Inclusion, not Same-ness: Walgreens and the Disability Cliff

Over the last few months, I have been focusing more on “the cliff,” which is a way some disability advocates refer to turning 22 in our system. Until then, special education provides support for school, training, and even certain kinds of therapies and other activities throughout a child’s life. At 22, nothing. Work is hard to find. Programs are rare and expensive. Many kids just go home to their parents house or, if not possible, into a home, and that’s that. They’ve fallen off the cliff.

But lots of people are working to change those realities, in all sorts of ways, and I am writing about some of them (including a piece on college to be published in August or September for the Chronicle).

Various people in the business world are trying to help. Here’s a really great story, but not in the casual rah-rah inspiration way, about the former head of operations at Walgreens and his attempts to hire more people with disabilities at the stores and their distribution centers (the goal was 1 in 10 with disability). Randy Lewis is the father of a son with autism and his goal was not just to do what many retail stores do – hire people with disabilities to clean and move shopping carts and the like (which is fine, but not all that’s possible), but rather:

Walgreens had previously employed disabled people to do “ancillary rather than mission-critical work”, cleaning for example, but Lewis wanted to do something more. “We wanted an opportunity to bring people in as our own employees,” he recalls. That opportunity came with the building of a new distribution centre; larger and more automated than any the company had owned before. Lewis’s mission was to use that centre to allow the company to hire greater numbers of people with disabilities. It is now Walgreens’ most efficient site, and 40% of its workforce is disabled.

Similar buildings have opened around the US, but Lewis says although automation has helped, it isn’t the true reason why hiring people with disabilities has spread throughout the company. “The automation is what gave us the courage to do something different,” he explains. “It didn’t make it happen, it made us believe it could happen. We could do this anywhere.” 

 Lewis had a vision. I am so skeptical of corporate mentalities, the kind of breathless lauding of business “visionaries,” and other aspects of the way media talk about folks in the corporate world. And yet:

We never lost sight of the fact we are a business, not a charity: this had to make business sense,” stresses Lewis. “We had to hold everyone to the same standards and have a completely inclusive environment. When I presented it to the board, I said this was going to be the most expensive building we had ever built, which they didn’t like, but I said it was also going to have the best ROI, be the most efficient and be built in such a way that one-third of the workforce would be disabled.” The board had one question: ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ Lewis’s response? “If it doesn’t work, we’ll readjust. That’s what we do in business all the time: make mistakes, learn from them and move on. We didn’t say: ‘We’re going to have great performance or hire people with disabilities’; We said: ‘We’re going to have great performance, we’re going to have a positive impact on the community and change the workplace for everybody.’”

The piece continues like this and is worth reading, just to get a sense of the possible and how to talk to folks in business about employment.

One of the things I really like about the piece is that a number of Lewis’ statements embody the concept that I call “inclusion, not same-ness.” Inclusion requires creative thinking, it requires seeing possibilities that emerge from changing what we consider “normal,” it involves letting people do things that you might not let another do. Often, unexpected benefits follow.

For example:

“We haven’t found a disability we can’t employ, because everything is on a spectrum,” says Lewis. “We have one person with epilepsy who has 17 seizures a day. He wears a helmet and people know to make sure he’s in a safe place when he has an episode. He couldn’t find a job until he came to us.”

This inclusivity has had a positive impact on engagement. Whenever a new piece of technology is implemented in a distribution centre, Walgreens expects some disruption, so with this high level of automation, it was expected things would go wrong. They did, and from July to November everyone in the centre was working overtime and Saturdays. “The preconception we had about people with disabilities is that they wouldn’t be able to be very flexible or work overtime,” says Lewis. “But when I went to talk to the team members, they only had two questions: ‘how are we doing?’ and ‘what can we do to help?’ That’s when I knew we had a special building.” 

 A helmet. A community. And a man has a job. Here’s another piece.

Safety costs were also lower for people with disabilities. “Fears about more accidents had come up, but we found deaf forklift drivers – who many companies won’t hire – are twice as safe as someone who can hear,” says Lewis. “If I could give everyone a piece of advice, it would be to put plugs in the ears of their forklift truck drivers.”

Deaf-ness as advantage. And what I like is that these advantages are not predicated on disability as a superpower (the Rain Man phenomenon), but just be opening one’s mind to the possibilities of inclusion.

So cheers to Walgreens (for all it’s fleeing America to avoid paying taxes, 2 years after begging tax breaks from Illinois).  May other companies follow in its wake.

2 Replies to “Inclusion, not Same-ness: Walgreens and the Disability Cliff”

  1. BLOOM - Parenting Kids With Disabilities says:

    Hi David: What Randy Lewis has done is radical and, as you say, has proven so many stereotypes about people with disabilities wrong. We did an interview in BLOOM with him, and I loved how they changed their hiring process when they realized they were excluding a whole group of people who couldn't get through the internet application or "interview" in the conventional way.

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