Diversity and inclusion extends to those with disabilities

By Mark Gress

When it comes to defining diversity, equity and inclusion, it shouldn’t be a matter of if people with intellectual, developmental, and/or physical disabilities will be included. It is more of a matter of when, how, and so what … or better yet, what’s next.

There’s an interesting statistic from the Return On Disability Group that says although 90% of companies claim to prioritize diversity, only 4% consider disability in those initiatives. When we embarked on this conversation and first proposed the idea to Ron Seaver and our good friends at the National Sports Forum, we admittedly did it with some apprehension as we certainly couldn’t claim expertise. The idea originated during the early stages of the pandemic when we engaged in a series of conversations, and ultimately recorded one-on-one interviews, with members of our Prodigy Search Diversity and Inclusion Board of Advisors on our YouTube Channel Prodigy Search Presents. One such conversation was with Glenn Merry, executive director of Move United (previously Disabled Sports USA). Much of what Glenn talked about was how people with disabilities are a critical population to discuss and engage with, because they overlap and are inclusive of every minority group: race, gender, ethnicity, you name it.

With that said, under the Diversity & Inclusion pillar of the National Sports Forum, we hosted a live panel discussion with the focal point of “Expanding the D&I Definition — Giving a Voice to Those with Disabilities.” Joining the discussion to provide insight on the topic were senior executives from the United States Association of Blind Athletes, Special Olympics International/2022 Special Olympics World Games, and Move United.

The session focus was the sports industry’s connection to, work with, and room for improvement when it comes to engaging people with intellectual, developmental, and/or physical disabilities — particularly as potential recruits, full-time employees, game-day staff, interns and volunteers. The foundation of our discussion centered on the aforementioned statistic from the Return On Disability Group — although 90% of companies claim to prioritize diversity, only 4% consider disability in those initiatives.

A few key themes emerged from our discussion:

Engage people with disabilities in the discussion and create a seat at the table. Seek their input and follow their lead on a more inclusive mindset and strategic approach.

Society has a basic discomfort and lack of familiarity when it comes to disabilities. Therefore, there is a need for better understanding, education, and awareness.

Focus on adapting the work environment to the individual’s abilities. What does that person do well rather than what are their shortcomings? How can you leverage their best attributes rather than seek out their weaknesses?

Focus on the hard and soft skills that those with disabilities DO have: communication, teamwork, goal-oriented, people skills, social skills, adaptability, problem-solving, and confidence.

People with intellectual, developmental, and/or physical disabilities are NOT fragile — they are tenacious and resilient; they deal with adversity every day. Empathy, not sympathy, is critical, so consider their point of view. Don’t handle them with kid gloves — they aren’t brittle.

We asked the following critical questions of the panelists. We challenge you the reader, and our industry as a whole, to reflect on the value asking those questions may bring to your organizations and/or departments moving forward. We all need to evolve when it comes to expanding the “definition” of DEI:

Why do you believe those with disabilities aren’t generally part of the D&I/DEI discussion? What is missing? Why the disconnect?

How can people with disabilities be prepared to serve in the workforce?

How does participating in sport provide those with disabilities many of the soft skills that are needed to succeed in the workplace?

How can sports teams, leagues, agencies, and sports nonprofits be prepared to hire and retain people with intellectual, developmental, and/or physical disabilities? From the application format and online accessibility to in-office technology once in the position.  

More importantly, how can the environment and more specifically, the culture, be set to help them succeed and be valued? From the office buildings, stadiums, arenas, and ballparks — but also, work-from-home and remote office settings. Environment is more than just physical space so think beyond the surface.

As our industry continues to make admirable changes and positive, concerted efforts tied to DEI, it must continue to be nimble to populations like the ones described above. There is tremendous, tangible value added to our organizations by people with disabilities. We must provide them with adequate opportunities to shine while educating ourselves on their abilities.

Mark Gress Jr. is partner at executive recruiting firm Prodigy Search.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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