Building a truly inclusive organization

Credit: Special Olympics
Credit: Special Olympics

People with intellectual disabilities are frequently left out of DE&I programs, but their alternative perspectives and skills can change our understanding of ability, intelligence and leadership.

I’m tired of hearing about the “new normal.” Why not strive for better? 

With diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) jumping up the corporate agenda, it’s time to take a serious look at inclusive workplace cultures — a concrete way to achieve long-term, sustainable growth.

This year has hit the reset button on DEI practices. While some companies are broadening their definitions, many are still focused on traditional gaps. These gaps absolutely need attention, but other groups remain largely ignored. 

Too often, diversity programs are not diverse enough.

People with intellectual disabilities are frequently left out. But their alternative perspectives and skills can change our understanding of ability, intelligence and leadership. 

At Special Olympics, I help athletes prepare to be team captains or committee members, and guide them in getting jobs or contributing to their community. I spend just as much time consulting with leaders to make this possible. More often than not, lack of inclusion comes down to expectations and behaviors of everyone else. We are the barrier. We find reasons to believe people will struggle. 

Adopting a DEI policy doesn’t mean the work is done. What really matters happens next.  Too often, companies don’t take enough action to develop diverse talent. If farmers sat around waiting for crops to magically appear, they wouldn’t grow. 

It’s not just about ‘hiring’

In some ways, that’s the easy part. The hard part is helping an individual discover their potential and be ready for opportunities. 

Committing to hiring more diverse candidates is important, but they’ve got to get past the front door. Too often, tests and interview formats put diverse candidates at a disadvantage, particularly people with intellectual disabilities.

While many companies institute diverse hiring mandates, people become frustrated when they aren’t meaningfully engaged. Remember, they are there because they want to work and contribute.

Stop waiting for people to “fit in” 

Create inclusive environments based on what Stephen Frost calls ‘everyday behaviors’.  It’s difficult to achieve, but it’s vital, and it starts with challenging perceptions. Diverse attributes, including intellectual disabilities, often have little bearing on one’s ability or desire to perform. 

Then, level the playing field. An intellectually disabled person might struggle with certain fonts or heavy narratives in training materials. Use straight-forward language that’s easy to understand. Everyone will thank you!

The moment someone no longer sees themselves as lesser, they are empowered. 

When Brightfield Shadi, a Special Olympics Athlete Leader, worked alongside non-disabled leaders at one of our Leadership Academy programs, he said, “I never saw myself as a leader until this moment.” Upon returning home to Botswana, Brightfield held health education sessions at his local school, got his Red Cross certification and was invited to speak on behalf of the Red Cross in Geneva. That would have never happened without his leadership moment. 

The journey takes time, unwavering commitment, and a mindset that the work is never done. 

But it’s possible, and I see it every day.

Denis Doolan is chief of organizational excellence at Special Olympics International


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