Caroline Casey, the founder of the Valuable 500, says she went into the ‘disability closet’ over her own loss of sight
Getting the attention of the world’s business elite is relatively easy if you are standing on the main stage in Davos during the World Economic Forum, but getting to that stage is a different matter.
For Irish disability campaigner Caroline Casey, who is legally blind, the long journey to Davos and a now astonishingly rich contacts book of global CEOs involved a 1,000km horse-back ride across Colombia in 2017.
She was in the South American country for a conference with One Young World, a group that promotes future leaders.
Casey’s ride was to draw attention to disability exclusion.
It worked, catching the notice of then Unilever boss Paul Polman, ‘My first CEO’, as she tells it.
Having gotten herself noticed, Casey was ready with her message.
She already had a plan for what is now the ‘Valuable 500’ – a collective of global businesses committed to having a place in the workforce for people like her who have some form or exposure to disability.
“He said ‘what do you want?’” Casey recalls.
“I said ‘I want to build a group of 500, I want them to be leaders and I want no more excuses.’”
“He said he would deliver me the main stage of Davos.”
We had to lobby 3,000 companies before we got 500
True to his word, Polman got Casey to the World Economic Forum just two years later.
“I re-mortgaged my home,” she laughs. “And we launched the Valuable 500.”
It works as a global network of chief executives who agreed to work together to draw attention to disability exclusion in the workplace. Buy-in from bosses makes action more likely.
Casey’s coalition is formidable. It now features leaders from Allianz and Apple, as well as Google, Microsoft and Sony. She hit her 500 target in May 2021.
“We had to lobby 3,000 companies before we got 500,” she adds.
She built up support through a combination of relationship building, data and good old-fashioned FOMO.
The collective now comprises of companies with a combined total of 22 million employees, as well as a market cap of $23trn (€21trn) across 64 sectors.
The businesses involved are headquartered in 41 different countries, and this includes 11 Irish firms, she tells me proudly.
However, for Casey, securing her 500th firm marked the real beginning of the collective’s mission.
Casey was born with ocular albinism, a condition that leads to very limited vision. However, she grew up unaware that she was legally blind until she was 17.
“When my parents were deciding what school I would go to, they decided that I had enough usable vision to go to a mainstream school,” Casey says.
“I went through school thinking I was the same as any child that wore glasses.”
It was not until a driving lesson gifted to her on her 17th birthday that she discovered the truth. She was legally blind.
“I went into the disability closet for 11 years,” Casey puts it simply.
Working with Accenture after university she hid her low vision from both her employer and colleagues for two and a half years.
“You imagined that if you told people that you were blind, you wouldn’t get the same chance or opportunity because still, there is a fear around disability, right?”
Following her “coming out” to the organisation, Casey spoke to an eye specialist and opted to take some time off, embarking on her first cross-country expedition – traversing India on the back of an elephant.
The trek won headlines and sparked conversations that ultimately redirected Casey’s career.
“I was moving from management consultant to this crazy adventure,” she says.
“I was really exposed to the global situation on disability exclusion, that was my first intro into it. I had no idea the scale of the crisis that existed,”
Back in Dublin, she launched the Ability Awards in Ireland in 2005.
This was followed by a series of initiatives that promoted teaming up with businesses to cast a spotlight on inclusion that culminated in the founding of the Valuable 500.
As she built support, Casey discovered that some of the elite business leaders she was recruiting were more aware of the situation than she could have imagined. Like her, some were in the ‘disability closet’.
“We know from doing research with EY that 7pc of our CEOs have a disability but four out of five of them are not disclosing,” she points out.
Disability is so common in fact that it has always been part of peoples’ experience in the workplace, even if it isn’t talked about.
“The most important thing I can say is that 12pc to 16pc of any company’s employees are likely hiding a connection to disability – and that’s not just Caroline saying that – that’s not even the Valuable 500 – we have the data to prove that.”
In 2021, the OECD reported that Ireland had one of the highest disability employment gaps of all the OECD countries.
Casey puts a lot of that down to fallout from the financial crisis when the agenda in many firms narrowed to simple survival.
“So much that had been fought for and achieved fell back,” she explains.
“It came off the business leadership agenda – when you don’t have that visibility and push, it gets left aside.
“It was horrible to see but it’s real.”
Today environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues are back on businesses’ agendas. Casey is pushing hard to make disability at the heart of that.
Taking her cue from gender pay gap reporting, Casey is now pursuing the next step for the Valuable 500 – the global disclosure of disability data.
“Sheryl Sandberg was talking about gender and we’ve always talked about gender but now she was leaning in and everyone starts to lean in,” she explains.
Casey unveiled the new campaign in Davos last month, exactly three years after she first took the main stage there.
I had no idea the scale of the crisis that existed
It sets out five metrics which the 500 members will commit to publicly sharing their progress on in the coming years.
Casey plans to host a global accountability event for disability in Tokyo on December 3, 2025, the International Day of People with Disabilities, so businesses have time to get their data and policies in order.
Currently, 22pc of the companies in the group are reporting on disability inclusion but it is not standardised.
Casey aims to change this with five key performance indicators that will include workforce representation, information around disability inclusion training, employee resource groups and digital accessibility.
“A third of Ftse 100 companies do not have accessible websites,” Casey says. “I mean, come on.”
The process will include analysis of members’ goals around disability inclusion and how leaders are measured against those goals.
“We hold them to account and if a company is not doing what they say they do, we very quietly ask them to leave,” Casey tells me.
For businesses themselves auditing their approach to disability and inclusion needs to go beyond their own corporate walls, Casey says.
“If they are using an external body, like a recruitment agency, the agency would want to be trained around how to handle this as well,” she points out.
Even before a candidate has been hired, all businesses need to check in with potential interviewees to ascertain whether any particular accommodations need to be made for them.
“Everybody needed accommodations over the pandemic over Zoom,” she says.
There’s always another reason, there’s always another excuse
“It’s best practice. A recruiter can’t say ‘what age are you and do you have a disability’, but they can ask for any accommodations.”
Casey spurns any talk of what some companies have perceived to be more pressing needs in any discussions she has had.
“There’s always another reason, there’s always another excuse, they are overwhelmed and there are priorities, interest rates and inflation,” she says.
“You are absolutely delusional to believe you can speak with authenticity on inclusion if you are going to do an a-la-carte, half-in half-out, pick and mix approach like [disability] inclusion today, gender tomorrow,” she adds.
One crisis for businesses globally – the pandemic – proved to be “the greatest opportunity” for Casey’s work.
“I was able to come back to [CEOs] and say ‘you said you couldn’t change’ – well, you could. In 17 days, the business system did the impossible.
“Don’t ever underestimate an Irish woman with a mission,” she says, smiling.