Ms. Linda Dickerson
Dickerson & Mangus, Ink.
BLN Breakfast
October 1, 2002

Thank you for the exceedingly kind introduction. I usually say that I aspire to some day be half as good as my dog thinks that I am each and every night when I return home from work. Now, instead, I can aspire to be half as good as you think that I am.

This morning’s speaking engagement feels to me as though it is the ultimate preaching to the choir assignment. As members of the Business Leadership Network, you made a substantial commitment to the employment of persons with disabilities. If you employ someone who has a disability, you know the benefits of doing so. You certainly don’t need to hear from me on the subject. Consequently, I ask you to relinquish the role of the choir to whom I am preaching and, instead, assume the role of disciple. We desperately need your assistance in disseminating the good word about why employers should actively recruit employees with disabilities.

I’ll argue my case for the employment of individuals with disabilities. Please adopt any or all of my ideas, make them your own, and present them frequently and unabashedly to others.

Discrimination and prejudice run rampant in our society. Societal predispositions against people with disabilities preclude many employers from hiring individuals who have a disability. These employers usually believe that such individuals will be unable to perform well in the workplace.

They harbor deep-seated fears that someday they may have to fire an employee with a disability. And, they are absolutely certain that you go directly to Hell for doing that.

The Eleventh Commandment is, apparently, “Thou shall not fire someone with a disability.” This frequently translates to “Thou shall not hire someone with a disability just in case he might not achieve success and might have to be fired!”

No prejudice has ever been able to prove its case in the court of reason. However, employment cases involving people with disabilities rarely reach the High Court of Reason. Instead, they are adjudicated in the Lower Court of Fear, Misinformation and Entrenched Bias.

I urge all of you who have graduated to the Higher Court of Reason to begin to reason with others. Help them to understand, and they will proactively seek the advantages available to companies that employ individuals with disabilities.

First and foremost, by employing someone with a disability, you are likely to substantially reduce the taxpayer burden. A person working is contributing to the tax base. A person not working over an extended period is relying on the tax base to support him. It’s that simple.

Employers, you really can’t escape paying people with disabilities. You can choose to pay them through your payroll or through the taxes that the government collects from you. Since you’re paying them no matter what, why not ask them to do some work for you? After all, that seems only fair!

Yet, consistently employers opt to support people with disabilities through the taxes that they pay. Neither the employer nor the person with a disability maximizes value in this case. Employers receive no direct return on their investment in the person with a disability earning his living through taxpayer support. And, the person with a disability’s self-esteem continues to erode because he is not productively employed.

In many ways, this argument is merely stating the obvious. As a result, I find it to be considerably less compelling than my contention that individuals with disabilities - by virtue of their disability – have a unique skill set that employers seek. That’s right. You heard me correctly.

Because of my disability, I possess certain highly desirable skills that enable me to be especially effective in today’s constantly dynamic and intensely competitive work environments. Others – many others – with disabilities share these distinctive competencies with me.

People with disabilities are always resourceful. We spend our lives contriving alternative approaches to just about everything that we undertake. Over time, our brains are trained to automatically concoct unorthodox methods to undertake almost every issue or problem confronting us.

Rarely do I enter a building through the most direct route. As I approach any edifice, I’m subconsciously pondering which way I can get in. I never, ever assume that I can enter through the front door without some circuitous pathway.

I am constantly revising strategies as new sets of realities present themselves. In order to negotiate a complex set of ever dynamic encumbrances, people with disabilities become chameleon-like. We are the most adaptable cohort of individuals whom you can imagine.

Flexibility and adaptability are extremely appealing to modern-day employers. Change is the only constant in today’s society. Those who accommodate emerging new realities with grace and ease will succeed. Those who don’t, won’t.

Also, those who are comfortable with being different will advance more rapidly in tomorrow’s work environments. Differentiation will be key.

As the Internet brings the entire world to our fingertips, our options expand appreciably. Therefore, we select those options that stand out among the masses. Likewise, individuals who distinguish themselves from others will advance their careers further. Tomorrow is the world of the exception and not the rule.

Conformists will not generally prevail. People with disabilities usually cannot conform. They must learn to find value in being different.

Personally, I can’t tolerate the sea of ubiquity. Blending in is to me – and many others with disabilities – not an option. We celebrate being different better than any group of individuals does, and this is a great advantage to us in markets demanding customization.

Relishing being different, an inherent resourcefulness, and a comfort with alternative approaches are traits commonly found among people with disabilities. They are also traits that employers find to be particularly valuable.

In addition, individuals with disabilities tend to be better planners than the average person. Because they face limitations that others don’t, they have to plan ahead or they confront insurmountable obstacles. They have developed a certain sonar system for what awaits them.

If they need special assistance, they must request it in advance. To negotiate an accessible path of travel frequently involves advanced planning.

While individuals with disabilities can do almost anything that people without disabilities can do, often people with disabilities do it differently. This requires planning. It teaches people with disabilities to identify desired outcomes and then work backwards to define how to achieve those outcomes.

This analytical ability is extremely appealing to task-oriented employers. As someone with a disability, I never ask myself if I can do something. Instead, I ask only how I can do it.

If I ask if I can do something and I confine my thinking to traditional approaches, usually I erroneously conclude that the task is impossible. However, when I start with the question, “How am I going to accomplish a task,” I presuppose that the task is feasible. Then, my creative juices flow.

I expand the set of approaches available to me, and almost always, I develop a methodology that works for me. The key is to remain focused on the outcome and allow the process to flow from the desired end result.

Although it’s a mundane example, allow me to tell you how I eat dinner out. Virtually no standard place setting works for me. If I limited my thinking to the standard protocol, I would starve.

Those of you who know me understand that I have perfected the art of eating in public.

I do it three times a day, seven days a week. And, my waistline is a testament to that fact!

As I approach the table, I immediately begin to reconfigure the place setting. Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt hate me. No one else seems to mind.

Right away, I assess the tools that are available to me. The bar always has highball glasses and straws which make drinking, not imbibing, possible. If I trade my large fork for another salad fork, eating is easier, and steak knives versus table knives simplify cutting.

The point that I’m making is not that you can invite me out to eat and not have to worry, although I do accept dinner invitations. Instead, I’m describing a process that I and others like me employ routinely I our daily living activities.

We constantly evaluate the resources available to us and configure them in a way that optimizes an outcome. People with disabilities accept virtually nothing as a given. They must adapt everything, so realigning resources becomes instinctual to them.

Employers, wake up. This is an exceedingly valuable skill!

Despite our profound resourcefulness, adaptability and planning instincts, people with disabilities still encounter situations where they need help from others. Consequently, we have all perfected the art form of asking for assistance.

We are the master collaborators. Teamwork is no problem for us. Our entire lives are a symbiotic relationship with those who help us. Each of us finds our own way of returning value to those who assist us, so that the interdependency is mutual.

Our uncanny ability to work with others places people with disabilities at a distinct advantage in present day work environments. Work, today, is not an autonomous exercise.

Employees must successfully interact with each other in order to complete assignments. As complexity increases exponentially, employees must work in groups to assemble the myriad talents necessary to get their respective jobs done.

People with disabilities are clearly prepared to do this better than almost anyone else. This is our unique gift to give the world. Our lives are inherently interdependent.

I submit to all of you without disabilities that your lives are also interdependent. You may not know this yet, but it will become increasingly evident as technology advances.

What can you fix in your house without calling a repairman? Specialized knowledge or specialized expertise is a prerequisite to almost all repair jobs. Simple mechanics are obsolete.

Since society is on a rapid trajectory towards abject interdependency, why not rely on the people who invented interdependency – individuals with disabilities? Excluding us from the dialogue about how to best create collaborative work environments would be a serious mistake.

Yet, we are regularly omitted from this debate and, frankly, from workplaces in general. It makes no sense. We can definitely add value in several areas which are key determinants of organizational success in today’s complex and constantly changing environments.

Read today’s job descriptions. They uniformly contain phrases like:

  • must be flexible
  • looking for an innovator
  • should be comfortable with changing externalities
  • must be able to readily adapt
  • must be an excellent team player
  • collaboration is critical for this position

All of you have written job descriptions containing these requirements. Don’t deny it. You have. Every employer has. Ladies and gentlemen, people with disabilities meet these criterion. In order to survive in today’s society, we’ve become resourceful, adaptable people who understand the value of differentiation, who can plan ahead, and who are the consummate collaborators. We must possess this core skill set in order to function at any level in today’s world.

I refer to this as “Disability Darwinism.” Over time, all of us with disabilities accommodated our unique circumstances. This evolution makes us exceptionally valuable to companies and organizations who want to excel.

I’ve already admitted that people with disabilities are not unusually bashful about asking for assistance. So, this request will not surprise you. I need your help to enlighten the employer community.

Please go forward throughout the land and explain the “Disability Darwinism” concept. Tell others about the highly desirable skill sets that people with disabilities naturally possess. Stress that the word “ability” is housed within the word “disability.”

Urge them to hire people with disabilities. By so doing, they’ll be advancing their own organization’s competitive standing and providing the person with a disability an opportunity to do what comes naturally to him.

I appreciate the wonderful opportunity to join you this morning. Thank you for your commitment to the full employment of people with disabilities in this community and elsewhere. Best wishes to you all!