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Originally published September 29, 2014 at 2:28 PM | Page modified September 29, 2014 at 6:49 PM

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Guest: The return on investment for hiring people with disabilities

Walgreens launched a disability-hiring initiative seven years ago and found it improved the company’s work culture, writes guest columnist Randy Lewis.


Special to The Times

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TWENTY-three years ago, my wife and I involuntarily joined a club along with 350,000 other parents each year who receive a diagnosis that their child will likely require special education and services over his or her lifetime.

Like most parents with a child with a disability, we share the same wish: to live just one day longer than our child.

What happens after we are gone? Can we ever earn and save enough to provide our child a fulfilling life of health and safety?

Our son, Austin, now 26, has autism. He began speaking at age 10 and has continued to surprise me in revealing his gifts. Early on when we were dreaming of lifetime goals for Austin, a driver’s license would have been the equivalent of a Ph.D. from MIT. A job that paid a living wage would have been a Nobel Prize.

Why? For most businesses, the ideal candidate is a combination of someone who can do the job and a cross between Albert Einstein and Will Rogers.

After all, all companies want the best candidates. As a result, they inadvertently screen out many who can perform the job as well as anyone or better — but never even get the chance. It’s inadvertent, but unfair just the same.

When it comes to employment, people with disabilities die a death of a thousand cuts. They may have difficulty through Internet applications. They may not interview well. They may have gaps in their employment history. They may not learn the way companies train. They may look or talk differently.

The unkindest cut? The widely held belief that they cannot do the job. That hiring people with a disability is a good thing to do if you can afford it.

However, based on the principle of “not lowering the bar but opening the door wider,” the drugstore chain Walgreens launched a disability-hiring initiative seven years ago. As a result, 10 percent of the distribution centers’ workforce are now people with disabilities who are held to the same performance standards as everyone. The centers employ more than 1,200 people with disabilities who earn the same pay, perform the same jobs and work side-by-side with typically able team members in a completely inclusive environment.

Walgreens found that people with disabilities perform as well or better than the typically able. Plus, they have fewer accidents and reduced workers-compensation costs. They have better employee retention and less absenteeism. The company did not have to sacrifice any business.

We at the company learned something simple yet profound: Whatever the differences, we are more alike than we are different. That is, there is no “them,” just “us.”

Conversely, there is a saying in the autism community that once you have seen one person with autism, you have seen one person with autism.

Walgreens found the same holds true for all people with or without disabilities. This taught our workers to deal with each person as an individual and not to make assumptions about what someone can or cannot do, what they understand or how they approach the work.

Most important, Walgreens managers learned the satisfaction of their own success does not compare to the joy of making another person successful. It’s no surprise that most managers now say their No. 1 job is to make every employee, with or without disability, successful.

The program has been embraced by team members and supervisors who say this has led to a better work culture of teamwork and purpose. These lessons have extended beyond the workplace back to our everyday lives. Simply put, it has made the whole workforce better — better co-workers, better managers, better spouses, better parents, better people.

The disability-hiring initiative is being adopted in Walgreens stores across the country. Companies like Lowe’s, OfficeMax, P&G and UPS have visited and are deploying a similar model in their own businesses. They are finding the same things we did: same performance, better culture. Businesses large and small are starting to change long-held attitudes and are opening their thinking — to consider people with disabilities as valuable sources of talent.

This is an idea whose time has come. But it requires leaders who step forward to show the way for others. For instance, SAP has announced a special initiative to hire people with autism to improve its software-testing processes. Starbucks will announce a nationwide disability-hiring initiative in the coming weeks that can impact communities across America.

Businesses can and must make a difference. Given the wheels that have been set in motion, employment opportunities for people with disabilities will improve, although not as fast as we might like.

However, I have never been more optimistic that change will come. The most important contributor to this is living and acting on the expectation that children with disabilities will be part of working society. To settle for anything less would condemn too many to a life of poverty and dependence on the charity of others.

We as parents, educators, businesses and the public sector need to be aligned with this expectation of employment as the norm for people with disabilities. There are many areas where we are not addressing that need.

For instance, many high schools have specialized resources devoted to students getting into the right college. But when it comes to those with disabilities, there are too few resources focused on job skills, job placement, business partnerships, work study and internships. These are a huge opportunity for schools and colleges, especially community colleges, to bring about positive change.

Increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities makes sense for society from a fiscal viewpoint; Walgreens found it makes good business sense. And it is the right thing to do.

Randy Lewis of Deer Park, Ill., is a former senior vice president of Walgreens and author of “No Greatness Without Goodness.” He will be keynote speaker at Northwest Center’s annual Golden Hearts Luncheon on Oct. 7.



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