Leveraging the Strengths of the Disabled

New protections for the disabled at work are important. But Drucker preached something even more fundamental: using management to make "weaknesses&irrelevant"

When the House passed legislation in late June that expanded protections for disabled people, it marked an important step forward on an important issue. But what the workplace needs, even more than a new law, is an old insight—one first offered by Peter Drucker more than 40 years ago.

"To make strength productive is the unique purpose of organization," Drucker wrote in his 1967 classic, The Effective Executive. "It cannot, of course, overcome the weaknesses with which each of us is abundantly endowed. But it can make them irrelevant."

This holds true for everyone, of course. As Drucker noted, "Strong people always have strong weaknesses too. Where there are peaks, there are valleys. And no one is strong in many areas. Measured against the universe of human knowledge, experience, and abilities, even the greatest genius would have to be rated a total failure. There is no such thing as a 'good man.' Good for what? is the question."

The Barrier of Workplace Attitudes

But this perspective has particular resonance for the disabled—a substantial and growing population. Across the globe, the U.N. estimates, some 650 million people live with disabilities. In the U.S., the Census Bureau counts more than 50 million people with some level of disability.

And many of these folks find themselves struggling to land a job, even though they have skills to offer and are hungry to work. The Disability Funders Network, a nonprofit group, reports the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10 times higher than for the nation as a whole. A 2003 study by researchers at Cornell University leaves little doubt as to why that is: "Workplace attitudes," it concluded, "are a continuing barrier to the hiring and retention of people with disabilities."

The bill that just passed the House, after months of negotiations between business lobbyists and advocates for the disabled, should help. Upset that the Supreme Court had eroded the original intent of the 1990 landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, lawmakers made plain that people with epilepsy, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and other ailments should be afforded anti-discrimination protection under the ADA, even if they control their conditions with medication or are in remission. The Senate is expected to pass a similar measure.

Channeling Unique Talents

But what's required most of all is a fundamental shift in thinking among employers. Too often they are preoccupied with what they see as a disabled person's limitations. Instead, the focus should be: "How do you leverage the person's strengths?" says Jonathan Kaufman, president of DisabilityWorks, a New York consulting firm that counsels public- and private-sector clients. "Drucker's concept," he adds, "is critical."

Kaufman, who was born with cerebral palsy, says he knows of disabled people who possess all sorts of amazing talents that would be a boon to the right company—individuals with Aspberger's syndrome, for example, who are capable of "multiplying 12 or 15 digits in their head, faster than a calculator.The question is how you channel this, how you manage it."

In his autobiography, Copy This!, Kinko's (FDX) founder Paul Orfalea recounts how being dyslexic made certain things difficult for him, including reading and writing. But he also discovered he had a natural advantage over his copy-shop rivals.

Human Diversity

"Dyslexics are extraordinarily empathic," he explained. "Perhaps dyslexics are so empathetic because, as kids, so many of us became accustomed to not being listened to. They suffer and pick up on the suffering of others. That was the case with me. I became a good listener to cope." Years later, Orfalea realized that this made him unusually attuned to "understanding and attending to our customers' and workers' emotional needs."

Kaufman believes companies can reap other benefits from signing up, retaining, and advancing the careers of the disabled. For one thing, such an approach can help provide "the human diversity" that Drucker believed was vital to the wellbeing of every organization.

What's more, hiring the disabled can engender customer loyalty among the employee's friends and relatives—a potentially huge market when you consider that of the 70 million families in the U.S., more than 20 million have at least one member with a disability. The ranks of the disabled constitute an enormous market in their own right, boasting more than $1 trillion in aggregate annual income.

The end result, says Kaufman, is that if a company learns to value the disabled, it can "affect the bottom line" in a positive way while, at the same time, "it can have a real social impact"—Drucker's favorite one-two punch.

Viewed this way, the disabled aren't a liability; they're an opportunity.

Stubbornly Unconvinced

Some businesses get it. Virginia Commonwealth University has developed 20 case studies, including sketches of Alaska Airlines, Bank of America (BOFA), and Hyatt, that highlight "corporate models of success" for dealing with the disabled. Of the 485 workers at a Walgreen's (WAG) distribution center in South Carolina, more than 35% are disabled. And the drugstore chain is now recruiting disabled workers for a new distribution facility in Connecticut.

"In fact," the company says in its outreach material, "we are actively seeking qualified people including those with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. Why make an extra effort to hire workers with cognitive and intellectual disabilities? Because this is a group that is seldom offered real jobs. We want to change that. We think we can."

Still, many businesses remain obstinate. They say they worry about the possibility of increased costs, safety issues, the specter of legal liability, and how colleagues and customers will react.

But all of these things are simply excuses for shoddy management. Drawing on the parable of the Talents from the Bible, Drucker points out that the manager's task couldn't be clearer: It's to "multiply performance capacity of the whole by putting to use whatever strength, whatever health, whatever aspiration there is in individuals."

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