The “Big Questions”

I am often struck by the juxtaposition of the daunting challenges faced by the families we serve here at Northwest Center, on the one hand, and the deep human value that so often emerges from those challenges. This might be the central paradox of our work – that the challenges of developmental disability however unwelcome they may be often take people (sometimes kicking and screaming) to a deeper place in their lives, a place of rich meaning and beauty.  And it is through diversity and inclusion in our schools, businesses, and communities that the rest of us can access this gift, this rich human experience that evokes qualities so desperately needed in this complex world of ours.

Joubert syndrome

Photo credit: The New York Times/Zack Conkle

Did you see the article in the paper recently about the high school physics teacher in Louisville who devotes one class session each semester to exploring the “big questions” about life with his students?  He tells them about his 12 year old son Adam who has Joubert syndrome, a developmental condition that affects balance and motor control and makes it impossible for him to speak.  He tells the students about the day Adam was born, and how “all those dreams about ever watching my son knock a home run over the fence went away.”  But one day he noticed Adam watching his older sister Abbie playing with dolls nearby and realized that Adam in fact has an inner life, an intelligence waiting to be expressed.  They taught Adam sign language.  Then one day Adam signed, “Daddy, I love you.”

The lesson to the class is unmistakable and trumps everything else the students have learned all semester about physics.  “There is nothing more incredible than the day you see this,” he tells his students.  “There is something a lot greater than energy.  There’s something a lot greater than entropy,” he continues.  “Somebody cares about you a lot.  As long as we care about each other, that’s where we go from here.”  Adam will never clear the bases in Little League or drive the lane for an easy hoop or graduate from Dartmouth.  Yet somehow despite his challenges or perhaps because of them, this 12 year old boy has taken his father to a place of great meaning, love, and beauty.

We see this phenomenon repeated daily here at Northwest Center in our schools and businesses.  Yet the dominant paradigm in our society treats developmental disabilities as problems to be solved, deficits to be overcome, or pathologies to be cured.  This is what makes Northwest Center so unique, that we focus on ability and inherent value and the power of diversity to evoke the best qualities in everyone.

Advice-to-graduatesBut there is so much work to be done; we are only scratching the surface of what is possible.  I met a mother recently whose highly talented son with autism recently graduated from high school.  Despite his participation in a traditional School to Work job placement program, he did not have a job when he graduated.  Under the brutal calculus of public funding mechanisms, this made him ineligible for job training, coaching, and placement services.  That’s right, not having a job at graduation makes him ineligible for services that would help him get a job!  So this beautiful gifted boy, in the words of his mother, “graduated into nothingness” and sits home playing video games.

This is our challenge – talented young people with so much to give, so much to teach, so much value to share and evoke in others, graduating into nothingness.  With your help, Northwest Center will be working with great urgency this year to make its innovative School to Work and job placement programs available to more people like this young man.  The world needs everyone; we can’t afford to leave value on the table.

Making Business Stronger

Innovative companies across the country are embracing a new form of competitive advantage in the marketplace – the power of diversity and inclusion to improve business results.

Disability advocates have implored businesses for decades to hire people with disabilities simply because it is the right thing to do, as if inclusion is a reluctant compromise made in the admirable spirit of giving back to the community.

But our experience at Northwest Center suggests that we have been looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope.  What we have found is that the harder we work to build, nurture, and leverage a neurodiverse workforce, the more successful our businesses are.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

For one thing, we find the same correlation between inclusion and business performance in each of our businesses.  The effect is constant.  From integrated facility services to hospital grade commercial laundry, from assembly and packaging for demanding national brands to the manufacture of precision magnetic components used in medical devices, inclusion makes our company better.  Quality, on-time delivery, productivity, and customer satisfaction have reached all-time highs.  And despite these uncertain economic times, our company’s financial performance has improved in direct proportion to our commitment to inclusion.

It’s not just Northwest Center.  A number of major corporations like Walgreens, Procter & Gamble, Glaxo Smith Kline, and IBM that first began hiring people with disabilities as a matter of corporate social responsibility are now integrating their workforces as fast as they can for bottom line economic reasons.  Walgreens experienced 20% more efficiency in their Anderson, South Carolina distribution center after adapting it for “disability employment.” Based on that success, they plan to roll out a Retail Employees with Disabilities program nationwide by the end of this year. They have experienced the same effects of productivity, quality, and profit improvement that Northwest Center has, and they want more.  How does this work?

Three key perspectives emerge when you turn the telescope around.  The first is that the word “disability” itself often distracts us from the real issue.  At Northwest Center we have learned to see conditions like autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and so on not as problems to be solved but as qualities to be leveraged – qualities that often include extraordinary focus and obsession with detail.  The unique capabilities of our workforce have become a critical strategic advantage in product design, manufacturing, and quality that our competitors can’t touch.

A second key perspective is that employing people who experience the world differently forces us to pay exquisite attention to work flows, processes, innovation, and even assumptions about “best practices.”  We have been taught over and over again by our employees that the way we see the work may be inefficient or even ponderous.  We have learned to make clear what the customer needs, then include our integrated work teams in designing the best way to do it.  Sound familiar?  It is an underlying principle of lean manufacturing worldwide, and it  works beautifully with a neurodiverse workforce.

Hiring someone with a disability is good for businessA third key perspective is that diversity evokes surprising qualities in everyone else.  We expect the person with a disability to benefit from having a job.  But employers who embrace diversity are frequently astonished at how the rest of the workforce is enhanced.  Having coworkers who love their job, who can focus obsessively 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.

The Puget Sound region is a global hub of innovation.  Embracing diversity and inclusion on a regional scale would unlock vast reserves of untapped human potential that would keep Puget Sound at the forefront for decades to come.  Inclusion improves the bottom line performance of our company.  Let’s talk about how it can improve yours.

This article first appeared in the Puget Sound Business Journal, April 2013