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Lead Your Team Managing

Employees With Disabilities Can Boost Business Success

Employees With Disabilities Can Boost Business Success
Credit: Goodluz/Shutterstock

Randy Lewis was leading a division of about 10,000 Walgreens employees in 1988 when his son, who has autism, was born.

"I got to see him grow up and continuously surprise me," said Lewis, who retired two years ago as senior vice president at the company. "But I also thought of the stark reality that there was a chance he'd never have a job."

As his son went through school, Lewis realized he wasn't the only parent with that concern. He also realized he was in a position to do something about it. Lewis launched a program at Walgreens' distribution centers to more aggressively hire people with disabilities. The program grew to the point where 30 percent of the staff in some distribution centers had disabilities and then 50 percent, he said.

Some companies — large and small — consider hiring people with disabilities a good deed or charity work. Lewis, however, has a different perspective: He says it's a smart business and financial decision.

"We studied all the data; we published it," said Lewis, who later wrote a book on his experience, "No Greatness Without Goodness" (Tyndale House Publishers, 2014). "The performance was the same. The safety was better. [The distribution centers] had better retention; they had less turnover. We also found better culture across the company."

Leo Vercollone, president of VERC Enterprises Inc., owns 26 gas stations, convenience stores and car washes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He had never thought about hiring employees with disabilities, he said, until his brother and business partner was approached by a friend who served as a board member for a local nonprofit that assists people with developmental disabilities. The organization was looking to find employment for one of its clients.

Vercollone gave the man a job, and it worked out. So the company began building relationships with other nonprofits, such as Best Buddies, to hire employees with disabilities to stock shelves, clean, assist cashiers and do landscaping work. Now, the company strives to have a staff made up of 20 percent people with disabilities. Some of the employees have developmental disabilities, and others have physical disabilities.

"They are committed and passionate workers," Vercollone said. "They go to work every day with a smile on their face. They love it. This is their life. And that attitude is contagious. We have 270 employees, and probably 75 percent live paycheck to paycheck. These people have some challenges of their own. But working with [people with disabilities] helps put their own challenges into perspective."

There are countless nonprofits across the country that help people with disabilities find employment. Some provide on-site job coaches who can help teach the employee the job and guide them through it. Sometimes, the job coach is temporary; other times, it is permanent. Some focus on developmental disabilities, and others on physical disabilities. Despite these organizations' work, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 13.2 percent in 2013, compared with 7.1 percent for people without disabilities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Manhattan-based Visionary Media is a nonprofit that helps people with vision impairment find work in music, advertising and media. The organization was founded in 2006 by Doug Maxwell, a legally blind musician and music producer, said the organization's CEO, Brooke Fox.

Visionary Media offers musicians discounted recording time and professional opportunities, said Fox, who has albinism and is legally blind. The organization offers training for audio engineers and, perhaps most important, helps musicians make the right connections, she said.

"With blindness or limited vision, where it's really a challenge is networking," said Fox, whose organization had a contestant on NBC's "The Voice" last year. "Imagine walking into a room and not being able to see who's in the room. You don't know who to talk with to advance your career."

There are also some for-profit businesses with the goal of matching companies to people with disabilities, and vice versa. Steve McEvoy, an out-of-work New York City teacher with cerebral palsy and a learning disability, recently started a consulting firm, McEvoy Access Consulting, to do just that.

"Employers have shut a lot of doors [on me], and I finally said, 'If you don't want to give me a job, I'll make my own,'" said McEvoy, who holds a master's degree from Columbia University.

Although companies like Walgreens have had success in hiring people with disabilities, McEvoy said, many more are afraid to do so. They think performance will suffer, or that they won't be able to fire a person without it resulting in a lawsuit, he said.

Like Lewis, McEvoy doesn't believe companies should hire people with disabilities out of pity or as charity. There are measurable economic benefits, and companies should focus on those, he said.

"The data is there; it's just about going in and telling a company it's there," he said. "Ninety percent of people with disabilities meet or exceed productivity requirements. It's really just about changing how people view people with disabilities."

Davina Douthard, CEO of Los Angeles-based Polishing the Professional, an image consulting and brand management firm, has contracts with several nonprofits to help place people with developmental and physical disabilities in jobs. She was interested in the work because of her experience helping her brother, who is mentally disabled, find a job.

"I was frustrated," said Douthard, who has placed many hundreds of people with disabilities in jobs since 1998. "I thought, 'There's got to be somebody to help him. There's got to be some resource to help him.'"

Like Lewis and McEvoy, Douthard said companies shouldn't have the mind-set that hiring people with disabilities is charity work, or that they should meet some sort of quota for hiring people with disabilities and stop there.

"At the end of the day, a business is a business. It has to make money," Douthard said. "I place people in jobs they can do. They have all the same rights and responsibilities as people who are not disabled."

"A person with a disability can be the right person for the job," she said. "Many people don't think that. It's just a lack of awareness."