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Disability inclusion: A Q&A with IBM

IBM's Disability Employee Network Group (ENG) Lead and D&I Champion, Alix Horton, shares how they champion disability inclusion.


IBM employs more than 350,000 employees and serves clients in 170 countries. To them, their people are the greatest asset;

‘Our strength lies in the diversity of our employees’

As such, they’re making waves in the area of diversity and inclusion (D&I). In fact, they were making waves long before they knew it…

In 1914, they hired their first employee with a disability. That was 59 years before the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. And 76 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

They aim to create a workplace where employees can ‘Be Equal.’ Their initiatives aim to ‘drive systemic, sustainable improvement for people in every community.’

Today, 87% of their employees say they can be their authentic selves at work.

Alix answers some of our burning questions below:

1. What does diversity and inclusion (D&I) mean to IBM? Why is it important?

At IBM, it’s important to us that we make a positive impact for diversity and inclusion. We all have a part to play in driving change, and we take our responsibility seriously. Our goal is to turn the tide and drive systemic change for IBMers (our people), our industry, our communities, and beyond.

Currently, we are focusing on four strategic areas for diversity and inclusion:

  1. Advocacy. We use our voice to help  drive systemic change which creates opportunity for diverse communities
  2. Allyship. We provide the training and support to help every IBMer be upstanding through inclusive behaviours
  3. Employee experiences. We champion all diverse communities of IBMers. We do this by supporting every employee to thrive and bring their authentic selves to work
  4. Accountability. We hold ourselves accountable by being transparent with our data. This helps us to stay focused, and deliver outcomes for increased diversity representation and inclusion at every level of our company

While IBM has a rich heritage in diversity and inclusion, we are still learning, growing, and making progress. We are proud of our legacy in creating an inclusive workplace. We are grateful for the work and actions of hundreds of thousands of IBMers who led us to where we are today. At the same time we are committed to even further progress. This is especially true in today’s IBM: we aim to be the gold standard in Good Tech, leading positive change in the world.

2. Where do you feel disability inclusion fits into an organisation’s D&I agenda? 

It’s essential. You cannot talk about diversity without including disability. 

Diversity includes every aspect of a person. Therefore, to talk about diversity is to talk about disability. Disability doesn’t define a person, but for many it is an integral part of a person’s identity. Therefore, to ignore that is to go against the purpose of a D&I strategy.

In my experience, I’ve often found that disability might not be the first aspect of diversity that people think of when they hear D&I; it tends to be the forgotten child. Historically other minority communities have received increased press, and deservedly so, but times are changing. Disability deserves a place in the spotlight now more than ever.

3. What would you say to organisations that don’t prioritise disability inclusion?

Can you afford to miss out on the talent of one fifth of the total working age population

Can you afford to miss out on $13 trillion annual global spending power?

The answer is no. 

In the UK, of the 10 million people with disabilities, 6.8 million are of working age - that’s nearly 1 in 5 working adults. Also, 80% of disabilities are acquired between the ages of 18 and 64, in other words the workforce age. Our bodies will inevitably get older and require more care during our careers. Organisations have a duty of care towards protecting and supporting their employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. 

When it comes to external audiences, did you know that in the UK the online spending power of disabled customers is nearly £20 billion? Despite this, 73% of potential disabled customers experience barriers on more than a quarter of websites they visit. Businesses globally lose around £2 billion a month by ignoring the needs of disabled people.

Now is an opportune moment to open the conversation about disability inclusion. The pandemic has induced a worldwide shift to increased online shopping. The world of work has seen a widespread adoption of hybrid working models. This has resulted in more accessible options for people with disabilities in both the customer base and the workforce. 

Organisations need to focus on attracting and retaining the talent of people with disabilities if they are to make the most of a diverse talent pool. They also need to remove accessibility barriers (both physical and digital) if they are to effectively engage their customer base. 

4. Within IBM, you lead the Disability Employee Network Group. What motivates you personally to champion disability inclusion?

The people within the community! I’m constantly amazed by the innovation, tenacity, and resilience of this community; it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

I have a neurological disorder called Paroxysmal Dystonia (I’ll let you Google it), which didn’t develop until my late teens and didn’t start to impact my day-to-day life until my mid-twenties; right at the end of university and right before starting my early professional career. At the time I didn’t tell my employer because I was terrified that it would go against me. It wasn’t until I had to take a long-term sickness absence that I “came out” about my condition.

I felt alone in my experiences, so I sought out others to connect-with and learn-from. From this I started the network group, whose work focuses on championing individual & community spirit, creating education & awareness, and ensuring accessibility in everything we do at IBM. I don’t want anyone to feel the way I did about my disability, or struggle in the way that I did. The workplace doesn’t have to be that way. 

I believe in the potential of this community. Its success and stories should be shouted about. Everyone can benefit and learn from what it has to offer. 

5. Are there any initiatives that can help an organisation kick start their efforts to be more inclusive of people with disabilities? 

Listen. Before you do anything else, listen to experiences and feedback from people with disabilities. Then you need to ensure people with disabilities are in the room to help define and shape plans and strategies. No one can assume a person’s experience and what is best for them, let alone a whole diverse community such as disability. Nothing about us without us. 

If you aren’t a Disability Confident employer yet, get a roadmap to achieve this. 

Disability Confident is a UK Government backed employer scheme. It supports organisations to improve how they recruit, retain, and develop people with disabilities. In my experience, the list of Disability Confident employers is the first point of call for disabled talent looking for career opportunities. At IBM UK, we achieved Disability Confident Level 1 status this year (there are 3 levels). This has opened many doors for us - whether that be engaging with potential hires, enhancing employee experiences, and even exploring new opportunities with our clients. 

Support your employees in establishing a Disability Employee Network Group. The benefits of an employee network group are countless. Through its creation you enable peer to peer support, greater employee belonging, opportunities for workforce learning and innovation, a deeper organisational culture, I could go on. 

Finally, if you don’t know - ask. There is a vast network of people out there who have a deep passion for D&I and disability inclusion, who in my experience are more than happy to connect and help others. Disability inclusion starts with self-reflection, but together we enable a wider social movement for greater workforce disability inclusion.

Thank you, Alix, for sharing your thoughts.

To our readers, you can hear more from Alix in our on-demand webinar where we explore how to ‘Supercharge your disability inclusion strategies’. 

Register to access the session and gain advice from IBM, PWC, and The Valuable 500 - a global business collective made up of 500 CEOs and their companies, innovating together for disability inclusion.