It is not often that I find myself moved by a speech at a business conference. But when I heard Randy Lewis speak earlier this year, it touched a nerve.
Lewis is the senior vice president of distribution and logistics for Walgreens, a major U.S. pharmacy business. He spoke about the company's new distribution center (DC) in Anderson, South Carolina, USA, which was designed to employ people with cognitive or physical disabilities. About 40 percent of the employees at the DC have some sort of disability, but they meet the same standards and receive the same pay as any other employee. "They have to walk through the door and do the job every day," Lewis said. They include the woman with Down Syndrome who exudes joy at coming to work, the young man who cannot multiply 60 times 10 to understand that the 600 cartons he handles each hour are 50 percent above standard, and the supervisor with a master's degree whose cerebral palsy prevented her from finding work until Walgreens saw beyond the disease to her talent.
Lewis believes that offering opportunities to people who face physical or mental barriers is both the right thing to do and good business. Consider: Walgreens' example comes at a time when businesses in North America and Europe fret about where they will find the workers of the future as the current workforce moves toward retirement. Lewis said the company intends to expand on the lessons of the Anderson DC and bring similar people to work at its DCs around the United States. And he has become an evangelist for the idea that people with disabilities, given the chance, can prove themselves in the workplace and provide decent livelihoods for themselves.
This passion is born of Lewis's own personal experience. His, son, Austin, is autistic. Lewis recounted what many parents of children with disabilities say: That their one hope is to live one day longer than their child. Because too often, those who are labeled as different are shunned and shunted aside, condemned to lives of loneliness and poverty. "People with disabilities die a death of a thousand cuts," Lewis told the audience at this year's Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) annual conference. "The unkindest cut is the belief that people with disabilities cannot do the job."
The DC in Anderson suggests that it does not have to be that way. It has shown that people with disabilities can have adult lives in the workplace and in their communities. It is good for them. And it is good for the people they touch —fellow employees and fellow citizens.
This is an important story not only for a local DC in Anderson, South Carolina, but for global businesses as well. Every strategic business decision, however global in scope, has repercussions at the human level. And conversely, local action can sometimes reverberate around the world.