Caroline Casey helps Irish businesses to develop new approaches to employing and serving disabled people.
The New Idea
Caroline is changing how businesses look at and deal with people with disabilities. She has a series of innovative programs highlighting the contributions the disabled make as employees and consumers through The Ability Awards.
Caroline is building a network of organisations that demonstrate and promote best practices in employing the disabled, in designing products and services for disabled clients, and in customer service and accessibility. This network of “ability confident” companies proves what can be achieved and provides replicable examples of excellence. As they search for new talent and new customers, more and more businesses are paying attention to the benefits of becoming ability confident. Employers are increasingly realizing the advantages of a diverse and capable work force in a tight labour market, while also competing for the fast-growing spending power of this segment, €3.3 billion. As well as creating economic opportunities, this shift is building the confidence and expectations of people with disabilities, their families and their educators.
In Ireland today, almost 10 percent of the population, about 360 thousand people, live with disabilities. Seventy percent are unemployed, down from 90 percent in 2000; 38 percent of people with disabilities are living in poverty against a national average of 85—a gap that persists due in part to economic prejudice. Throughout Europe, disability and rights groups have campaigned successfully for progressive legislation. However, businesses are resisting the change for a number of reasons, including the cost and complexity of compliance, fear of change, lack of knowledge, and the perception that people with disabilities are incapacitated. Like society in general, businesses see people with disabilities for what they cannot do, rather than as a group in society with skills to contribute and significant spending power. This perception of total incapacity prevents full economic inclusion of people with disabilities, and it may also contribute to low self confidence and expectations. These problems exist well beyond Ireland; indeed in any country, 10 to 20 percent of the population will have some kind of disability, the majority of whom will be unemployed, and a disproportionate percentage of whom will live in poverty.
The Ability Awards, designed and managed by Caroline’s Aisling Foundation, recognize and reward businesses and public-sector organisations that strive to meet the needs of people with disabilities, whether as employees or consumers. The awards showcase real examples of integration at work: recognizing the ability, commitment, and contributions of disabled employees, while highlighting their value as consumers. Entering its third year, the awards are engaging an increasing number of business and public organisations—100 participated in 2006, employing over 10 percent of Ireland’s working population. The Ability Awards focus on employers, but also target the government, people with disabilities and their families, educators, the media and the general public. Awareness of the awards is expanding rapidly through media partnerships. The televised awards are attracting an unprecedented 27 percent of Ireland’s television audience and in the week after the awards there was a 32 page supplement in Ireland’s leading newspaper, explaining the awards and what it means to be “ability confident”. The ability message appeals to a broad audience because it is positive and solution focused; people can relate to it. While The Ability Awards culminate in a one-night event, there is a six-stage selection process that takes 7 months, designed as a learning experience in which employers assess themselves and are evaluated by others. The awards have expanded to six categories: Recruitment & Selection; Learning, Development & Progression; Retention & Well Being; Customer Service; Environmental Accessibility; and Leadership. Two independent judging panels made up of Ireland’s leading business and citizen-sector figures select the winners and each winning company may only receive its award if the CEO or managing director is present on award night. This ensures that the issue of ability becomes recognised at the highest level of each organization. The ceremony is co-presented by Ireland’s leading talk show host and Caroline, while awards are distributed by respected celebrities and the Irish Prime Minister. Getting senior government and industry leaders to participate has been critical to the success of the Awards, adding credibility, prestige and financial support. The Awards cost €600 per annum and are funded half by government and half by industry. Businesses have been invited to enter the awards free of charge, but to continue to make the model financially sustainable, participating businesses will pay an entrance fee. Caroline’s vision goes beyond awards. The Aisling Foundation created The Ability Programme; designed to systematically disseminate best practices and industry specific standards that will ultimately empower more businesses. Similar to The Chambers of Commerce model, The Ability Programme, scheduled to launch in late 2007, will have a membership base among public- and private-sector organisations. The programme will include revenue generating training products, publications, conferences and workshops. The success of The Ability Awards in Ireland and the continued persistence of business resistance to disability legislation in Europe has sparked the interest of businesses, prospective sponsors and disability groups in spreading The Ability Awards throughout the continent. Caroline plans to carefully expand across Europe through a franchise partnership model. The Ability Awards brand and process will be owned by The Aisling Foundation and spread through franchise partners. The awards are currently sponsored by telecom O2 in Ireland, and the O2/Telefonica group have expressed a strong interest to become the European sponsors. Spain has been identified as the forerunner for expansion due to a positive environment and strong partnership potential. Caroline is also part of an international team that is bringing disability groups, advocacy groups, human rights groups, labour groups, banks, ministries, governments, universities, and the general public under one umbrella for a global awareness campaign called 400 Million R. The campaign will communicate that there are 400 million people in the developing world living with disabilities, and will focus on adversity and alienation, but also on ability. The campaign will aim to put disability on the international agenda, to plant the seeds for progressive legislation in developing countries, and to provide a platform for The Aisling Foundation to eventually expand its programmes beyond Europe. Caroline’s multi-disciplinary approach is creating a powerful bank of knowledge, insights and partnerships that will fuel innovation into the future. Her Foundation is evolving into a research & development hub of innovative ability programmes. The vision is to develop, incubate and then spread these programmes internationally through ability partnerships. Over the long term, The Aisling Foundation would like fund “ability agents” all over the world. This model would create a powerful “ability community” that supports one another, with Aisling providing financial, network and best practice support.
Caroline is an energetic and outgoing achiever who experienced childhood in Dublin with the understanding that all kids with glasses were clumsy. Caroline learned that she was visually impaired and considered legally blind only on her 17th birthday; after receiving driving lessons as a gift from her parents. To avoid labels or restrictions on her ability, her parents did not reveal this information. For the next 11 years, Caroline struggled to accept her disability, and rarely revealed it to others. A top student, she excelled in college, travelled extensively, founded a horticulture and landscape architecture business at 22, and eventually began a successful career as a business consultant with Accenture. At 28, it became impossible to hide her disability, and Caroline hit a wall at Accenture—a crushing blow for a confident and hard worker. At the same time, Caroline summoned all of her courage and embarked on a life time dream to trek across India on an elephant’s back. Realizing that this adventure could be a good fundraising device, she established The Aisling Foundation in 2000, as a vehicle for the IR£250,000 she had targeted herself with raising for various disability groups. The wall Caroline hit with Accenture, coupled with the difficulties she experienced engaging corporations to fundraise for disability groups, were some of the barriers she sought to remove. A few weeks before the trip, Caroline raised IR£67,000, but with the support of her entrepreneurial father, Caroline left Accenture to pursue her dream full-time. A prime-time appearance on a national television talk show saved the day by introducing her and giving her access to corporate leadership. Her agenda expanded from purely fundraising to promoting the capacity and capability of people with disabilities. Through these dialogues, Caroline realised her ability as a communicator and motivator. Her honest and heartening story raised IR£480,000 as she embarked on a 1,000 kilometer trek that would be both mentally and physically demanding. But despite significant hurdles, Caroline became the first western woman to achieve the status of elephant mahout. She returned with a media profile as an inspirational figure and the expectations were overwhelming. However, when promoting the ability of people with disability, she simply could not fail. Caroline organized her first ability conference for business and political leaders in 2001.As a child, Caroline learned about positive affirmation—recognising people’s reactions to being told how amazing they are, for example, “You catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.” This is one of the fundamental insights behind the success of The Ability Awards; combined with a steely determination, Caroline has successfully set a benchmark nationally and internationally for the promotion of the abilities of those with disabilities. Caroline’s achievements have been recognised across the world by many organisations. Most recently, Caroline became the first Irish person elected to the Young Global Leaders of The World Economic Forum, and the first Irish social entrepreneur to receive the Eisenhower Fellowship. “I believe I am luckier than most, because I was made to believe that I could.” -Caroline Casey