By Bryan Lindenberger
Why do I want persons with disabilities as associates? It’s not because I have a big, fuzzy, warm heart. I’m rarely accused of emotionalism. I’d hire persons with disabilities because, learning from experience, they can be an organization’s greatest, forward-thinking assets.
I took the job as Project Director and Program Coordinator for students with disabilities with the NSF because I needed a job. That’s it. I had no particular interest in students. Add a disability to the mix – it just sounded like another complication. It may be the job for which I was least qualified to take.
And it was the most life-changing professional experience of my life.
I worked with high school and college students with blindness, Down ’s syndrome, Muscular Dystrophy, and, most commonly, those on some part of the spectrum of Autism. We learned science and engineering. We built robots together that I could not build on my own. I would hire any one of them in a heartbeat and here is why: all the platitudes of advice you find in these types of articles, you will find in persons with exceptional physical and cognitive challenges.
- Step Outside Your Comfort Zone – that’s one you hear a lot. It usually applies to an associate trying something vaguely different in the workplace, hoping for reward but often running into roadblocks of status quo before giving up. But persons with disabilities step outside their comfort zone from the moment the morning alarm goes off. If deaf, that alarm may be vibrating. Either way, they step outside and they stick with it on the bus ride, at work, eating lunch, and throughout the day. They come to work with a bit different perspective than the guy complaining that it’s allergy season.
- Think Outside the Box– now there’s one that’s been beat to death. If you really want someone who thinks outside the box with a unique perspective, ask your employee with Asperger’s what he or she thinks of your approach to a particular project. And be prepared for some honesty and some real outside the box thinking. What some of my students and volunteers had to say … it wasn’t always politically correct. They didn’t always take everyone’s feelings into account - that inability to read social cues and social awkwardness we sometimes hear about. Be ready for that!
- Willingness to Meet New Challenges– everyone wants this in an associate or an employee, right? Well … hopefully. Now meet someone used to real challenges – from feeding themselves to tying their shoes; from enduring taunts for speaking their minds to the brain-injured who could barely speak at all. You think you’re gifted at team-building? At finding individual strengths that complement each other? Then boy … have I got a challenge for you, but the payoff is great!
- EOE– equal opportunity employment isn’t about doing someone a favor, or shouldn’t be. It’s about how equally my teams treated each other and everyone else. Not one of them cared my age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Or each other’s for that matter. I was a “normal” and a guide. They were not “normal” and team members. No one noticed who was black, white, or had a life partner versus a wife or husband. Getting around while blind without tripping down the stairs or stepping in front of a bus tends to put such details such as gender or sexual orientation into perspective. Can you tell I thought these people were total badasses yet? Let’s move on…
- Team Work– what everyone wants is a well-oiled machine of participatory teamwork. Now persons with disabilities are people who have had to learn to depend on others for certain things. But in doing so, they’ve focused on their own individual strengths. We all know the cliché of the blind developing extraordinary perceptions of smell and hearing. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Putting together a team of persons with disabilities truly creates a Gestalt environment, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We designed, programmed and assembled high tech machines in groups of four that – and I guarantee this – four of your “smart friends” would struggle with. Taking longer. And with less dedication and fun. (Did I mention … we all had fun? Talk about a happy work environment!)
If you like to have team members who show up on time, refuse not to work late, and who you can barely keep from working during their lunch, you might consider re-evaluating your prejudices and hiring practices. I’m pretty sure someone bizarre enough to put a stick into a circle and create the first wheel and axle is someone we’d call “autistic” today. Guaranteed Asperger’s. You just might have to accept a few socially unacceptable comments along the way.
The genius is worth it.
Step outside your own comfort zone.
In popular parlance: Think Different.