On a recent project my company was working with a frozen seafood manufacturer to help them bring a specialty frozen seafood product to market.
A huge component of getting this project done was the packaging; it had to be eye-popping and appealing while protecting the frozen seafood pieces inside. After a number of design sessions with the packaging manufacturer, we received the finished packaging. What was initially exuberance during the design session turned into disappointment when we saw the finished product. Some of the graphics were a bit blurry, a re-sealable zipper wasn't included, and a clear window to view the contents inside was missing. Our emotions went from disappointment to anger as the manufacturer told us it would be a number of weeks before a new delivery of the packaging could be done. If we took this route, a key delivery to a very important customer of ours wouldn't be met. What a pickle.
It’s Monday morning and Joe gets up at 6:00. He showers, eats breakfast and
makes his way to the train station to catch the 7:20 into Chicago. During the 40-minute train ride, Joe takes out his planner and lists out all of the things that he wants to get done for the week. He writes down all of the people that he needs to call, meetings that he needs to schedule, and reports that he needs to write. By the time the train pulls into Union Station, he has his entire week planned out and is feeling very good about his plan. His 20-minute walk from the train station to his office is pleasant and energizing, and Joe arrives at his office ready to get going on his plan.
My fiction book, The Lawless One and the End of Time, has four main characters who meet at age 14 in Naples, Italy and all grow into globally-recognized figures. One of the characters, Bert Winn, was fascinated with history. He loved the concreteness of historical facts; they either happened or they didn’t. He met and fell in love with Laura, a math major he met in college. He graduated college with a Ph.D. in history and became an acclaimed professor. Bert and Laura married and had a son they named JT. The Winn family became internet celebrities and millions of people subscribed to their online video blog. Subscribers loved to hear their messages of fact, inspiration, and challenge. Their message? An unvarnished, inspirational view of life with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Bert started showing signs of autism at eighteen months with speech delay, difficulty maintaining eye contact, and a dislike for being cuddled. As Bert grew, he and his mother developed strategies for how to accommodate some of Bert’s sensitivities, such as a “beach ball kiss,” in which an imaginary beach ball filled space between them when they kissed hello and goodbye. Laura too had sensory issues, particularly with clothing fabrics. The two of them learned to cope with their sensitivities through the years, so they became normal for them. It also felt normal for their son, JT, to be on the autism spectrum. They didn’t view themselves as people to be pitied, but used the opportunity to help others understand the world of autism and how people on the spectrum could thrive just like anyone. Their story educated and inspired millions and gave those affected by autism hope.
The story of Bert, Laura, and JT were heavily influenced by my wife Patty’s and my experience raising our son Trevor. He was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age five (the clinical diagnosis was Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified or PDD-NOS) back in 1998. At the time, autism wasn’t well known and our only exposure to it was Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman. We had no idea what the future had in store for us as a family. Would he ever graduate high school? Would he drive? Would he have relationships? Through the years Trevor amazed us with what he was able to do and how he learned to cope with his autism. Today he is a college graduate who lives on his own, drives, works, and has an active social life. Yes, he has challenges that will be with him for the rest of his life. But we learned an important lesson with Trevor; the moment we underestimated him he proved us wrong.
You may have your own perceptions of people with disabilities, whether it be physical (paralysis), cognitive (autism), present at birth (Down Syndrome) or related to an injury (amputation due to an accident). Your perceptions may be due to personal experience, observing a friend or loved one, or what you see in the media. Your perceptions may be inclusive or biased. Only you can decide.
So, what’s your action? Educate yourself. Disability:IN, American Association of People with Disabilities, Special Books by Special Kids, Autism Speaks, Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Disability and Health Overview, and Northwest Center are some great resources to help you better understand people with disabilities. Do your own web searches, just make sure the information you’re taking in is from credible sources.
Take the time to learn more about disabilities and focus less on the “dis” and more on “abilities.” Oh, and if you want to learn more about Bert, Laura and JT’s story, check out The Lawless One and the End of Time.
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Special intelligence Unit 9900 is dedicated to everything related to geography, including mapping, interpretation of aerial and satellite photographs, and space research. Within this unit there is another, smaller unit of highly qualified soldiers who can detect even the smallest details—the ones usually undetectable to most people.
These soldiers all have one thing in common; they are on the autism spectrum. Their job is to take visual materials from satellite images and sensors in the air. With the help of officers and decoding tools, they analyze the images and find specific objects within the images that are necessary to provide the best data to those planning missions. The IDF has also found that soldiers with autism can focus for longer periods of time than their neurotypical counterparts.
This story speaks to me personally. My son Trevor was diagnosed with autism at age five. The only thing I knew about autism at the time was Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman character. Raising a son on the spectrum drastically changed my point of view on disability inclusion, seeing strengths through the challenges, and cultivating those strengths while accommodating the challenges. He’s a grown man today, living on his own, working, paying his bills, saving money, and building relationships. His strengths outweigh his challenges.
The same reckoning with his strengths and challenges can lead to success with overseeing how an organization thrives, but how do you begin to ensure inclusion of disabled people’s strength in the workplace at scale with at an organization level? It has to start at the board and C-suite level.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines a disability as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).” A disability can:
In 2018 Accenture published an outstanding research report entitled Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage. Some of the statistics in the report are eye-opening:
The Disability Equality Index (DEI) is a joint project between the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN (formerly known as the US Business Leadership Network). DEI’s primary goal is to provide a benchmarking tool to help companies assess disability inclusion policies and practices in six key areas:
Organizations complete a survey (DEI estimates between 30-40 hours to complete), send it into DEI, and receive an objective score on their disability inclusion practices and opportunities for improvement. DEI puts respondents achieving 80 percent or better on their website, with companies like Accenture, Microsoft Corp., AT&T, The Walt Disney Co., Capital One Financial Corp., and Boeing Co. achieving a score of 100 percent. DEI has an advisory committee comprised of corporate and nonprofit executives and advocates who advise on benchmarking topics and questions.
While it’s a commitment to complete the survey, it gives an organization an honest and introspective lens into their culture, policies, and practices on disability inclusion and is valuable to help identify areas where an organization needs to improve.
This isn’t fluff stuff. The Accenture report notes several tangible results of those organizations that embraced a disability inclusion culture.
As a board, make it a priority to work with the senior leadership team to understand your company’s disability inclusion position and ensure disability inclusion is baked into the culture, not just an add-on project. Here are three things you can do to get started:
Disability inclusion is not just a social responsibility buzzword meant to enhance reputation. There’s tangible business value to be had. As a board, your accountability is to ensure your organization is promoting a culture where the business benefits can be realized.
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