Not too long ago I gave an interview to a reporter at Fast Company. She was writing an article about efforts to employ workers with disabilities and was featuring Walgreens as an innovative employer. Walgreens invited the reporter up to its Windsor, Conn., distribution center to meet with executives and tour the facility, which has become somewhat of a well-worn path for media looking for examples of how companies can employ people with disabilities and turn a profit, too.
Walgreens' hiring initiatives targeting people with disabilities are valiant in the eyes of the media, but also in the eyes of many employers and disability advocates. More than a dozen major U.S. companies such as Lowe's, Procter & Gamble and Best Buy are following the Walgreens model, where 50 percent of the company's distribution center workforce has a disability but all employees work as equals with the same responsibilities and performance standards.
While any news about hiring people (regardless of ability) is good news these days, I do wonder why the media and the public are so enamored with an employment model that is focused on low-status jobs on an assembly line. While I value the investment Walgreens and these other retailers are making, I hope they are also exploring employment opportunities for people with disabilities beyond distribution centers. Packaging goods on an assembly line might be good for someone with a significant intellectual condition, but isn't the answer for everyone with a disability.
Today's generation of people with disabilities are primed to enter the workforce and secure meaningful and well-paying jobs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has ensured a good public education for all kids with disabilities and has led to thousands of college-bound students with disabilities graduating -- and expecting to work -- along with their non-disabled peers.
Technological innovations ranging from enterprise networks and video conferencing that let physically disabled people work from home, to assistive software, devices and apps that let workers be more productive, have paved the way for integrating more people with disabilities into middle- and high-wage jobs.
The biggest change is how today's generation of people with disabilities looks for work. Consider a college senior today who has learning difficulties. He might classify himself as having as a disability, but he would never think to use the public system to find his first job. People with disabilities now search for jobs like anyone else: online, through word of mouth, or on professional networking sites. With college degrees and job experience, even if it's just through internships and volunteerism, they expect to find meaningful, skilled work.
Companies looking to hire people with disabilities, whether to diversify their workplace or meet compliance goals, must go where the job seekers are. On jobs boards built around the disability community. At career fairs, such as the upcoming Think Beyond the Label Online Career Fair, designed to attract them, employers who are looking for cost-effective and easy ways to find and recruit candidates with disabilities can get their needs met -- without having to go through the public system as in days past.
The icing on the cake is that the majority of job seekers with disabilities are technologically savvy, educated, proactive, and prepared to take on challenging roles. These candidates are looking to connect to diversity-minded employers and stay on the job for a long time (people with disabilities are proven to have lower turnover rates).
Government efforts may help grease the job-placement wheel. The Department of Labor wants to require federal contractors to fill at least 7 percent of their jobs with people with disabilities. That's a great start. Companies should also beef up their disability recruiting efforts and support public-private partnerships that can connect them to qualified job seekers.
The Walgreens model, as successful as it is, is not the answer for everyone. As our country begins to face worker shortages in areas like nursing and computer technology, figuring out how to employ people with disabilities -- a largely untapped talent pool -- in middle- and high-skilled jobs would lower this group's unemployment rate, improve their economic outlook and give American competitiveness more bang for the buck than an assembly line job ever could.
Barbara Otto is the principal of Think Beyond the Label, a private-public collaborative based in the U.S. that's working to build the pipeline of qualified job candidates with disabilities. Think Beyond the Label is powered by Health & Disability Advocates, a national health, education and employment nonprofit based in Chicago.