An Elegy to George W Bush
Everyone talks about imposters’ syndrome and I don’t think I fit the exact diagnosis, but I was definitely posing as someone I wasn’t. I was convincing businesses to hire my clients, people with disabilities, telling the manager that my client would be the perfect employee. The truth is, I felt that the client deserved to have the job because of my strong sense of social justice, not because I knew anything about what that manager actually needed. Nor did I have a strong sense of what value the client could add to their workplace. I wasn’t quite a “used car salesman” but I was definitely putting lipstick on a pig.
I would say whatever I thought a manager needed to hear (in order to get my client that job) … My job description clearly set a target for how many people with disabilities I needed to get into jobs (and help them keep for at least 90 days). It all felt like a sales gimmick. I could tell great stories of other people with disabilities and their success in jobs. But even those were edited versions of the truth.
I was uncomfortable with my half-truths, but I had a strong sense that people with disabilities had the right to have a job and I viewed “business” as the barrier. I assumed “business” was discriminating against people with disabilities and that was why so few people with disabilities were employed. I knew of instances when a person representing a business made assumptions about what disability meant or what a person with a disability was capable of doing. And I took that knowledge and created a narrative in my head that THIS was the problem and THAT was discrimination.
Obviously, I was completely confused and naïve, and then I was given a gift that brought clarity and purpose to my life and my work.
Here is my story:
I started my career wanting to help the underdog. Help people get farther than they had been able on their own. This kind of work felt meaningful and fulfilled my urge to make a difference.
I was a special education teacher, a job coach, a job developer, a program manager, director, etc. But those were just titles, underneath that, I was scared and unsure and didn’t believe that all people with disabilities were capable of being successfully employed. What I said and what I felt was conflicting. I knew that the goal, to help people with disabilities get jobs, was a noble purpose. But it all felt like a sham and very uncomfortable.
In 2006, I was proud of the work I was doing because I was no longer helping people with disabilities directly. I was trying to improve the systems that served them, and I still believed in the cause and was inflamed by the injustice that people with disabilities had high levels of unemployment. I knew about tax credits and didn’t understand why more companies did not take advantage of them… surely that would be enough to offset the underperformance of people with disabilities. We were recognizing companies that hired people with disabilities, so they got good PR, wasn’t that enough?
And then it all changed. I had just bought a house, the US invaded Iraq, and the government reallocated funds from the department of labor to the department of defense. The 5-year grant-funded project (that I was running) was going to be unfunded 2 years early. At the same time, I had heard that Walgreens wanted to figure out how to employ people with disabilities. I didn’t know what that meant, but I needed a job and I knew some people who knew people. I polished my resume (I had taught plenty of people with disabilities how to do that, so I knew how to do it), watched a video of the executive who wanted this for Walgreens and was inspired. It fed into my desire for social justice!!
I was unsure that people with disabilities could be successful to the scale of the vision for the project, but it sounded cool. And like I said, I needed a job.
I knew what to say and how to say it. I interviewed and got the offer!
During my first couple of months, I was lucky enough to shadow James Emmett. He had designed the strategy and managed much of the effort the company had gone through to prepare for the adventure we were calling “Career Outreach”.
My first day on the job, I flew with James to South Carolina to see the new facility and meet some key people. At breakfast before the meeting, I was ashamed. What had I gotten myself into? I very quietly asked James “Do you think people with disabilities can really do this?” He answered emphatically “Yes!”. His response seemed genuine and sincere. So, I adopted that mindset and jumped in with both feet. It was 6 more months until we opened the building and started toward the lofty goal that one third of the workforce would be people with disabilities. I continued to say the right things “yes, people with disabilities can do this”. And everyone in the building really seemed to believe it. I figured most of them had no experience with people with disabilities, so they just didn’t know any better.
The building started operations in January of 2007. I held my breath and kept an eye on other employment opportunities for myself (assuming that I might be blamed when it turned out that people with significant disabilities couldn’t meet the high standards of this bright, shiny, high-tech distribution center). On the exterior, I appeared confident. I saw many opportunities and helped improve the program and along the way, I learned a TON about how business actually works. On my one-year anniversary in the job, I devoted a week to dig into the data. I had access to lots of information and I was terrified. I needed to produce a case study that showed that our executive (and James and everyone else involved) were right and that the vision was not a fantasy. I actually had a little hope. I had seen things that seemed extraordinary. People with significant disabilities (and other barriers) achieving what looked like miraculous things… working the jobs that they were trained to do and achieving the high-performance standards determined by the capability of the machines and process. I hoped the story that the data told wouldn’t be so bad.
I am a geek about data, it fascinates me. And I am a fairly concrete thinker, I like organization and when everything has its place and is in its place. So, combing through massive numbers of data points, organizing them, devising the comparisons, statistical validity and formulas was not intimidating. But I was afraid of what it would all show. And then…
I was astounded – I ran the numbers 3 times to be sure I hadn’t used incorrect math. But there was the actual proof – PEOPLE with DISABILITIES were BETTER EMPLOYEES. Across all measures that were important to the company, the data showed that those with disabilities (which was 41% of the workforce at that time) were betterthan employees without.
Jen Sincero says, “an epiphany is the visceral understanding of something you already know”. Well this was more shocking, inspiring and revealing than an epiphany. All along I had been saying that people with disabilities are good employees and people with disabilities are just as good or better as employees without disabilities. But I had never really believed it. It just seemed like people with disabilities needed a break, the odds were stacked against them and I wanted to help level the playing field. But until June 2007 (17 years into my career), my desire for social justice had fueled me to say things I didn’t believe.
From that moment on, I've never looked back. I actually get mad when people say or imply that hiring a person with a disability is charitable, that companies are accepting lesser. I get frustrated when I see or hear an advocate say “people with disabilities are just as good as other candidates”, and my frustration stems from my knowledge that that advocate actually has no idea what the business needs, and more times than not, nor do they know how that person with a disability actually can add value to the company. They are still where I was early on in my career.
Seven years at Walgreens gave me two opportunities: 1. To understand what truly makes a person with a disability valuable to a business, and 2. To see first-hand how unprepared and inexperienced people (who represent and help people with disabilities get jobs) actually are in understanding and meeting a business’ needs.
Every day I still hear people make incorrect assumptions (about the capability of people with disabilities and the potential positive value that employing them can make to a company’s bottom-line). And I still see people who are trying to advocate for the hiring of people with disabilities having no clue of the skills and potential of their clients/loved ones combined with no sense of what a business needs. But my knowledge and experience (and sense of social justice) drive me to educate both parts of this equation, because that is what will change the employment rate of people with disabilities.
Thank you George W. Bush!! Your father created the ADA and gave people with disabilities the right to not be discriminated against. And you invaded Iraq, which led to me no longer being a fraud. I am grateful for what your family has done to improve our country through the equality of and opportunity for people with disabilities. Also, a quick thanks to Randy Lewis and James Emmett for giving me the chance to be wrong!!