Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman of The Nippon Foundation, explores how COVID-19 has given us a glimpse of the lived experience of persons with disabilities and discusses why we have a duty to make the world more inclusive for them
2020 was a turbulent year for businesses as they scrambled to adapt to a changing world due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet one of the positives that has come out of this pandemic is CEOs worldwide have had to improve their internal policies and working environments – such as flexible working arrangements which have been welcomed by persons with disabilities. As we celebrate and raise awareness for accessibility this year, we must ensure that this change continues to be a priority for businesses across the globe and that companies taking positive action toward disability inclusion becomes part of the new normal.
Achieving an inclusive society is at the heart of my work and I have dedicated my life to tackling various initiatives with the hope of achieving this goal all over the world. I am known for my work with persons affected by leprosy – a debilitating condition whose discrimination continues in spite of the fact that free treatment is available in any country. As we live in a world of social distancing, I cannot help but draw parallels between what people affected by leprosy endured throughout their life and many people with a disability in third world countries still endure – the absence of inclusion and acceptance. We are in some ways experiencing a fraction of what life is like for others and I hope that this understanding will drive forward change.
Twenty years ago, in Vietnam it used to be considered a disgrace to use sign language instead of speaking in public. I met many people with hearing disabilities who immediately stopped signing when I passed by. I also met many people whose life opportunities —from education to employment— are limited or even deprived. I’ve seen those issues first hand time and time again. It’s incredibly important to me to work towards realizing a future which is inclusive – where people affected by leprosy, disabilities, and all people can actively participate. While change might come slowly, I am convinced that it will come.
In order to achieve this change – we have to start somewhere. The most obvious place to me is the business world. Having spent a significant part of my life supporting marginalized people left behind by mainstream society, I am fully convinced that supporting minority disability groups just by reaching out to public institutions such as governments and the United Nations will not bring about effective social change. Unless the majority of society changes, the world will never change and business is what leads that change. For example, the disability market, which is an eight trillion-dollar market, which remains largely untapped, has a huge potential to promote disability inclusion throughout society.
Research last year found over half (54%) of CEOs had never talked about disability inclusion in their board meetings. To me, this is a shocking statistic as it shows just how large the challenge is and how far we still have to go. We simply cannot have an inclusive society if the business world is not willing to lead it. However, we are starting to make progress and its really positive to see business leaders starting to understand the business case for disability inclusion and take the first steps in making lasting changes. Organizations such as The Valuable 500 represent new challenges to promote disability employment by ensuring businesses are at the center of change. At the time of writing, the movement has 500 companies signed up – a first, but very important step in making this change.
Never before have we seen such a growing international momentum toward realizing an inclusive society – and I believe that by making businesses accountable, we can achieve this goal faster. Ensuring disability inclusion will only lead to positive outcomes for businesses – they will add to their diversity of thought, creativity, and innovation and satisfy the needs of society. By having inclusive workplaces we will see new talent, innovation and achievements coming to life – and disability inclusion is a huge part of the journey.
2020 brought change at a pace never imagined and proved that alternative forms of working are both possible and productive. I am looking forward to seeing businesses keep to their word and provide more and better access to their products and services and continue to champion flexible and inclusive working cultures that allow everyone to thrive, no matter their personal circumstances.
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