By: Randy Lewis
We began by wanting to change the world and instead, found ourselves changed. My name is Randy Lewis. I am the parent of three wonderful children. Our middle child, Austin, is nineteen and has autism. And I know that if things remain the same, Austin will never live independently nor have the opportunity to hold a full-time job. So like every parent of a child with a disability, my wish is to live just one day longer than my child. Knowing this to be highly unlikely, I have always worried about Austin and his classmates and what will happen to them after they are booted out of the school system at age 21 and left for the most part to fend for themselves in a world where others are much better prepared to compete.
I am not the best advocate or caregiver, nor am I an effective fundraiser. However, as Sr. Vice President of Logistics for Walgreens my job responsibilities include designing and operating the 15 distribution centers (DCs) across the U.S. that service our 6,000 stores. So when we began designing our latest center in Anderson, South Carolina, I asked our engineering and operations team, “Instead of building our usual high-tech building, why not build one where people with disabilities—especially cognitive disabilities—can work side-by-side as effectively as the “typically abled.” We then asked our local disabilities expert to speculate the ratio of typically-abled persons to those with a cognitive disability, such as autism, with minimal on-going job coaching. He guesses 2:1. Since we planned to hire 600 employees, we set a goal of 200 with disabilities. And we were off on the grandest adventure of our lives.
We celebrated the opening of our Anderson DC in June 2007, an event that received national attention and was featured on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. So far, we have about 250 employees. Over 40% have some type of physical or developmental disability—cerebral palsy, autism, blindness, deafness, missing limbs, etc. As we expected, people with disabilities are doing the job we had hoped for. What was unexpected is the extraordinary work environment and culture they have helped to create.
I remember hearing a sermon about diversity, and it was said that for most people, diversity means tolerance. The preacher went on to say, “But if you embrace it, it will transform you.” Having been in Anderson, seeing how all the employees interact, the teamwork, and most importantly, how they focus on what makes them all alike and what they can do instead of what they can’t do or how they are different, the truth of his statement struck me like a lightning bolt. It has transformed the workplace and the people who work there, especially those without disabilities. The workplace there is not just as good as our traditional DCs, it is better.
When we brought in our management from other DCs to see for themselves, they were blown away too, and set a divisional goal of hiring 1,000 people with disabilities by the end of 2010. We are excited about our journey. We will share our lessons with other businesses, both the successes and failures, in the hope they will find a similar path.
For us, the word we prefer is not diversity. It is inclusion. For many of us, this is the most meaningful work of our lives. I don’t know if we can change the world, but at the very least, we can open up a world of possibilities for Austin and other people with disabilities, where their unique strengths and skills are recognized and valued and they can compete and thrive. But whether or not we change the world, one thing is certain: we have been changed. And for the better.