Enabling the Disabled: Learning to Look for Abilities


Most of us remember the publicity surrounding the London Paralympic Games (which immediately followed the closing ceremonies for the more familiar version).  You might also remember the achievement of Oscar Pistorius  the so-called “blade runner” from South Africa who became the first double amputee to run in a track and field event in the 2012 Olympics.  Enabling the Disabled seems like an idea whose time has come.

And, with many disabled veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems fitting that people with disabilities should be more in the main stream of our consciousness.

Well at one well-known drug store chain, they are making the disabled an important part of their main stream, and the story is worth celebrating.

Walgreens some time ago opened two new concept distribution centers in South Carolina and Connecticut.  As perhaps an experiment, they deliberately set out to fill a third of their open positions with people who were disabled.  (I can imagine some of you are becoming uncomfortable with the thought of this idea—but I urge you to read on.)  Today, one of the centers has 40 percent of its employees who would record a disability on their HR file, and in the other, 50 percent are disabled.

One example is their current head of Human Resources who has cerebral palsy.   Now she earned straight As in college and graduate school, sent out over 300 resumes, and went through 30 interviews, but couldn’t land a single job . . . that is until she applied at Walgreen’s.  According to Randy Lewis (Walgreen ‘s VP of Supply Chain and Logistics – who manages these distribution centers) she is “one of our best HR people.”

Tom Pelletier has epilepsy and could not hold a job reliably – and was often let go because of his seizures.  He now works in the receiving department at Walgreen’s and still has about one seizure per day – but he wears a safety helmet and elbow pads and manages just fine.

Another autistic employee (who was thought to be unemployable)found his very first job at Walgreen’s and  is now described by Mr. Lewis in this way: “In every job that we’ve given him, he performs at a 150 percent standard.”

Paul Mazzoli (another employee in their Connecticut warehouse) has Asperger’s syndrome and was recently removed from a grocery store job as a bagger, since he would frequently speak inappropriately to other workers or customers.   At Walgreen’s, his average picking rate of 93 orders per hour puts him in the category of top performers.

Sure. Good for Walgreen’s – some of the cynical out there might see this as more about publicity and good public relations.   Well Walgreen’s is a business with demanding shareholders (like any other business) and Mr. Lewis can attest to the fact that these distribution centers are the lowest cost, most productive operations the company has ever before experienced.  In fact, in January of 2013, the company plans to launch similar diversity employment initiatives in 8,000 stores across the country.

See for yourself in this clip below.

Perhaps this would never have happened if Randy Lewis did not have a son with autism, where he had to learn to look past his “disability” to see a person.   Once Lewis did that, it seems that many other things became possible

I suppose in some ways we so-called “able-bodied” people are the largest impediment to this kind of innovation.  We are the ones who sometimes stare, or possibly avert our eyes, never make eye contact and certainly not strike up a conversation with someone who was obviously disabled.  We don’t feel comfortable hiring them, and aren’t so comfortable working side by side with them.

I read one article by a psychologist suggesting that we are uncomfortable with the prospect of considering our own vulnerabilities.  Another article I read by a disabled person who wrote about what it was like to talk about his disability with coworkers.   It seemed pretty disconcerting to him just how much his coworkers didn’t want to deal with the conversation.

You have to acknowledge that disability makes their abilities different, and many people have to struggle over the idea of whether that changes their value as people.”  (See Disability Makes People Uncomfortable”).

Whatever the cause of our discomfort – familiarity seems important.   One study had a room with several disabled people in it, and the researchers wanted to see if they could influence how close to them able-bodied people would sit.  One group came in and sat down directly.  A second group was permitted some time to “stare” (sounds a little creepy) at the disabled subjects through one-way glass for a time.   This second group sat substantially closer and was much more likely to strike up a conversation.

We know from best practice research that having eclectic and diverse teams has a lot to do with increasing the level of innovation within organizations.  It seems logical that we should strive to make our work forces more diverse.   While many companies have made progress in diversifying their ranks based on gender, promoting diversity along other dimensions is not yet a challenge we can say America has solved.

Fighting prejudices and stereotypes is needed.  And how wonderful it is that people like Randy Lewis felt a compelling need to try and make a difference.   It is equally noteworthy that Walgreen’s executives sanctioned it.   Now that this effort seems to have transcended from a bold experiment to simply a powerful idea, it will make it that much easier for other organizations to take their next steps.

Gratefully, Walgreen’s is not alone enabling the disabled.   Companies like Boeing, Verizon, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Glaxo-Smith Kline are also doing innovative things in this area.   Let us know what your company is doing.

Other Resources

Ready & Able: Initiatives for Hiring People With Disabilities, by Sharon Kahn

Workforce Diversity — Walgreens and the Obvious Solution, by Kasia Moreno

Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce, Forbes Insights

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3 Comments

Filed under Innovation, Leading

3 responses to “Enabling the Disabled: Learning to Look for Abilities

  1. brilliantmindbrokenbody

    It’s good to see employers starting to realize that people with disabilities aren’t bad employees, just people whose needs must be met for them to be efficient workers.

    By the way, I’m female. Also, I thought I’d mention…we people with disabilities tend not to like being referred to as ‘the disabled’ – that kind of language signals an amorphous but homogeneous, faceless collective, rather than the diverse group with diverse needs that we really are. But thank you for reading my work, and ‘listening’. One step towards a better world! (Well, more than one step, as you got it and then wrote about the same issue yourself…)

  2. Lin Karwoski

    Great article, Len. If Kevin ever loses his present job, I hope that Walgreen’s in Bristol will open it’s arms to him. It was great to see you and Mary again, too. Thanks for your hospitality.

    Linda

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