Hiring People With Disabilities Makes Cents and Sense

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I read an article recently about hiring people with disabilities in a newsletter devoted to helping U.S. churches comply with U.S. law. The article contained helpful information, but the approach of the article emphasized that hiring anyone with a disability is fraught with "landmines." It left the impression that the best thing prospective employers can do if someone with a disability applies for employment is not to hire them.

In sharp contrast, recently I heard Randy Lewis speak at the Ability Awards ceremony of Disability Network Lakeshore, a center for independent living in Holland, MI. A brief bio about Lewis says, “Before retiring in 2013, as Senior Vice President he led Walgreens’ logistics division for sixteen years as the chain grew from 1,500 to 8,000 stores with the most advanced logistics network in its industry. Believing that people with disabilities could do more, he also pioneered a disability employment model in its distribution centers that resulted in ten percent of its workforce consisting of people with disabilities (1,000+ PWDs).” Lewis also authored No Greatness Without Goodness.

Lewis said that 40 percent of the employees at Walgreen’s distribution center in South Carolina are people with disabilities who work with the same pay, same benefits, and same performance standards as the employees without disabilities. Walgreen’s goal is to have 20 percent of all employees company-wide be people with disabilities. Here's a brief summary of their philosophy of hiring people with disabilities. 

As Walgreens developed this extraordinary program to engage people with disabilities in their workforce, they encountered resistance from managers who said, "If he has this or that disability, how will he do this part of the job?" So Lewis said they developed the ATP method. (He joked that in business, three letter acronyms are favored.) The brilliant method: Ask The Person. Many people with disabilities have developed creativity in navigating a world that assumes most people do not have disabilities. They are the experts on how they get things done.

If a manager is worried about how an interviewee will handle this or that aspect of the job, they should ask the person how they would perform the task. Lewis gave the example of one manager who was interviewing a prospective employee for a service position at a store. Out of concern for how this person would do his job, and remembering the ATP method, the manager asked, “How would you know if a customer is standing behind you and asks you a question if you did not hear them walk up?” The straightforward answer, “I’d be looking around for customers as I did my work.”

Walgreens found that people with disabilities are as productive and have lower absenteeism compared to those without disabilities. Instead of focusing on “landmines,” the newsletter article I read would have been much better if it approached the hiring of people with disabilities from the perspective of their productivity and creativity, then went on to describe how best to make it work for all involved.

The social capital of churches will help people with disabilities find jobs. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities has remained about the same for the last 25 years, but changes in attitude exhibited by Walgreens and other companies show that this can change. Your congregation along with hundreds of thousands more in North America can join in moving the needle of this sad statistic. Learn more about what your congregation can do in this excellent webinar led by Erik Carter in November 2017: Putting Faith to Work: Congregations as a Promising Pathway to Employment for People with Disabilities.

To read stories from employers who were pleased with the people with disabilities that they hired, see the newest issue of Disability Concerns newsletter, Breaking Barriers.

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This article from the Harvard Business Review (Dec. 27, 2017) makes the same case for the value of work force diversity: The Case for Improving Work for People with Disabilities Goes Way Beyond Compliance. "As Chieko Asakawa walks around IBM’s campus, she explores new ways of getting from point A to point B. She recognizes the faces of colleagues approaching her and greets them. She reads snack labels and decides whether to eat them. Although she is blind, Asakawa doesn’t need a human or canine companion to complete these tasks. She’s helped invent a smartphone app that, as she explained in a recent TED talk, 'understands our surrounding world and whispers to me in voice or sends a vibration to my fingers. Eventually, I’ll be able to find a classroom on campus, enjoy window shopping, or find a nice restaurant while walking along a street.'"