Acton Institute Powerblog

How Employing Those with Disabilities Transformed a Business

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Those with disabilities face unique challenges in the workplace and with regards to vocation. As I recently wrote regarding the story of Jamie Bérubé, a young man with Down syndrome, we ought to be more attuned to these challenges and respond accordingly, rejecting limited notions of “value” and instead viewing all human persons as creators and contributors.

I was therefore heartened to read the story of Randy Lewis, a senior vice president at Walgreens, whose son, Austin, faced similar obstacles as someone with autism, but who responded by creating new opportunities for Austin and others like him.

Lewis outlines the full story in his book, No Greatness without Goodness, but offers a good summary in a recent article for Christianity Today, beginning with the change that took place in his own perspective:

As a parent and an employer, I saw the obstacles that people with disabilities face in securing employment. They may not be able to get through the on-line application process, may not interview well, may not be able to learn the way we are used to training, may have inconsistency in their employment history. They face death by a thousand cuts. And the unkindest cut? The belief by 99.999% of us that people with disabilities really cannot do any job as well as a typically-abled person.

Watching my son progress taught me that we underestimate the abilities and contribution of people on the margins. Seeing the way Austin is dismissed or ignored by others gave me the courage to stand up for those who are unjustly overlooked and ignored. Loving my son helped me understand the pain of parents everywhere who lie in bed at night worrying about what will happen to their children after they are gone. A job could change the arc of a life. A job could provide independence. It could mean friends and a social life. A job could be a source of satisfaction and purpose. (emphasis added)

Lewis became so moved by the untapped potential of his son that he decided to take action, pursuing a real, tangible way for those with disabilities to add value in the marketplace.

That opportunity eventually emerged at Walgreens, which was planning to build a new mission critical center. “This was the chance I’d been waiting for,” he writes. “Why couldn’t we build this super center in such a way that people with disabilities would be able to perform as well as anyone in the world?”

And build it they did, with the eventual goal of employing 200 people with disabilities, each of whom would perform “the same jobs, held to the same standards, earning the same pay” as everyone else.

The result is striking:

Employing people with disabilities unleashed a tremendous source of creativity – the kind that can only come from a lifetime of having to learn how to do things differently because you can’t do things like everyone else. Everyone benefited, not just people with disabilities.

We learned a lot about employing people with disabilities effectively. More importantly, we learned a lot as leaders and we learned a lot about ourselves. We found that we were all better people than we thought we were – more resourceful and more compassionate, more willing to work together and more intent on bringing out the best in all of us.

This was a success because it tapped into that deep longing in each of us to become part of something bigger than ourselves and to leave the world a better place. That inborn desire is a great force just waiting to be set free. Not only in private life but in the work world. And as this story shows, business can do good and be profitable too. (emphasis added)

Lewis expanded his economic imagination, and what he found created wealth, opportunity, joy, and service that was up until that point ignored and tossed to the wayside.

I pray that more people, particularly Christians, would follow his example.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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