Jill Houghton, President and CEO of Disability:IN, discusses the positive impact of disability employment and inclusion on business’s bottom line.


Intro: [00:00:00.96] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools, and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:27.48] Best practices and benchmarking are great ways to level-set where your organization is in any part of the business, comparing yourself to competitors, friends and partners. Having benchmarks allows you to see how you stack up when it comes to your inclusive workplace programs, including people with disabilities. Doing so helps you understand where the bar is and the direction and the path you need to get there. This episode of the Workology podcast is part of our Future of Work series, powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year, we’re investigating what the next 30 years will look like for people with disabilities at work and the potential of emerging technologies to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. Today, I’m joined by Jill Houghton. As President and CEO of Disability:IN, Jill oversees the strategic direction of the organization, as well as provides guidance on global disability inclusion best practices to more than 250 Disability:IN partners. She represents Disability:IN when testifying before congressional committees, working with various government agencies and numerous other functions. Jill Houghton’s creative spirit and passionate approach to inclusion of people with disabilities comes from her core.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:46.14] While pursuing her bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas, she interned for U.S. Senator Robert J. Dole. Her experience, as well as her challenges associated with having a learning disability, ignited the direction of her professional aspirations. Ms. Houghton has more than twenty-five years of diverse leadership experience at the federal, state and local levels, working with businesses to advance the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Prior to joining Disability:IN, she served as the Executive Director of the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Advisory Panel until its legislation sunset in January of 2008. The bipartisan panel was housed independently within the Social Security Administration and provided advice to the President, Congress and the Commissioner of the Social Security on issues related to Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, these work incentive programs for individuals with disabilities. Ms. Houghton has testified before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives on issues related to businesses’ commitment to recruit, hire and retain employees with disabilities. She currently serves on the board of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities and the New York City Comptroller’s Advisory Board Council on Economic Growth through Diversity and Inclusion.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:01.98] She serves on the Boston University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, RRTC, on improving employment outcomes for individuals with psychiatric disabilities, Knowledge, Translation and Utilization Advisory Council. Jill, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the Workology podcast.

Jill Houghton: [00:03:22.87] Thank you so much. It’s a great honor to be here with you today.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:27.46] Let’s talk a little bit about your background. How did you get involved in or with Disability:IN and what led you to this?

Jill Houghton: [00:03:35.77] You know, I grew up in a little town in Kansas where people honked to say hello, not get out of my way. And I have a learning disability. So, when I wanted to go to law school and I took the LSAT right before the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I bombed it, we had a family convention and came up with a plan. And that entailed me going to Washington, D.C. and interning for my senator, Robert Dole. And that was during the Americans with Disabilities Act, and honestly, that kind of laid the foundation for my future. I would have never thought that my disability would be something that I would be out and proud about and that it would put me on this path, because when I grew up it was something that I was embarrassed of and kind of wanted to hide. It’s been a real privilege to work at Disability:IN and to be on this journey with really this movement with business.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:43.33] What a fascinating story. A family meeting led to you working in Washington. And here you are at the forefront and leading the change and awareness and just sharing best practices and helping to shape future workplaces, current and future workplaces, focused on helping people with disabilities. I think this is really exciting. I love the story. Talk to us a little bit about Disability:IN. What kind of work do you guys do and how does it work?

Jill Houghton: [00:05:18.31] So we’re a global nonprofit that exists to really empower business to achieve disability inclusion and equality. I think that it’s important to know our history. We really grew out of the Americans with Disabilities Act because the, the congressmen and women that passed that bill, I think the one thing that they knew that the ADA couldn’t do was legislate attitudes. And they really also knew that business had the power to change the world. So there used to be a federal agency called the President’s Committee of Employment of People with Disabilities. And we really grew out of there, and grew out of business, and really based on the premise at Disability:IN that if one company is doing something that’s positive for their bottom line that involves disability inclusion, then their competitor wants to know what it is and they want to do it better. So, the beauty at Disability:IN is that everything that we do is at that intersection of where talent with disabilities intersects with business.

Jill Houghton : [00:06:29.98] And our programs range from teaming up our partners with college students and recent graduates with disabilities through a mentoring program to things like being the certifying body for disability owned businesses, and working with these large corporations and their procurement departments to include disability owned businesses and a lot of things in between. But that’s just kind of a, a rainbow of the work that we do at Disability:IN.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:02.02] I love that there’s best practices and sharing and collaborating that’s happening, so that everybody rises and we’re able to build on one another’s success. One of the areas that I wanted to talk to you about was something called the DEI Index. Can you talk to us a little bit about what you’re measuring with the DEI Index and how it works?

Jill Houghton: [00:07:26.18] Yeah, so the DEI stands for Disability Equality Index, and it’s really one of our signature initiatives that Disability:IN has developed in partnership with the American Association of People with Disabilities. So our two organizations came together about nine years ago and formed an advisory committee of people with and without disabilities, who sit in and outside of business, to create a benchmarking tool, really comprehensive, to help business get started and identify opportunities for improvement. So, the DEI measures things like leadership and culture, employment practices, enterprise-wide access, community engagement, supplier diversity and non-U.S. operations. So, there are six categories. The tool contains weighted and non-weighted questions. A company that scores an 80, 90 or 100 earns the right to be designated a best place to work for disability inclusion.

Jill Houghton: [00:08:38.37] And we celebrate those top scoring companies. I think it’s also important to recognize that for companies that do well, there is no such thing as perfect. What this demonstrates is that they were, that they’re committed, that they’re on the journey, that they want to identify opportunities to do better. For companies that score below an 80, nobody will ever know that they participated because it’s a carrot and not a stick. I mean, this is a tool that was created to really help companies on their journey. I would just call out that in the 2020 survey, we had over half of the Fortune 100 using the Disability Equality Index. You might be interested to know that the top participating industries were industries like technology, financial services, and healthcare.

Jill Houghton: [00:09:30.42] And last thing I would call out is that we had 247 businesses from 30 different business sectors who account for 11 million plus employees, participate in the most recent survey in 2020.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:48.21] So let’s say that somebody here that’s listening to the podcast is like, this sounds interesting. I want to get involved. How do I get involved with the survey? Where do they go and what do they do?

Jill Houghton: [00:10:00.48] So if you go to DisabilityEqualityIndex.org, one of the first boxes that you’re going to see is eligibility and timeline. So, you’re going to see, does my company, are we eligible? And what’s the timeline for participation? So, for this year, to register for the 2021 DEI, registration is open until January 29th of 2021. I would also call out to you, if you scroll down a little bit further, you can actually download the survey. So, the survey lives there in the public domain 365 days a year, because we put it out there because we want to be transparent and it’s intended to help companies do better.

Jill Houghton: [00:10:50.29] So even if you don’t formally register and participate, which, of course, we want you to, if you’re a Fortune 1000 scope company or an American Law 200 firm. But it’s out there. So, download it and start digging into these categories and the subcategories and identifying opportunities where you can get started on your journey to advance disability inclusion within your company.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:19.75] This is wonderful. It’s available. You can download the survey, have a conversation with your executive leadership team, talk about the DEI Index, how it would work, and maybe get started on, hopefully get started on, maybe some things that you can, can make changes and updates to help your organization be a more inclusive place for people with disabilities.

Jill Houghton: [00:11:46.89] Absolutely.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:49.21] Let’s talk about return on investment. So what kinds of ROI are companies seeing, not just because they’re on the DEI Index, but the work that they’re focused on when they’re looking at placing a priority on things like disability hiring and employment strategies that positively impact these businesses? What kind of ROI are organizations seeing?

Jill Houghton: [00:12:15.04] Well, what I would call out is that there is an Accenture report and it’s called Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage. So, you can find that at disabilityin.org and you can click on our library, our resources. It’s there. You can also go to DisabilityEqualityIndex.org and you’ll see the Accenture report there. And we teamed with Accenture because we wanted to study the data in the DEI and to, and to really build that business case. And, you know, it’s interesting and not a surprise to report that what Accenture found is that companies that really embrace best practices for disability inclusion, they outperform their peers with things like 28% higher revenue, two times net income, 30% higher economic profit margins. And so there really is a business case there. You know, I think it’s also important to call out that, you know, one in four Americans have a disability, and around the globe we’re one billion people strong.

Jill Houghton : [00:13:30.28] So it’s in a company’s best interest to be inclusive of people with disabilities because when you include us, it leads to innovation, the development of new products and services, you know, increased productivity and, like Accenture found, a better bottom line.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:53.02] We will also link in the show notes at Workology.com to the Accenture survey so that you can directly access that as well. And we’ve mentioned this Accenture report on a number of different episodes. I like that the business case, we lead with that, because executives today are asking, OK, how does this help our business? I think a) it’s the right thing to do to have diverse and inclusive employee populations, including people with disabilities. But a lot of business leaders are focused on the return on investment. So we have access to the Accenture survey to help you make the case to be able to get started or further your efforts when it comes to employing and training and developing people with disabilities in your workplace.

Jill Houghton : [00:14:46.12] You know, I would just call out, I think it’s an interesting point that the board chair of AAPD, our partner, is Ted Kennedy Jr. and, and really under Ted’s leadership, we took this Accenture data to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli in New York State. He’s the Comptroller for the New York Public Pension Plan. And when he saw the, the data, when he saw the Accenture report, he acknowledged that disability inclusion is the next frontier in ESG investing. And then he joined forces with Treasurer Reed, Tobias Reed, from the state of Oregon. And together they formed a joint investor statement on corporate disability inclusion. And to date, we have twenty-five signatories.

Jill Houghton : [00:15:44.98] These are some of, you know, the largest investors, ranging from Comptroller DiNapoli to entities like Bank of America, or Voya financial that are basically calling on the companies in their portfolio and asking them to prioritize disability inclusion in the way that they prioritize other issues. And I will tell you, that as a result of their advocacy and as a result of their championing, championing disability inclusion, we have continued to see a spike in participation in the Disability Equality Index because they’ve really been raising this issue with corporate America and asking them, what are you doing to advance disability inclusion?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:34.64] This is great. And conversations like these are even helping carry that further to not just executives and business leaders or investors, but also Human Resources and front-line managers who are out there every day leading teams and helping to support the organization.

Break: [00:16:55.23] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you are listening to the Workology podcast. Today we are talking with Jill Houghton about the ROI of employing and working with people with disabilities. This podcast is sponsored by Workology, and it is part of our Future of Work series in partnership with PEAT. They’re the Partnership on Employment and Accessible technology.

Break: [00:17:17.80] The Workology podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at peatworks.org. That’s peatworks.org.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:46.77] I think for a lot of companies, putting together a strategy focused on disability employment programs can seem overwhelming. How do you recommend folks get started?

Jill Houghton: [00:17:57.24] You know, we hear this all the time. A company calls us and they’re, you know, they’re developing their plan and they’re trying to get ready. And it’s like, you know, the first thing that I’ll say is that one in four of us have a disability. So, guess what? We are already part of your workforce. We’re not on the outside trying to get in.

Jill Houghton: [00:18:21.75] We’re, we’re in the boardroom. We’re in your company. So, the next thing is, you need to be intentional. And there’s no time like the present to get started. And we know in corporate America that what gets measured, matters. So, when we assign metrics to our actions, that’s when things start happening. So, the Disability Equality Index is the most comprehensive benchmarking tool that you can really, you know, take advantage of. So, again, I would encourage companies to go out to DisabilityEqualityIndex.org, download the survey, check out registration, go and discuss this with your employee resource group. If you don’t have an employee resource group, then, you know, discuss it internally within your component. But there’s no time like the present to get started.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:28.75] One thing I wanted to ask you is, also we might have a listener, I hear this a lot, where people are like, oh, you know, I love this idea. I want it. I want my organization to be more inclusive. But maybe they’re experiencing resistance from senior leadership. I know we talked about the ROI and the Accenture study, but is there any other recommendations that you have for an HR leader who’s experiencing resistance to maybe look at growing their disability employment programs or, or being more inclusive in recruiting or hiring or retention?

Jill Houghton: [00:20:10.48] Listen, we know that competition is alive and well and companies respond to what they see their competitors doing. At Disability:IN we have a campaign called Are You In? And you can check it out at Inforinclusion.org. And I would encourage somebody to go and use that campaign. It’s really based on the premise that we all have a role to play in building an inclusive global economy. And it’s a, it’s a growing number of companies that are participating. So, as we speak today, there are twenty five CEOs that have signed on to our CEO pledge, and they’re calling on their peers in the Fortune 1000 to participate in the Disability Equality Index and to take action. There are 316 corporations that have committed to being in, and there’s twenty-five investors there. And, you know, there’s a lot of goodness in those hills. So, if I’m, for example, in the telecommunications industry and I go and I look and I say, oh my goodness, the CEO of T-Mobile has signed on. That matters. And so, you know, it’s out in the public domain and it’s a tool that you have at your fingertips to use to go get those competitive spirits juiced up inside.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:50.90] Nothing like a little positive peer pressure to be applied to help push innovation and change for an industry or the entire workplace.

Jill Houghton: [00:22:02.21] It works so well.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:04.58] I want to shift gears a little bit because we’re all working from home and technology is front and center in the remote workplace. I wanted to ask you what recommendations that you can give companies, maybe who are trying to create a virtual workplace experience for their people that’s inclusive?

Jill Houghton: [00:22:24.08] So I would say, first and foremost, is that the biggest and the best source of knowledge that any company has, whether they’re gigantic or they’re very small, are their people. And if one in four of us have a disability, right, then you have people inside. If you have a disability employee resource group, tap into your ERG and learn from them about their experiences with remote employment. I’m sure that they’re going to have a lot to say. Ask them what is working and what could make their workday easier.

Jill Houghton: [00:23:04.81] I mean, we’re all on these different conferencing platforms. You know, I think it’s really important that companies become familiar with the accessibility features of their organization’s tools. You know, the file sharing, the different collaborative tools, the telephone systems. You know, really, we’re, we’re 100% on these technology platforms. And it’s really important to go to your people, solicit their feedback and, and then give it a high priority to remediating the barriers that they identify, and then go back to them and, you know, and check. Did we get it right? You know, I think that these are really important times. And this is really, this time has become a tipping point for accessibility, a real opportunity.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:55.78] I agree. And I feel like employers do a very good job, hopefully they do. I feel like they do the part where they go out and solicit feedback really well. They tap into their folks with their employee resource group or they’re checking in with their people. But what they don’t do is a good job of following up to let them know that they heard them and they made these changes, and then to check in with them a second or third or a fourth time. That’s where I think we often forget because we’re moving so quickly and we forget, oh we need to close the communication loop, the feedback loop and let people know, yes, we heard you. We made these updates. What do you think?

Jill Houghton: [00:24:35.65] You know, and the reality is, is that accessibility is a journey and none of us have it 100% figured out. At Disability:IN, we moved our conference from an in-person opportunity to a virtual experience. Was it perfect? No. Did we work closely with our stakeholders with disabilities to try to get it right? Absolutely, yes. Did we learn? Are there things that we can do better? Absolutely, yes. And we will. And so, you know, it’s a journey, but it’s an important journey and we have to prioritize it. And really bake accessibility in, not just in one place, but everywhere throughout the corporation.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:22.84] I mentioned that it’s the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year. And so we’re asking every podcast guest to take a look and think about the next 30 years of work. So, I wanted to ask you, what emerging workplace trends or technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on people with disabilities over the next 30 years?

Jill Houghton: [00:25:45.67] You know, I think all roads go back to accessibility again, right? If we look to the past and it was about accessing buildings and public transportation, those things are still real today. Right? Getting in a building is not perfect yet. Public transportation is not perfect yet. But now we’ve got like a new front to work, in addition. Right. We’ve got all this technology. We have our phones and our mobile apps and our clouds and our, all of these different systems that we use. So really, I think at the top of our wish list is that companies will align their support to the disability community with their overall goals and objectives.

Jill Houghton: [00:26:34.42] You know, I mean, I think that it’s really important that business understands that disability has a lot of different dimensions. Right? We can have a permanent disability. We can have a temporary disability. That it’s part of the human experience, that we come in every, we know no race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or ethnicity. So really, if we’re going to look to the future and we’re going to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities, then business has got to engage their stakeholders. They’ve got to engage their employees. They’ve got to engage their customers. They’ve got to engage their suppliers that they’re buying things from, and really actively look at their policies and practices across the board and work to build in disability inclusion, because that will have a positive impact on their bottom line and on the future of our world.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:40.75] Jill, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Where can people go to learn more about the work that you do at Disability:IN?

Jill Houghton : [00:27:51.02] I would encourage folks to go to Disabilityin.org, and there’s information there about all of our programs, our partners, and if you go to the resources section, there’s a whole COVID response series and there’s lots and lots of best practices from countless companies on a wide variety of issues, ranging from things from mental health to centralized accommodation funds to employment. So, you know, again, Disabilityin.org, and thanks again for this incredible opportunity to be part of your podcast.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:34.13] It’s been great, and I think you’re enlightening so many human resources and workplace leaders right now, great resources, great conversation and a great organization and your background, extremely impressive, really at the beginning of the Americans with Disabilities Act. You have been so involved and you’re continuing to shape the future workplace and business landscape, making it more inclusive and accessible for everybody. I love it. I appreciate all your hard work and taking the time to talk with us today.

Jill Houghton: [00:29:09.74] Let me just say it’s not about me, but it’s about the fact that we have an incredible team, board and partners that are helping really advance this work. So, it takes a village. And if you’re looking to get involved in the village, and you’re looking to advance disability inclusion, then Disability:IN is the place to be. We’re a big family. So, thanks again.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:29:36.02] Thank you. And I also will make sure that we link to the Are You In? section of the Disability:IN website so you can see the list of CEOs, it’s very impressive, that are in. And take a look. Think about the conversations that you can have with your senior leadership to get them more involved and help make a difference in making our workplaces and businesses more inclusive for everyone, including people with disabilities. Thanks again, Jill. I really appreciate it.

Closing: [00:30:04.94] Jill said it best. Accessibility is a journey and the work that Disability:IN and their DEI Index offer make it easier for you to be focused, organized and informed about where you are as an organization on this journey. I encourage you to check out the resources and survey questions as part of the DEI Index. Awareness is the first step in getting started and the resources that Jill mentioned today can help you get started or move forward in your inclusive workplace strategies. I want to bring attention again to what Jill said. That one in four employees in your workplace have a disability. These employees are already working in your organization. And it’s up to us to foster cultures that are inclusive of all people, including people with disabilities. This Future of Work series is in partnership with PEAT, and it’s one of my favorites. Thank you to PEAT as well as our podcast sponsor, Workology.

Closing: [00:30:58.91] Are you studying for your HRCI or SHRM exams? Join our free HR Certification Study Group on Facebook. Search for HR Certification Study Group or go to HRcertificationstudygroup.com. Ace your HR exams with the HR Certification Study Group.