The Future of Business Sustainability — Extending Inclusiveness to People With Disabilities

By Kelsey Pace
May 21, 2019 12:25 PM ET

Originally posted on

People with disabilities constitute the largest minority group, at an estimated one in six people globally, but their needs often are overlooked. Businesses and other organizations that aim to be more inclusive might opt to create an environment where these people’s needs are understood. However, it is often difficult to recognize the best way to make changes. To effectively engage people with disabilities, managers need to understand disability and how their products touch disability, and how businesses can use their position to further promote education and advocacy while also building customer and employee relationships.

What is disability? 
Disabilities may fall into several broad categories, including physical, cognitive and emotional. Disabilities affect people of all genders, ethnicities, races, geographical locations and socioeconomic statuses. Disabilities are rarely static, with many people experiencing short- or long-term disabilities over their lifetime.

The definition of disability has evolved. Traditionally, it was viewed in two distinct ways:

  • The medical model: This model defines disability as a physical impairment that requires treatment. Because it does not include social factors, it can ostracize disability communities. For example, the deaf community typically does not consider deafness as something that needs to be fixed.
  • The social model: In response to the medical model’s narrow definition, this model states that societal norms restrict people with disabilities.

The International Classification of Functioning (ICF) bridges the gap between the medical and social models, and it is now widely used as the standard professional and educational model. In the ICF model, the disability is not the health condition but the impairment to functioning. And disability status can change based on the situation: A person using a wheelchair would have a disability when attempting to enter a building with only stairs, but not when entering a building with a ramp. Its goal was to create a universal tool for describing health conditions across cultural and geographic borders. The ICF defines disability through the person’s functioning,  and it involves all positive and neutral interactions between the health condition and the contextual factors of their situation. These interactions are separated into body functions, activity and participation. Disability is caused by the breakdown of functioning in one or more of these areas.

For example, if we look at a common short-term health condition, a broken arm, the personal contextual factors are the person’s demographics (a 15-year-old boy). The environmental factors include his relationships with family and friends, that he plays basketball on the freshman team, and that he is an honors student. The affected body functions are impairments to his grip and thumb mobility. Activities are the limitations due to the impaired body functions. In this case, he has difficulties holding a pencil and dribbling a basketball. Participation, involving situational restrictions at the broadest scope, includes sitting out during the playoffs in basketball, not completing assignments for school, and not riding his bike with his friends.

This definition of disability has been adopted by many therapeutic institutions, including the American Physical Therapy Association and the American Psychological Association, which teach this model for person-to-person applications. ICF looks at individuals as people first and then assesses their functioning. This process avoids patronization and deindividuation, the common pitfalls of the medical and social models. The ICF is important for businesses because understanding disability enables employees and customers to maximize their functioning, leading to higher productivity and promoting long-term, inclusive brand recognition.

Continue reading