Learning from one another has its benefits

December 10, 2012
Ask Rex Huppke: I Just Work Here

One of the best experiences of my life was watching Jamie Smith, a young man with autism, leave his routine in Chicago, travel to the Special Olympics World Games in the chaotic Chinese city of Shanghai — and succeed.

Jamie's success -- managing in a foreign country and bringing home a silver medal -- was the result of one thing: hard work. And I've yet to meet a harder worker than him, or a person who more appreciates the opportunities a job presents.

Our workplaces have grown diverse, but jobs remain far too scarce when it comes to people with autism or other intellectual disabilities. Unemployment rates vary depending on the study but hover around 80 percent, and people with disabilities who do get jobs are routinely paid less than other workers. A stigma surrounds people with disabilities, and employers fear that accommodating workers from this demographic might be cost-prohibitive.

Fortunately, some progress is being made.

Walgreen Co., for example, has for years welcomed workers with intellectual disabilities. In 2007, it opened a distribution center in Anderson, S.C., with the goal that people with disabilities would make up 33 percent of the staff and be paid and treated the same as any other employee.

That number now tops 40 percent, and the company opened a similar center in Connecticut in 2009. It also has begun a separate program that recruits people with disabilities to work in Walgreen stores.

The results, according to Deb Russell, a manager in the company's diversity and inclusion department, have been statistically excellent. Turnover among employees with disabilities is 50 percent lower than that among nondisabled employees, and accuracy and productivity measurements are the same.

"People think accommodations will be expensive and daunting," Russell said. "What we found, especially on the accommodations front, is that it's minimal. Over the thousands of people we've had in the distribution centers, we've spent less than $50 per person. A lot of the time, all the accommodation they need is an open mind."

She said that more than 100 Fortune 500 companies have toured the South Carolina facility to learn more about the program.

"We've been so proud to see quite a few companies coming out recently with programs that are similar to ours," Russell said. "They take what we're doing and make it their own."

What's important to realize is that when Walgreen and other companies hire people with intellectual or other disabilities, they aren't doing it as an act of charity. They're doing it because the people they're hiring are good employees who help the company make money.

Scott Standifer, a University of Missouri researcher who studies employment issues affecting adults with autism, said he's encouraged to see large companies such as Walgreen, AMC Theatres and the investment firm TIAA-CREF, to name a few, aggressively employing people with disabilities.

"For decades the employment specialists who work with people with disabilities have been saying things like, 'These people are very dedicated; they will really love the work; they'll be very loyal employees,'" Standifer said. "The business community knows these agencies are trying to sell their clients, they're trying to convince the businesses to hire them, so they're skeptical. And there hasn't been much data to really back up their claims.

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