The recent addition of emojis that represent people with disabilities is more than a PR exercise: it’s sound business sense, argues Caroline Casey, as people with a disability represent 15% of the global population, a major customer base that business cannot ignore.

You’d be forgiven for missing World Emoji Day, which took place on 17th July (unless you’re a marketer, that is). It may sound frivolous, but this year the day was rendered especially meaningful for the 1.3 billion people around the world who, like me, have a disability. To mark World Emoji Day, Apple and Android launched a selection of new designs that better represent disabled people, including a hearing aid, sign language, a guide dog, prosthetic limbs, and for the first time, people in wheelchairs.

Emojis have become gradually more inclusive over the years since they first launched in the early '90s, as the emoji family has broadened. For some time, emojis have included people with different skin colours, but until now, no disabilities have ever been represented.

Trivial though emojis may seem, the launch of disability emojis will have a huge impact on the way in which we view and include disabled people in our societies. For the first time, we have the opportunity to include the topic of disability in the billions of emoji conversations happening every day globally, in the fastest growing ‘language’ in the UK.

It’s a positive business move from Apple, and demonstrates the small actions businesses and brands can take to include disabled people in everyday activities. When the intention was first revealed earlier this year, Apple said it was launching the new emojis to "speak to the life experiences of those with disabilities". Yet disability inclusion isn’t just about making life better for your consumers and employees; it’s a smart business move too.

The purple pound

Disabled people represent a huge commercial opportunity; we know the Purple Pound is worth £249bn to the UK economy. Globally, disabled people represent a market the size of the US, Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan combined and 15% of the global population – with a disposable income of more than $8 trillion.

Additionally, by putting disability on the business agenda, brands have a real opportunity to increase appeal to a wider customer base, and build a strong employer brand that helps attract and retain the very best talent. On average, companies who demonstrate disability confidence achieve 28 % higher revenue, double the net income and 30 % higher economic profit margins than those who do not.

Real inclusion

Yet true disability inclusion is still in its infancy, and right now, it’s easy for bold brands to stand out from the crowd by building it into the heart of their businesses. To date, most brands are yet to recognise this opportunity. Nine out of ten companies declare that they take diversity seriously, yet only four % include disability on their board agendas, and more than half of global C-suite executives rarely or never discuss disability on their leadership agendas.

The societal implications of this are devastating and far-reaching. Seven per cent of board level executives identify as disabled, but one in five of these do not feel comfortable disclosing this to colleagues. When the most powerful forces on this planet exclude people with disabilities – 69 out of the world’s 100 largest economies are corporations, not countries – disability inequality cannot be resolved.

Labour force participation among working-age disabled people is twice as low compared to people without disabilities. Only 40 % of adults with disabilities aged 25-54 have a job, compared to 79 % of all non-disabled adults of the same age, meaning that the former group is 50 % more likely to experience poverty.

What to do about it

Brands must start to take the same view: stop focusing on what your employees and consumers can’t do and focus on what they can. This is not just about being inclusive or “politically correct”. It is not just a nice box to have ticked, or a CSR initiative.

Embracing disability inclusion can change the fortunes of an entire business. Many businesses at the forefront of social change on many diversity issues still routinely ignore disability inclusion. Until this is commonplace, the corporate world will simply be ‘diversish’ and not truly diverse.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year I was proud to launch The Valuable 500: a global movement to secure the names of 500 companies and leaders pledging to put disability inclusion on their business leadership agenda over the next year. The campaign launched alongside the world premiere of our short film, Diversish, which challenges the attitudes of business leaders who overlook disability in favour of other diversity agendas. The film won a bronze medal at the Cannes Lions international festival of creativity in the Film Craft category, and has helped to bring The Valuable 500 to life. We have 80 international brands already signed up including Bloomberg, EY, HSBC, Microsoft, Unilever and Virgin Media, with 200 more in discussions to join.

The 500 brave leaders who commit to this agenda will be announced at WEF Davos in 2020, and will be forever recognised as the winners, who took on this mantle before anyone else. The giants of Amazon, Apple, Coca Cola, Disney, Facebook, Google, Lego, McDonalds, Netflix and Nike must be amongst those to sign up next, otherwise they will be the followers rather than the winners of an inclusion area they should be leading in already.

Brands that embrace disabled people can inspire so many in the next generation to realise their dreams; to realise that nothing is impossible. Yet shockingly, the World Health Organisation has found that up to half of businesses in OECD countries choose to pay fines rather than meet quotas on disability.

It is no longer good enough for companies to say “disability doesn’t fit with our brand” or “it’s a good idea to explore in a couple of years”. If disability inclusion is not on your board agenda, then neither is diversity.