Diversity and Inclusion Is Meaningless If People With Intellectual Disabilities Are Left Out

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Diversity and inclusion: a concept that has been a divisive one in corporate America since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Some companies view diversity and inclusion as a burden, simply hiring people with disabilities so that they can check a box to prove to themselves, their customers, and their board members that they are inclusive. But businesses that want to truly transform their internal cultures must work harder than that, and we at Special Olympics have found an excellent process for doing so.

Transforming a company’s culture to incorporate inclusion throughout the fabric of the organization can successfully be done through what we call unified leadership. Unified leadership focuses on training leaders with and without disability to create the best possible environment for people with intellectual disabilities to succeed in meaningful roles. 

Take Daina Shilts, a Special Olympics athlete who was hired to be a member of ESPN’s reporting team after executives heard her tell her story while competing at X Games Aspen in 2015. Daina later reported on the ground from the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle in 2018 and Special Olympics Games in Abu Dhabi in 2019. 

Kate Jackson, a coordinating producer at ESPN, told me that companies need to give people with disabilities meaningful roles. “When fans watch an NBA or college football game, they hear from current and/or former players in our telecast,” she says. “The same thing is true for Special Olympics. Daina is a decorated and accomplished athlete with an incredible spirit and a great on-air presence. She is an important voice in our coverage.”

Hanna Joy Atkinson, a Special Olympics skier and cyclist and Emmy award-winning journalist, is a public speaker in high demand these days. In July, she was invited to New York by Special Olympics partner Kantar to speak to its employees about how they can approach inclusion and how Special Olympics has changed her life. Kantar is working with us to bring together hundreds of youth leaders with and without intellectual disabilities at summits to discuss and implement inclusion-based projects in their own communities. 

“As Hanna’s mentor, I hope to help her achieve her professional goals,” Lynnette Cooke, chair of Kantar’s Extraordinary People Programme, told me. “And in turn, she is teaching me how I can influence and inspire others in my workplace and in my community to be more inclusive.”

Another reason I shared these two stories in particular is because companies that want to embrace inclusion must ensure that women are in leadership positions. Our organization was started by a woman, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and I have the honor of continuing her revolutionary work. 

But in 2019, we still have too many organizations with women underrepresented. We ourselves have more work to do: Currently only 41% of our athletes are female, and we plan to grow that number to at least 50% over the next five years.

As companies review their practices and policies around diversity and inclusion, unified leadership must be incorporated into the mix. If you want your employees to not only be included, but feel included, you must be truly inclusive—regardless of race, age, gender, or ability level. It’s simply a business imperative. 

Mary Davis is the CEO of Special Olympics.

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