CEO STORIES: Jill Houghton, Disability:IN

Jill Houghton
President and CEO of Disability:IN

Jill Houghton, President and CEO of Disability:IN, on how the nonprofit is helping create awareness and opportunity in the workplace for people with all kinds of disabilities.

Disability:IN grew out of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. While the law provided legal protection for the disabled, there was recognition that work needed to be done to change attitudes around the disabled to ensure inclusion and equality. Her work stems from her own experiences with a learning disability, and being identified as “different.”

Disability:IN partnered with the American Association of People with Disabilities to create the Disability Equality Index, a tool that helps businesses take a deeper dive into their policies, practices, and culture, and identify opportunities for improvement. Disability:IN also offers programs such as mentoring and certification for disability-owned businesses, and consulting.

One in four people is recognized as having a disability – ranging from physical challenges such as blindness and deafness, to diseases like diabetes, to conditions that include anxiety and depression. And some 70% of disabilities are considered non-visible, raising the stakes for companies to be aware and for people to feel comfortable identifying as having a disability. Research has shown that businesses that are inclusive of people with disabilities have 28 percent higher revenue, 30 percent greater economic profit margins, and two times the net income of their industry peers.

Houghton recommends the following steps for companies that want to be more inclusive: Having employee resource groups for people with disabilities; leverage tools like the Disability Equality Index; and work with peers to create awareness and prioritize inclusion.

CEO STORIES: Jill Houghton, Disability:IN

POC: Hi, I’m Patricia O’Connell for This is Capitalism, CEO Stories podcast.

I’m here today with Jill Houghton, who is the President and CEO of Disability:IN. It’s actually a particularly great time to talk to Jill because October is, every year, National Employment Awareness Month for Disabilities. Is that correct, Jill? Did I get all that right?
JH: Absolutely. You got it right.

POC: Excellent. So, Jill, first, why don’t you tell us a little bit about Disability:IN and what your organization does?
JH: Disability:IN is a global nonprofit that empowers business to achieve disability inclusion and equality. So, we are an organization that really grew out of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act because the primary sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act was a congressman named Congressman Tony Coelho. And he recognized that the ADA couldn’t legislate attitudes and that business has the power to employ and shape our workforce. So at Disability:IN we are that place where talent with disabilities and business intersect. And that’s what we do.

POC: When you say that they didn’t have the ability to legislate attitude, how do you help change peoples’ attitude?
JH: Businesses respond to their peers. And when they know that disability inclusion isn’t just the right thing to do but that it makes good business sense, they are very responsive and quite frankly they are very competitive.

So, for example, Disability:IN partnered with the American Association of People with Disabilities and we created a benchmarking tool called the Disability Equality Index and this tool has helped business take a deeper dive into their policies and their practices and identify opportunities where they could do better.

POC: How does the index work? Companies find out where they have strengths, where they have weaknesses, what they could be doing better?
JH: So we brought together individuals with and without disabilities that sit inside and outside the business and created this tool that looks at leadership and culture, employment practices, enterprise-wide access, community engagement, supplier diversity, and non-U.S. operations.

It has weighted questions, it has non-weighted questions, and companies answer the questions and have to substantiate their answers. They can score anywhere from zero to 100. If they score an 80, a 90, or 100 we give them the designation as being a top place to work for people with disabilities.

We also recognize that even for companies that score 100 there is no such thing as perfection. What this means is that they are on the journey and that they are really committed to doing better. Companies that score below an 80, it’s not a stick, it’s a carrot. and we are here to help them do better.

POC: How do you help them do better?
JH: So at Disability:IN we’ve got a wide variety of programs that range from things like helping companies identify individuals inside that want to mentor next-gen talent who are college students and recent graduates. It’s a very interactive mentoring program where they come out the other end becoming employed with our partner companies or securing internships to things like helping them in their supplier-diversity program.

We are the global certification body for disability-owned businesses. So we help companies tap into the supplier base that are businesses owned by people with disabilities. We do deep dives and provide consulting services and really help them identify their plan for advancing disability inclusion across the business.

POC: Jill, did you have any personal interest in working with people with disabilities? Was this a cause that found you or you found it?
JH: My story is I have a learning disability. So I grew up on a small town in Kansas and was embarrassed of the fact that I didn’t read well and that I didn’t do well on tests. I went to the University of Kansas, took the law school entrance exam and bombed it and had the convention of “What’s my plan A?” and “What’s my plan B?”

That led me to go to Washington, D.C., and intern for my senator, who was Senator Robert Dole and it was during the Americans with Disabilities Act. And I think that I really found my path. I didn’t set out to work in this space but the space found me and provided that place where I could be out and proud and own this part of my identity.

Along the way, I married a man that has a spinal cord injury and as luck would have it, I have an 11-year-old who has ADHD and an anxiety disability. So, you know, I guess you can say at our house we are the trifecta.

POC: It sounds like you maybe have all the colors of that particular flag in your home. You say you had a learning disability but did people consciously call it that back then or was it just “Jill is smart, but?” Or, “Jill is not smart?” Or were you fortunate enough to have been diagnosed accurately?
JH: It was kind of “Jill is smart but…” So it meant that I needed to go to reading class in the nurse’s office and sit at the little table and feel different. It meant that when I went to college and I bombed my biology test that I needed to go and talk to my teacher and say, “I don’t do well in this environment but if you would allow me to take this test in an untimed environment in your office, I can rock it out. Or, if you can give it to me in a different way as opposed to multiple choice, I’m going to do well.” So it was really at the point that I took the LSAT that it was like “now I need to go and get a formal diagnosis” in order to get the assistance that I needed.

POC: You raise an interesting point that I wonder if this comes up with companies with whom you work or with whom you partner or you advise. You were talking about that you needed some… and correct me if I’m not using the right terminology… you needed some special accommodations in order to be able to take the test?
JH: Absolutely.

POC: Do companies say, “We would love to hire disabled people but we are going to have to make X, Y, and Z accommodations for them, it’s going to be expensive, it’s going to slow everybody down, isn’t there something else we could do? Couldn’t we just write a check?”
JH: We do hear people saying “where’s the talent and what is it going to cost me to make an accommodation, etc.” And I think that when we hear that, it’s important that we have a conversation and say, “one in four Americans have a disability, 70 percent of us have disabilities you can’t see that are things like learning disabilities, and anxiety and depression.

“We are already a part of your workforce. We are not on the outside always trying to get in, we’re already in the workforce.” And so it’s not just about recruiting that talent, it’s also retaining and growing the talent that you have inside.

POC: Are people surprised about the statistics of one in four persons has a disability and 70 percent of disabilities are not visible?
JH: I would tell you that when we start talking about this, people have an “aha moment” as they start to reflect on their own personal experience. Living in this global pandemic and working remotely and not being around people – we are having the opportunity to have these human conversations and talk about things like depression and anxiety and things that have been taboo, that we have not talked about in the workplace.

POC: How old is the Americans with Disabilities Act?
JH: This year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary.

POC:  Congratulations. Is everything that we now think of as a disability, or recognized as a disability, covered in the Americans with Disabilities Act? For example, you mentioned your son having ADHD, is that something that was in people’s consciousness 30 years ago that needed to be spelled out? Or is the ADA, the way it’s written, more inclusive and forward-looking so everything that wasn’t necessarily on the radar back then, it provides protection around?
JH: We have the Americans with Disabilities Act and then many years later we had the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act. So the definition of disability as it’s laid out in the ADA Amendments Act is very broad and it does specifically include things like ADHD.

POC: Does it surprise organizations at all to realize not just the sheer number but some of the specific things that are covered under the ADA and that they might have to make accommodations around – mental health issues, some of which might not be as obvious, anxiety? Maybe there are people who are claustrophobic or are having a difficult time working at home during the pandemic.
JH: I think that business is beginning to identify that there is a competitive advantage to including all people with disabilities in their business. And we at Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities, we partnered with Accenture on a piece of research called Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage. And what we found is that businesses that are inclusive of people with disabilities actually have 28 percent higher revenue, 30 percent greater economic profit margins, and two times the net income of their industry peers. So, the truth of the matter is, is that it actually pays to be inclusive of people with disabilities.

POC: The research that you’ve done with Accenture shows that there are definite business advantages to including people with disabilities in the workforce, yes?
JH: Yes.

POC: And what are those advantages and why?
JH: Really this research was based on those companies that participated in the Disability Equality Index. And there are many best practices that we have been able to mine from the Disability Equality Index, including things like setting external goals for your hiring or setting goals for your technology to be accessible or including disability-owned businesses in your supplier diversity program.

The reality is that we know that what gets measured matters. What gets measured gets done in business. And so I think that that really drove the results that we see in the Accenture report.

POC: I realize you can’t speak to all companies but I imagine that you’re pretty aware of what comes up. Is there ever any resentment or bad feelings on the part of people who do not have disabilities – or at least who do not have visible disabilities because to your point that 70 percent of us have disabilities that are not visible – about the accommodations that are being made? What kind of education has to be done in the workforce to help the rest of the workforce understand what’s going on here?
JH: One of the things that we emphasize in the DEI is the whole category around leadership and culture. And so culture plays a really important role – building that culture where you don’t have that resentment when you’re accommodating. Another thing to call an accommodation is a productivity tool. You’re assisting an individual in being productive and being able to perform the essential functions of their job.

And I think that the greatest resource that a company has are their people. And so it’s really important that everybody knows how to request an accommodation and that managers know who pays for the accommodation and how the process works.

A best practice that we find in the Disability Equality Index are companies that have what we call centralized accommodation funds – a centralized fund so that managers know where that expense comes from and what the process looks like.

POC: Are there any figures around what it usually costs to hire somebody with a disability or to make the necessary accommodations?
JH: Data out there says that on average accommodations are less than $500.

And honestly, I think that we are at a tipping point in the world where business truly is identifying the opportunity here. So take for example our board chair, our board chair is the Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft and she is deaf and they are leading the way in terms of building accessible technology.

Or it’s people like our treasurer on the board who used to be the general counsel at Accenture and now has a global business role but he’s an amputee. So these are senior leaders who are out and identify as being people with disabilities and are playing a really important role in the business and disability is just a part of their identity.

POC: A figure that you cited earlier and now that I’ve cited several times because it really is rather a staggering figure:70 percent of us have disabilities that are not visible; What are some of those disabilities, Jill?
JH: It’s things like anxiety and depression and learning disabilities and autism and diabetes. The list is very long. I think one of the things that we see is during this global pandemic this has created an opportunity for us to lead with humanity. It has created an opportunity for us to get to know our team members and to have this dialogue with each other and check in.

And I think as a result of this time, where we have gotten to know each other in ways that we didn’t know each other, we are starting to have conversations about these hidden disabilities that we never talked about.

POC: Is it difficult to get people who are among those with the “hidden disabilities” to identify as having a disability?
JH: Obviously it’s a personal choice. And it’s scary if you haven’t openly identified. I was part of a virtual event earlier this week with a company. Many of our partner companies are multinational companies and they have employee resource groups. And I was part of an employee resource group event, virtual, for National Disability Employment Awareness Month and a senior leader used the event as an opportunity to share his story as being an individual that has dyslexia.

And when an individual puts themselves out there and shares their story in a public way, obviously it’s a choice and it’s scary but what that does inside, within the culture, is then it frees others to say “that’s me” and to come out. And as we begin – I mean listen, we’ve got a long way to go; we are barely scratching the surface here. But it’s this culture change that we need to continue to drive.

POC: If you were to say to a company that really has not had this on their radar, it’s not been top of mind for them how to work with people with disabilities, how to even assess their own openness, willingness, accessibility inside, what are three concrete things that companies can and should do to try to take a look at this?
JH: First of all, I’d say do you have an employee resource group for people with disabilities? Because again, your greatest resource are your people and you don’t want to embark on this journey without your people. And in the disability space we say “nothing about us without us.” And honestly, it applies to every space. So start with your people.

Start with your people and then leverage tools like the Disability Equality Index. The tool can be found at The questions live in the public domain 365 days a year, registration is open until January 29, 2021, so get registered.

And then the third thing I would say is that if you’re looking for a way to get somebody’s attention, get a senior leader’s attention within your company, we actually have a campaign called “Are You In?” that is all about are you in for building a global economy that is inclusive of people with disabilities. And if people go to you can actually see 26 CEOs that have signed on that are urging their peers to take action, to prioritize disability inclusion and to use the Disability Equality Index.

You will see 25 investors to manage almost $2.8 trillion in assets under management that are calling on their companies that they invest in to prioritize disability inclusion. And that competitive spirit is alive and well. So if you see the CEO of Microsoft or the CEO of Salesforce or the CEO of Accenture and you take that to a leader within your company, that will get their attention.

POC: If someone is a signatory to that letter, does it obligate them to for example, have applied the index to their own organization, does it obligate them to have accountability in their own organization?
JH: What it is, is it isn’t just a pledge. This is a commitment backed with measurable actions. And so what this is doing is these are companies that have participated in the Disability Equality Index and they are calling on their peers to take this critical step on their journey.

POC: So Jill, maybe something that we haven’t talked about quite as much is accessibility. When people think of accessibility they think of very standard things, closed captioning on the TV, Braille in the elevator. Obviously, accessibility goes way beyond that. So can you talk a little bit about accessibility measures and accessibility actions that companies can take?
JH: That is a really interesting question because as we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the ADA, 30 years ago, we were talking about access to buildings, public transportation, etc.

And while we are still working on those things and prioritizing making sure that physical spaces are accessible, the new frontier – it’s not new but it’s changing quickly – are things like the mobile –  our phone, it’s the cloud, it’s working remotely, it’s all of these virtual platforms and meetings that we’re going to, it’s our file sharing, it’s our phone systems, it’s our payroll.

So it’s an important priority. And companies are really starting to acknowledge that this is an area where there is great room for improvement. And again, this is another example of where it is so important to go back to your people and engage your people inside, your employee resource group, and find out what is and isn’t working, establish metrics, measure your actions and take action and report back to make sure that the changes that you’re making along the way are working.

POC: I think one thing that we haven’t talk about is how if you have a more inclusive workforce, it probably enables you to better relate to your customer base.
JH: A hundred percent. We know, we see many of our partner companies not just engaging with their employee resource groups but actually doing focus groups with professionals with disabilities. Take for example Marriott International, it has really embarked on this whole journey with engaging with professionals with disabilities who travel to make sure that their hotels are accessible to all.

POC: Well for the time when we can travel again, I know that’s going to be greatly appreciated. But I think to the larger point though, it’s just one of the types of things that people need to be thinking about – are we doing the right thing by our customers? And the people we have in-house are probably the best people to help us understand the needs of those customers. They can give us a window into those needs and desires and wants of all kinds of customers.
JH: A hundred percent.

POC: Jill, I want to thank you so much for taking the time this morning to talk to us about this. really important initiatives that you are undertaking. And I wish you a happy rest of 2020 and boy it can’t be over soon enough.
JH: Amen. Thank you so much.

About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.

About Patricia O’Connell: Patricia O’Connell serves as Editor in Chief of “This Is Capitalism,” a content site sponsored by Stephens Inc., and is host of the site’s podcast series, “CEO Stories.” Patricia, a former editor at BusinessWeek and a New York Times best-selling author, brings her experience as a journalist and her passion for storytelling to “This Is Capitalism.”