Ted Kennedy Jr. is a champion for the rights of disabled people. His latest fight revolves around the effort to ensure disabled individuals are properly represented in the boardroom. It’s a fight he says started when he was 12 and undergoing chemotherapy after losing his leg to cancer. He met another boy in the hospital who was going through the same experience.
“I asked him, ‘Why don’t you wear an artificial leg? Is it just too painful for you to wear?’” recalls Kennedy, a director of Innovage, Arvinas and Fox Rehabilitation, among others; an attorney for Epstein Becker & Green specializing in health care and life science cases; and the son of legendary U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy. “And he said, ‘Well, no, I would love to have an artificial leg, but my parents can’t afford one.’”
Even as a child, Kennedy remembers being aware of his privilege. This sparked a desire to help other disabled people unable to get the care they need.
“I just thought it was so unfair for this boy. It made a big impact on my life. So, that’s what led me into health care law. And it led me into the work I am doing today on the corporate boards that I sit on.”
Behind Boards Are IN
That work includes the Boards Are IN initiative, whose goal is to accelerate the number of people with disabilities in corporate boardrooms and in executive suites. Developed in conjunction with Disability:IN, the leading nonprofit driving disability inclusion in business, Boards Are IN seeks to leverage market mechanisms to engage boards, companies, regulatory bodies, stock exchanges and corporate steward organizations around the significance of disability inclusion in business. Pointing to Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage, a study by Accenture that found organizations that champion disability inclusion perform better than companies that don’t, Kennedy says one of the reasons he believes in disability inclusion is that it makes sense on a human level as well as from a business standpoint.
“I love that this was not just the right thing to do — and, certainly, the kind thing to do — but it also happens to be that the business case of disability inclusion is very strong,” says Kennedy, who is also a former Connecticut state senator. “Contrary to a lot of thinking that people with disabilities can’t possibly perform at the same level or are going to cost money to accommodate or to insure, people with disabilities drive tremendous value for companies.”
More Perspective Means Better Decisions
To Kennedy, part of that value comes from disabled directors’ unique perspective. In “Increasing Disability Representation on Corporate Boards,” a piece he wrote for Directors & Boards online, Kennedy wrote, “People with disabilities bring a unique set of life-learning skills and perspectives that help boards make better decisions.”
The challenges disabled people face make them expert problem-solvers, Kennedy says. “People with disabilities experience the need to adapt, analyze and overcome situations all day long.
“I’ve talked about my disability being one of the most defining characteristics of my life. I’m not easily rattled by things. I think people who have faced adversity and have had challenging situations in their lives really bring an added perspective to boards that leads to better decision-making.”
The Disabled Experience
Attributes like creativity, fortitude and resilience are certainly welcome and needed on corporate boards, so why are directors with disabilities in such short supply on corporate boards? Of the 485 companies surveyed in the 2023 Disability Equality Index, just 7% have a director with a disability on their board. Kennedy is not surprised by that finding.
“When you think about it, it’s not surprising that people with disabilities are underrepresented on corporate boards because people with disabilities are underrepresented in nearly every aspect of American life, and in our social, economic and political life.”
This begins in childhood, Kennedy points out. “People with disabilities are frequently educated in separate classrooms and go to school on different buses,” he says. “We have to remember that, until fairly recently, integration and participation were not even goals for people with disabilities. People with disabilities were not expected to even go to work up until 30 to 40 years ago.”
Kennedy says that perceptions began to change with the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, legislation that he says “framed the issues in terms of civil rights as opposed to the charity-based approach where we felt sorry for people with disabilities.” But he adds there is plenty of work to be done to correct a system that set a low bar for people with disabilities.
“We never really had high expectations for people with disabilities, even sometimes by their own parents. That led to people with disabilities not having high expectations of themselves because they couldn’t see other successful people like themselves in corporate life and social life and political life.”
Kennedy believes that one way this mindset can be corrected among the disabled community is for disabled individuals who have become successful in business to disclose their status. This is an effort that comes down not only to individual choice, but also to corporate culture.
“I think there are thousands of people with disabilities working today at the senior levels of corporate America. We may not know it necessarily. They may not self-disclose,” says Kennedy. “I think it’s getting companies to create a culture where people are not afraid to bring their authentic selves to the workforce and talk about their experience.”