Why disability on boards needs to be on the agenda

Written by
Neil Barnfather

10 Jun 2016

10 Jun 2016 • by Neil Barnfather

I could take a wild guess that there aren’t that many disabled people on boards and those that are will be working on CSR and disability issues, rather than filling c-suite positions.

And for now, it will always be a wild guess, because we’ve recently found out that there is no official or reliable data to show disabled representation on boards.

I’ve been blind since birth – it doesn’t by any means define me – I am also a father and a husband, I’ve been awarded an MBE, worked at directorial level for over 15 years and served as an international business ambassador for eight.

As an extrovert, I speak to an awful lot of people, with the conversation inevitably turning to occupations; people often seem reluctant to ask what I do. When they eventually pluck up the courage, they seem genuinely surprised to learn I am an executive with an international firm. It happens a lot, and assumptions are a problem.


Disabled access to the boardroom

Obviously, there will be disabled people at c-suite level and I acknowledge that I will only know of a fraction of the disabled people at executive level. Yet is a source of huge frustration for me that most of those disabled people I’ve found on boards are simply there to oversee disability issues.   

I always ask about disability on boards wherever I go, so when I joined NonExecutiveDirectors.com, we had a discussion about disability on boards – or my perceived lack of it – and as a result of this, commissioned some research.

This research covered the Office of National Statistics, EU Equality and Diversity Commission, Department of Business Innovation and Skills, leading academic experts in disability, in social policy and in work and employment, Trade Union Congress (TUC), business surveys, policy documents and much more.

What was found was that no official or reliable data exists to show how many disabled people are on boards. Furthermore, it seems there is no legal requirement at all for public or private companies to report this information. 

What is notable from the research is that any data that does exist focuses on the most disadvantaged in this group, such as those not in work or with low skills etc., and the discriminatory barriers they face, but there is nothing to show that disabled people are also high achievers.

Disabled people who have talent, skill and experience should have fair and reasonable access to the board room and we cannot ensure this is happening, let alone improving, without us first knowing the numbers of people currently serving on boards.

The issue of women on boards has been widely debated and has gained fantastic traction in policy and practice over the last decade or so – let’s do the same for disability.