Making Oz Home

Submitted by Brett on Wed, 11/23/2011 - 3:39pm

By Terry Booth, Media Director, PLUK

It all started back in March of this year. I was fortunate enough to be invited to be a guest speaker at the 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference. The truncated title of the session I spoke at was Observing Oz. The idea, grand in scope, was to present models and technology that can assist organizations shift internal cultures to make diversity of all types the norm. Pretty big and worthwhile stuff.

Now let me say upfront, this blog post isn’t going to be about those techniques for diversifying an office culture. I’m not going to talk about the “how to” of including people with disabilities, people of color, people with different learning styles, or people from different cultures into your organization. Instead, I’m going to share some of my experiences and tell how an organization that embraces diversity can have a huge impact for people with disabilities.

So, how about a little background? I’m twenty-five years old, have a bachelor’s in Psychology, love music, gaming, and I spend way too much time on computers – with a particular talent for breaking them. Oh yeah, I also use a wheelchair. You wouldn’t think that would be such a big deal in the working world, but speaking from experience, employers and businesses tend to shy away from hiring people with disabilities. I remember a time which pretty well sums up the whole nature of this beast. A few years ago, I was called in for an interview, and when I arrived, the building the business was in had several steps to the front door and no ramp in sight. After a brief call letting them know the situation, I was thanked for my time and given a polite brush-off.

For people with disabilities of all kinds, this type of thing is often par for the course. I still wonder from time to time how many talented people are passed over for positions they would have excelled at every day, across myriad professions, because an organization was frightened off by the perceived risk of hiring someone with a disability or thoroughly adverse to the idea of making possible accommodations. While ideally anti-discrimination laws would prevent much of this, proving discrimination in most cases is nearly impossible.

For me, it worked out in the end. I found PLUK (Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids) and, after a bit of position-hopping, took my place as Media Director (where I will eventually be working on our desperately needed website redesign). For the last two years, I’ve been lucky enough to work in a job that I enjoy, that constantly challenges me, that has given me the chance to work with two other great organizations that believe in diversity – Region 5 PTAC and PEAK – and that has provided me the opportunity for new experiences that I never would have gotten otherwise – like speaking at NTC.

My story is happier than many others, though. Similar to the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements, Americans with disabilities have been fighting for equality since the 1960s. While large gains have been made over the last 50 years, statistics from the latest census show that a total of “13.3 million people between the ages of 16 and 64 have reported difficulty finding a job or remaining employed because of a health condition, and only 46% of people ages 21 to 64 who have some type of disability are employed, compared to an 84% employment rate for those without a disability for the same period.”

While conditions for people with disabilities are nothing like those in the early 20th century, when state-run institutionalization was the go-to method for handling the population of people with disabilities, the employment numbers are still lacking, despite there being data that speaks to the benefits of employing people with disabilities, such as:

  • National employment studies, including a 30-year analysis by DuPont de Nemours, show that persons with disabilities have equal or higher performance ratings, better retention rates and less absenteeism. Employees with disabilities relate better to customers with disabilities. In the United States, this represents $1 trillion in annual aggregate consumer spending.
    (The Next Great Hiring Frontier, Wall Street Journal, 13 September 2005)
  • A 2003 survey of employers found that the cost of adaptation to accommodate employees with disabilities was $500 or less. 73% of employers reported that their employees did not require special facilities at all.
    (Dixon, K.A., Kruse, D. & Van Horn, C.E.,‘Restricted Access: A Survey of Employers about People with Disabilities and Lowering Barriers to Work’, 2003)
  • According to the food company Carolina Fine Snacks, based in Greensboro, North Carolina, “the impact of hiring people with disabilities is that employee turnover dropped from 80% every six months to less than 5%, productivity rose from 60-70% to 85-95%, absenteeism dropped from 20% to less than 5%, tardiness dropped from 30% of staff to zero.” Philip H. Kosak, the company’s President, said that “the new employee’s attitude was contagious: some of the non-disabled employees began to improve their performance.”
    (Kansas University Center for Research on Learning,‘Help Wanted: Diversifying and Strengthening your Workforce by Hiring People with Disabilities’, 2005)

For anything to change, it will take a conscious effort by organizations and businesses to step out of their comfort zone and force themselves to move from monochrome to Technicolor. In other words, we all need to take a step into Oz.

Come to think of it, PLUK, PEAK, and Region 5 PTAC are all a bit like Oz: Colorful, a little strange, and full of characters. They each welcome people with physical and developmental disabilities and believe providing accommodations should be the rule, not the exception. Unfortunately, this isn’t the norm yet. But in time, it could be. To look around my office, you might think we were the home for misfit toys, but the perspectives are diverse, the people are vibrant, and I don’t think we would have it any other way.

Terry Booth began working for PLUK in March of 2009 and was promoted to Media Director by the end of 2010. He is in charge of the web presence of several different organizations in both Montana and surrounding states, as well as print, video, and various other odds and ends. In his free time, Terry enjoys writing, reading, singing, and spending far too much time on the Internet.