If you read my most recent post, then you know that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, first mandated by President Harry Truman 61 years ago. Thanks to Harry we´ve come a long way though I suspect there´s a lot more to be done. Books like Able! How one company´s disabled workforce became the key to extraordinary success and companies like Habitat, which is the focus of this important book, help bring disabilities into our consciousness so that we can be a more inclusive society that values all sorts of people with a variety of limitations. In Able! by Nancy Henderson Wurst, she reveals in her preface that David Morris, the co-founder and CEO of Habititat International, Inc., an international supplier of golf putting greens, accents rugs, and indoor-outdoor mats for Lowe´s, the Home Depot, and other major retailers, "is convinced his company has flourished not in spite of, but because of, his employees with disabilities. There is practically no absenteeism, very little turnover, and seldom an attitude problem. Each worker is cross-trained on every task in the plant, from running the press to loading trucks to gluing foam pads to the backs of golf driving mats, so there is rarely a need to bring in extra help to cover for someone who´s out." Pretty inspiring, wouldn´t you say? Here´s part two of my conversation with Nancy. As you read, think about how your company might benefit by employing a more diverse workforce and how that diversity can propel employee development, which of course has a whole lot to do with higher revenues.
LGL: How many other companies like Habitat are there, that actually give priority to hiring people with disabilities?
NHW: Not many. I interviewed a lot of business people for this book, from all over the country. A few had set up programs to contract out work to people with developmental disabilities, and a few had tried to bring the workers in-house. Even one of Habitat´s former competitors, a giant of a rug manufacturer with more than 7,000 employees, tried to set up a disability hiring program but ultimately decided it wasn´t worth the effort. What I´ve found are social service agencies that "employ" people with disabilities to perform certain tasks, or for-profit companies that hire a few people with disabilities as store greeters and such. There are larger corporations out there that are starting to implement real disability hiring programs, but I think the list is still pretty short. The fascinating thing about Habitat International, the company profiled in Able!, is that they hire people with a wide range of disabilities — developmental challenges like Down syndrome and mental retardation, conditions like cerebral palsy and hearing impairments, mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and sudden-onset disabilities like those caused by car accidents and strokes.
LGL: There are already plenty of social-service agencies that hire people with disabilities. Why not just leave this up to them instead of shifting responsibility to the private sector?
NHW: It´s time for American companies to step up to the plate and do the right thing, and not just for humanitarian reasons. The Javits-Wagner-O´Day (JWOD) program encourages non-profit agencies to hire people with disabilities, and there are state programs that do the same thing. That´s fine — it´s very commendable, in fact – but people with disabilities deserve to make real, standard-wage jobs, just like everyone else. Your groceries don´t cost less than mine. Your electric bill isn´t cheaper than mine just because you have a disability. Able-bodied taxpayers should be concerned about the lack of jobs for people with disabilities because they are subsidizing SSI and other government benefits when, in many cases, that responsibility could be shifted to private companies. People with disabilities who hold down real jobs become fully participating members of society who pay taxes and no longer depend on government aid.