Social entrepreneur Max Simpson shares ways in which startups can address employment and workplace biases towards persons with disabilities

An estimated one billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, are dealing with some form of disability, but only a small fraction of them are employed across most countries. In Singapore, just 28.6 percent of working-age, resident persons with disabilities (PWD) are actually working. In Thailand, that number drops to under 25 percent. Several factors are at play, such as employer biases towards PWDs and unfair employment practices. 

According to reports, the economic cost of excluding PWDs from the global workforce could cause trillions of dollars loss in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) annually. So how can businesses address this by revising their existing employment policies and implementing new and more inclusive practices? And how can these plans be rolled out effectively and sustainably? 

We speak to Max Simpson to find out. Simpson is the co-founder and CEO of Steps, a Bangkok-based social enterprise that provides training and stable employment to neurodivergent young adults through its coffee shops. Last October, Steps was recognised for its efforts by the National Association for Special Educational Needs at the organisation’s annual awards in London.

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For startups that are just starting to think about disability inclusion, what should they first consider?
I recommend that they consider their motivations for wanting to be an inclusive employer. Then, assess if they have the relevant knowledge and capacity to provide an accessible work environment (think about accessibility beyond physical accommodations and more in terms of communication systems, working hours, employee resource groups etc), and identify partners who may have that knowledge and can provide training and mentorship. 

For the neurodivergent community, it is so important to remember that it is made up of individuals, the same as the neurotypical population, so there are no standard jobs or systems that fit everyone. Each time we hire inclusively, we are hiring someone with unique skills and areas for development.

Besides attracting talents with disabilities, what’s the key priority for startups in order to retain them? What is the most common reason they leave a company?
In my experience, our community wants to work with truly inclusive organisations and not be the token hire. In Thailand, the legislation states that organisations must hire one disabled person for every 100 non-disabled employees. So there are employers who choose to hire instead of pay the fine simply to hit the number they need. 

My advice would be to work with a partner who can help you create systems and processes that enable inclusive employment alongside a three to five-year recruitment plan.

What are the business benefits of creating an inclusive workplace?
The business case for diverse and inclusive workplaces is now incredibly strong. Globally, we are talking about over one billion people with disabilities, with their unemployment creating up to a US$2 trillion loss to the GDP annually. 

Companies that hire inclusively have reported higher staff retention rates and higher [employee] engagement. In more and more cases, they are also attributing increased revenues to their inclusive practices.

When the prevalence of autism, for example, is now at 1 in 160 children worldwide, the odds of having an employee who identifies as autistic, or an employee with a family member who does, become quite high. In Asia, the prevalence is lower than in the US or Europe due to stigma, lesser access to specialists who can diagnose autism, and lesser access to specialists who can spot developmental differences and refer for diagnosis or specialist support.

When companies don't have an inclusion-orientated ethos, or policies and roadmaps in place, you are not only ignoring them as quality employees, but as consumers too. This potential market is difficult to measure still, but many indicators point towards these values being crucial to retaining existing and engaging new customers today. 

See also: 5 Ways Leaders Can Create A More Inclusive Workplace Culture

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Above Max Simpson, co-founder and CEO of Steps, a Bangkok-based social enterprise that provides training and employment to the neurodivergent community

How can leaders and teams prevent microaggressions towards employees with disabilities?
You can manage this from the recruitment stage by making the inclusive culture of the organisation very clear so that candidates know the environment and values you uphold. Of course, there is always the chance that as your company grows, someone who doesn't completely connect with your values becomes part of the team. So in addition to making your ethos clear, training and mentoring employees are also helpful. We have to provide our employees with the knowledge and language to create an inclusive culture and not assume that they share our passion for doing it—that must come from leadership.

How can we avoid the issue of tokenism in the process?
Consistently reinforcing the organisation's values, hiring [PWDs] across a range of positions and not only for entry-level roles, and having an inclusion policy that maps out your plans for continued recruitment will all help to demonstrate your commitment to hiring inclusively. If you are true to being an inclusive organisation, this should, by nature, extend beyond the PWD community and create a workplace with equal opportunities for all employees, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, education or socio-economic background. 

What have been some of your own challenges in building an inclusive organisation? And how do you support others who may be less informed in this area?
As with anything, we don't always get it right. But our teams and community know our commitment and motivation, as well as the resources and tools we’ve made available to them should they need support. It has sometimes been necessary to move some of our team members because their managers—neurodivergent or neurotypical—realised they weren't the right fit, based purely on their willingness to be part of our inclusive culture. We became quicker at identifying these people and have a system in place should we be short-staffed. 

Our employment partners go through a due diligence process, which helps us understand where they are so we can meet them there and provide the appropriate support. We also make the support available always and have regular check-ins with them. We do the same internally, to remove the barrier to people asking questions because they feel uncomfortable. We need those questions!

See more honourees from the Social Entrepreneurship category of the Gen.T List.

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