October is National Disability Employment Awareness month, and it is worth reflecting on the extraordinary untapped human capital represented by men and women with disabilities.
Based in Seattle, Northwest Center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the principle of inclusion for people of all abilities, and to the idea that people with developmental conditions like autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and so on, can make meaningful contributions in the workplace. We have learned that the more we commit to building, nurturing, and leveraging a neurodiverse workforce, the more successful our businesses become.
We are not alone, and we are grateful to Comcast for its support as both a business and nonprofit partner. As a Comcast vendor for more than five years, our employees test all Comcast equipment, including remotes, cords, and batteries, to check what can be salvaged and reused – contributing to a more eco-friendly and sustainable community. Comcast additionally provides us with charitable support, including by providing PSA airtime to help us spread the word about the incredible business value that people of all abilities bring to the workplace. You can view the PSA below.
Our experience suggests there are three key reasons that hiring people with disabilities improves business performance.
Diversity, not disability. First, the word disability itself frames the issue in the wrong way. At Northwest Center, we have learned to see conditions like autism and Down syndrome not as limitations but rather as a rich source of unique qualities to be leveraged. In our business, an employee who is able to concentrate on repetitive work and perfection to the point of obsession is a valuable asset, not in spite of his condition but because of it. For example, Northwest Center employees have sorted through an estimated 30,000 pounds of Comcast cords per month – equaling nearly one million cords per year. The neurodiversity of our workforce has become a significant competitive advantage that enables us to astonish customers like Comcast with a level of quality and innovation they rarely experience.
New perspectives. People who experience the world differently offer unique perspectives not available anywhere else. At Northwest Center, the diversity of our workforce requires us to pay extra attention to processes and workflows, which in turn improves quality and productivity. As Scott Page, an economist at the University of Michigan, points out in his book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, seeing a problem from the right perspective makes it easier to solve.
Inclusion evokes the best in everyone. Employers who hire people with developmental disabilities appreciate the positive effect on the person hired. Everyone needs a job, after all. What frequently comes as a complete surprise, however, is the transformative effect inclusion has on everyone else. Having coworkers who love their job, who can focus intently on production and quality, who love pleasing the customer and being part of a team doing important things, is contagious and makes the whole group better.
Our country has long been a global leader in innovation, a creator of markets and best practice, the envy of the world. How do we keep pace? Harnessing the power of human diversity at scale could take us to a completely new level and help secure our nation’s rightful place in the forefront of the global marketplace.