C-Suite executives with disabilities, we know you’re out there. Why are you hiding? For years, I’ve been asking, where are the CEOs and executives with disabilities because their names don’t roll off my tongue. Although I use four prostheses and am a CEO of a large not-for-profit in the New York metro area, I can only rattle off a few. The true answer: you’re out there. You’re just not disclosing your disability.
A study of top U.S. companies by revenue showed CEOs are the oldest and longest-tenured individuals within an organization. The average age for a CEO across industries is 58, with the oldest average age being 60 in the financial services arena. Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffet tops the list at age 85. In fact, there are 10 Fortune 500 companies that are younger than Mr. Buffet’s. Further, research from a Chicago-based executive search firm noted the average age of more recently hired CEOs and CFOs has been on the rise since 2012.
So, why aren’t executives with disabilities self-identifying? There are many reasons. The falseness of perceived weakness. The perception that we may be unable to do the job. The possible need for reasonable accommodations. Think about public opinion on Bernie Sanders’ leadership ability, based on his age, when he ran for President in 2016 and how the Senator’s heart attack several months ago might imply a lack of fitness for office and detrimentally impact his current bid for election.
With age comes disability. It can be a natural consequence of aging. People with disabilities, on average, are 16 years older than non-disabled people. But, it has little to do with talent and the ability to perform well in most executive positions. Wearing eyeglasses and hearing aids, utilizing a cane or even a handrail for stability or an elevator instead of stairs, and seeing medical specialists for cardiac, diabetic and hypertension conditions all fit the category of adapting to sight, mobility and hearing impairments. Guess what folks, you have, or will likely acquire, a disability during your golden years. In fact, 83 percent of disabilities are acquired, after birth, during our lifetimes.
The lack of individuals in leadership roles revealing their disabilities is reflective of the employment woes people with disabilities experience. Though the landmark 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is in July, the employment of people with disabilities continues to be an area where we’ve barely improved our rate of employment. We’re still seeing an outrageously low labor force participation rate, the percentage of people who are working or actively looking for work, by individuals with disabilities. If well-educated, qualified individuals aren’t even in the workforce, how could they possibly climb the corporate ladder, or shall I say ‘ramp’?
By disclosing our disabilities, top executives can strengthen their companies’ inclusion cultures and set the course for it to embrace more fully their diversity and inclusion goals. By outwardly showing we are members of our protected class, it can reduce bias against the hiring of older individuals and people with disabilities and, by example, increase our employment opportunities.
C-Suite level executives, if you have a disability, I implore you to embrace your disability identity and be counted. Take pride in your disability. If you haven’t already done so, disclose it. Remember, you serve as a mentor and a role model for our next generations of corporate leaders.
As I’m reaching for an hors d’oeuvre at my next business networking event, I want to be able to effortlessly share a list of CEOs and high-level business professionals who have disabilities when someone asks me to name a few.
Written by John D. Kemp, President & CEO, The Viscardi Center