For 16 years, I led the Logistics Division of Walgreens that included more than 10,000 employees and 17 distribution centers across the country. I am also the father of two daughters and a 28-year-old son with autism. As might be expected, I am more proud of the latter than any business success I’ve enjoyed during my career.
Living with Austin gave me an uncensored, unadulterated view of some of the difficulties people with disabilities (PWDs) face every day. I know from experience that people with disabilities often frighten us because they are different in how they look, act, or speak. Tom Shakespeare, a BBC News magazine writer, born with limited growth, says many people believe that they “had rather be dead than disabled.”
Our sympathy too often turns to pity – the feeling of discomfort at the distress of another, often with a sense of superiority or condescension. There is a tendency to see a person as a victim, a person less than those without a disability. As a consequence, typically-abled – “so-called normal” – people frequently associate disability with failure, dependency, and an inability to do things.
One of the greatest obstacles individuals with a disability face is the belief that they are less than those without a disability. Jourdan Sabah El Khouly, a 29-year-old woman blind since birth, rejects this prejudice: “The attitude of pity causes the bar to be lowered for performance and this cannot and will never be helpful. This bar is unfortunately lowered for people with disabilities throughout their lives; this must stop.”
I also knew better. While a person with a disability may not be able to perform every job in every industry – just like people without a disability – there is a huge population of PWDs with abilities, advanced education, and specialized training who are actively seeking work. According to the American Community Survey, there are over a million people with a disability of some kind seeking work today: 187,500 with visual impairment; 180,330 with a hearing difficulty; 398,900 with an ambulatory restriction; and 538,700 with a cognitive disability.
On average, about one-third have some college, an associate degree, or a college degree. Unfortunately, “only half of college graduates with disabilities secure employment, and they are often underemployed – working at jobs for which they are overqualified, unrelated to their degrees, or in temporary or part-time jobs,” according to Edmund Cortez, President of Just One Break.
Despite their ability to meet most job requirements, PWDs face significant obstacles in attracting an employer’s interest. The case of Angie Campbell is typical. Angie, who has cerebral palsy, was president of her senior high school class and graduated from Clemson with an MBA, earning all A’s throughout her college years. After sending out 250 resumes, 65 companies invited her to personal interviews. She did not receive a single job offer. “All people see is my disability. They see what I can’t do, not what I can do.”
When Hope and History Rhyme
As a senior officer in a major company in charge of a division hiring hundreds of employees each year and the father of a son with a disability, I realized that I had a unique opportunity to affect the world around me positively. People with disabilities needed jobs; Walgreens had jobs. By looking at PWDs as resources, rather than charity cases, we could serve their needs and ours. It was a win-win situation.
I remembered the words of a favorite poet, Seamus Heaney:
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change…
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles.
And cures and healing wells.
The tidal wave was coming, reinforced by technological advances and a new emphasis on the social responsibilities of organizations and individuals. Walgreens had been founded with a commitment to fairness and equality, often expressed as “equal pay for equal work.” Its founder, Charles R. Walgreen, insisted that black and white pharmacists be paid the same even though lower wages from non-white workers were common throughout the country. When I considered how my proposal to hire PWDs might be received by the President and Board, I took comfort that the company had a history of doing the right thing and making money at the same time.
If We Can’t, Who Can?
The work in a distribution center is fast: everything is focused on getting the work done well, on schedule, and at the lowest possible cost. Thousands of products come into a Walgreens distribution center every day – truckload after truckload 24/7 – in containers, packed in boxes, and wrapped as individual pieces. Each has to be unpacked and the products within sorted, checked for accuracy, and placed into inventory before being “picked” to fulfill a specific order, repacked, and delivered to one of its 8,000+ stores.
The work is physical and potentially dangerous, as employees lift, bend, and stretch while wielding sharp-bladed box cutters in a forest of rapidly moving conveyor lines and forklift trucks. Minutes and pennies count, so speed, efficiency, and safety are critical. Its DC employees are the ones on the front line, the link between a far-away manufacturer and the young father who needs medicine for a sick child, the school boy seeking poster board for a school project, or a young secretary searching for her unique shade of lipstick.
Could a person with a disability meet the demanding production schedules of a modern distribution center? Would they be able to work without harming themselves or others? How would other employees accept them? We didn’t know the answers to these or a hundred other questions when we started, but we were determined to proceed with the vision that people with and without a disability could work side-by-side and meet the same production goals for the same income.
Problems did arise as we put plans into actions. Whenever a particularly troubling issue would surface that seems to have no resolution, I remembered an experience at my first employer after college, the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen.
Robert Bond was an MBA graduate whose enthusiasm and determination to join Andersen led to his employment. Several months after starting, he dove off a pier during a Florida vacation into seventeen inches of water, breaking his neck and leaving him paralyzed except for his head and one arm.
Since most of the firm’s work occurred in client offices and personal computers were just appearing, it was impossible for Robert to do the work as it existed. Having been employed for less than a year, Andersen could have easily terminated him. Instead, the firm altered his workstation and adapted his schedule so he could continue his job. When I asked the partner-in-charge why they had gone to so much trouble for a newly-hired employee, he responded, “If we can’t, who can?” If Walgreens couldn’t integrate people with disabilities into their operations, who could?
The story of our experience has appeared on each of the national news channels and across the globe. Business schools and consulting firms have performed independent studies to validate our success integrating people with disabilities into the Walgreens workforce in its distribution centers initially, and currently into its retail stores. More than 10% of the Distribution Division employees have a physical, intellectual, or development disability today.
Our results, some of which were unexpected, included:
Over a hundred other companies like Lowe’s, UPS, Procter & Gamble, and Apple have visited one of our distribution centers to learn about the initiatives and the practices that have made it successful. Many companies, large and small, are exploring ways to recruit and utilize people with disabilities in their operation. The tidal wave is here, and miracles do happen.
How long will it take to have a positive impact on the lives of people like my son, those men and women who are left on the sidelines? In the end, it is not about them, but us. They wait for us to recognize their gifts, harness their abilities, to value their contributions. How long will it take?
For me and most of the others who were part of it, the Walgreens disability initiative has been the most satisfying and proudest work of our lives. As exhilarating as one’s success might be, it doesn’t compare to the joy of helping others. Everybody wins.