April 28, 2021

Why Are People With Disabilities Left Out of Conversations About Board Diversity?

According to the CDC, 61 million Americans — about 26 percent of the population — have some type of disability. Yet I was not surprised when Nasdaq’s recent board diversity proposal failed to reference people with disabilities. I had the same reaction to a study published recently in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which found 75 percent of nonprofit boards don’t have people with disabilities serving on them.

I had a son with disabilities who lived until he was 22. Any day when we were out in public, people would stare and even comment on his disabilities. They would feel sorry for us. What they were never able to grasp — because they were blinded by their sight — was how smart and funny and aware my son was. Even though it was hard for him to form words, he developed ways to communicate his needs. He never ceased telling us how much he loved us. He loved to laugh. He had so many of the intellectual capabilities of “normal” people, but they were disguised by visual cues that caused people to see him as
“handicapped,” a terribly misleading word.

The Tyranny of Category

Our brain uses categories to help us efficiently process information. Research suggests this process is active from infancy and is spontaneous, occurring without much thought. We even enjoy placing ourselves in categories as we move through life; just look at the popularity of college hoodies and sports team jerseys, the neighborhoods we aspire to live in, the cars we buy, and the brands we prefer.

Though we find categorization helpful, it is fraught with errant assumptions and bias when we apply it to others — and we often do so unconsciously. As organizations recruit — even when they recruit for positions as prestigious as board members, they risk introducing the bias of social categories to their decisions. When we place individuals in categories, we often lose sight of them as individuals. Instead, we respond to them as social constructs: disabled, old, poor, Black, Hispanic, gay, lesbian, etc.

When we see a person as representing a particular category, we mentally emphasize the characteristics that we perceive to fit that category while paying little to no attention to their individual differences or unique traits. When it comes to people with disabilities, that means we often focus on their disabilities rather than their abilities.

That State of Boardroom Diversity Today

A 2017 report by BoardSource revealed what some describe as disturbing attitudes among board members regarding diverse and inclusive board composition. The report, titled “Leading with Intent: 2017 BoardSource Index of Nonprofit Board Practices,” found that “boards are no more diverse than they were two years ago, and current recruitment priorities indicate this is unlikely to change.” The report explains: “Despite reporting high levels of dissatisfaction with current board demographics — particularly racial and ethnic diversity — boards are not prioritizing demographics in their recruitment practices.”

At the 2018 Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action Conference, Professor Chris Fredette of the University of Windsor pointed out that even Google failed to significantly increase diversity and inclusion after investing millions of dollars to do so.

In its 2019 report, “The Governance Gap: Examining Diversity and Equity on Nonprofit Boards of Directors,” Koya Leadership Partners states: “We’ve seen how difficult it is for boards and organizations that aren’t diverse or inclusive to recruit and retain leaders of color. Boards that are overwhelmingly homogeneous are often not even aware of how their composition affects their ability to effectively attract or assess candidates with different backgrounds and experiences.”

While 70 percent of the boards Koya surveyed said they were not content with the current level of diversity and inclusion, 74 percent did not have a written statement or policy for diversity and inclusion. Only 19 percent provide training on diversity and inclusion. About 40 percent of boards described as having medium to low diversity have not implemented recruiting efforts designed to attract members of diverse backgrounds. When asked why their boards lacked diversity, 51 percent said it was because of lack of access to qualified candidates, 21 percent said it was geography, and 18 percent said it was due to lack of resources.

Education and Intention: The Keys to Change

Because people with disabilities require accommodations, they are often marginalized. Since they may have trouble with speech, sight, or physical movement, they may be seen as damaged. Even the most well-intentioned people are frequently uncomfortable around people with disabilities because they don’t know what to do; they have already put people with disabilities in the “not normal” category in their minds.

Creating more diverse boards boils down to education and intention. People need to understand there is a broad range of normal. Boards need to stop looking at the disability and start looking at the unique abilities and perspectives these individuals can contribute.

When recruiting for any level — from the front line to the board room — companies look for people who have proven themselves in tough times. Many people with disabilities have had to overcome more obstacles than their “normal” peers. Is that not precisely the kind of experience that makes a candidate stand out?

James Mueller is president of James Mueller & Associates LLC (JMA) and the author of Onboarding Champions: The Seven Recruiting Principles of Highly Effective Nonprofit Boards.

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James Mueller is president of James Mueller & Associates LLC (JMA), a national consulting firm that provides services in the areas of organizational development, governance, and philanthropy. His new book, Onboarding Champions: The Seven Recruiting Principles of Highly Effective Nonprofit Boards (February 23, 2021), is filled with intelligent and practical advice interwoven with a lifetime of stories about working with nonprofit boards. Mueller's work helping nonprofits advance their missions has earned him national recognition. He has worked with nonprofit board members ranging from the highest positions of success and prominence to local communities and neighborhoods, where good people with big hearts ensure the health and well-being of their nonprofits. He has an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and spent the first 10 years of his career at Cornell, followed by executive positions at Northwestern University, Advocate Healthcare, Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, and Goodwill Industries.