I´m surprised I haven´t written about this subject: hiring people with disabilities. It´s important though not one I know a whole lot about. Still, I want to bring this to your attention, because, well, it´s the right thing to do. Nancy Henderson, an award-winning writer and member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors (that´s how I discovered her; I´m a member, too) just had a book published which chronicles the success story of Habitat International, a leading indoor-outdoor rug manufacturer where three of four workers have mental or physical disabilities, or both about Habitat International, a Tennessee-based carpet manufacturer. Here´s the scoop on Habitat: Five years after co-founder and CEO David Morris launched the company with his father in 1986 they hosted a group of eight social-services clients with mental retardation. In her book, Able! How one company´s disabled workforce became the key to extraordinary success, Nancy writes in the preface, "Today, most of the workers at Habitat-more than 70 during peak production-have either a physical or mental disability, or both. People with autism, Down syndrome, and hearing impairments cut carpet next to those with cerebral palsy, mental illnesses, and brain trauma from car accidents and strokes. All earn real wages, not the usual $1 to $2 an hour state programs generally pay, and many make far more than the industry standard."
Clearly, not every company can hire disabled workers, but I suspect that a lot of companies that could simply don´t, not because they intend to be exclusive but out of ignorance, which why a book like Nancy´s is so important. Since October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, first mandated by President Harry Truman 61 years ago (I´ll bet most of you didn´t know, right? Another reason to read allbusiness.com blogs!) I thought it would be a good time to raise the issue. Remember, too, that hiring disabled workers isn´t just about doing good. Obviously, companies need to make money; that´s why their in business. But don´t think for a second that having disabled people in your workforce doesn´t affect everyone and therefore have an impact on developing your employees. Part of growing as a company is learning to be more inclusive and figuring out how to diversify the workforce so that more and more people have an opportunity to contribute to society. So here´s part of a Q&A with author Nancy Henderson:
LGL: Why is a book like Able! needed right now?
NH: I believe that employment of people with disabilities is the next great hiring frontier. We´ve come a long way when it comes to championing the rights of other minorities, but I sense a growing frustration among people with disabilities who believe it´s their time to land the jobs they deserve and dispel certain myths about what they can and can´t do in the workplace. This issue affects more people than you might think. According to the National Organization on Disability, 54 million Americans — a full 20 percent of the population — are disabled. Two-thirds of working-age people with disabilities are unemployed; studies show that most would rather be working.
LGL: What drew you to this particular topic?
NH: I love underdog stories. But to be honest, I think the chief driving force is the fact that my dad, who has bipolar disorder and a genius-level IQ, was never given a chance to succeed. This is a man with a photographic memory, who graduated second in his high school class, who made straight A´s in college until his first "nervous breakdown," as they called it back then, but who also happens to have a mental illness. When I was growing up in the "60s and "70s, it was still legal to ask a job applicant if he or she had ever been treated for a mental illness. My dad, whose motto is "To thine own self be true," always answered with honesty. And it almost always cost him the job.
Next time: more with Nancy Henderson