnerships, but also in the curriculum. While business schools increasingly have courses exploring human rights, very few discuss the challenges, opportunities, and contributions that people with disabilities make to society and the economy.

Disability is a business issue as well as a social and educational one, and it has a business case. Research done by Accenture found that “companies that embrace best practices for employing and supporting more persons with disabilities in their workforce have outperformed their peers” who are less embracing of these practices. Several business schools, for example KEDGE Business School in France, now have certificate programs on disability management in collaboration with various institutions and partner corporations.

Contribute through research. The SDGs call for the global community to improve the availability and quality of data on disability, on the needs of disabled individuals, and on the impacts that people with disabilities have on society and on the economy. Several research centers around the world, including the Diversity Institute at the Ted Rogers School of Management in Canada, are exploring these areas. Additionally, Cornell University has been working on a Global Comparative Disability Legislative Database in collaboration with the ILO as well as an interactive web tool that allows users to access an array of disability statistics.

Finally, involve people with disabilities. The disability movement's mantra is “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Addressing the needs of persons with disabilities isn't just about not discriminating; it is more about ensuring that students and staff in this community are, and feel, included. Such efforts refer to decision-making but also to research relating to disability. As one example, Antwerp Management School in Belgium has a unique research project aimed at supporting organizations in attracting, developing, and retaining employees with an intellectual disability—including researchers with intellectual disabilities.

For business schools, addressing disability issues should go beyond building wheelchair ramps and accepting applicants with different abilities. It must be about equipping and preparing students, as well as the business community, with and without disabilities for a more harmonious future.

December 3 was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Learn more about this observance.


Giselle WeybrechtGiselle Weybrecht is an author, advisor, and speaker on sustainability. Her most recent book is The Future MBA: 100 Ideas for Making Sustainability the Business of Business Education. Follow her on Twitter @gweybrecht.