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Employment statistics for those with disabilities have not improved even with such efforts. Job competition has grown as 11.8 million Americans in the labor force remained jobless as of May, according to Department of Labor data. Companies that once hired mentally and physically impaired workers as part of normal recruitment may now pass them up.
"When the labor market is very slack, as it has been for the past five years, employers start to say, ‘Why should I settle for someone with just a college degree when I can have a PhD?’ " said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who studies disability benefits. "Why should I hire someone with a disability?"
Work-force participation dropped and unemployment climbed for the disabled during and following the economic downturn, so that today only about one-fifth of the disabled population is active in the labor market. Of those, 13.6 percent couldn’t find jobs in May, according to BLS data.
Many companies shy away from disabled workers out of concern that they will require expensive accommodation, Lewis said. Others view impaired employees as charity cases and hold them to lower production standards, he said, so they’re first to be cut.
"That did not happen to us," he said.
Walgreen analyzed performance differences between distribution centers with disabled and non-disabled work forces. Employee turnover over three years was 48 percent less for those reporting a disability and productivity was roughly equal, according to a report.
More than 200 companies have toured Walgreen’s Anderson facility, Mackey said.
Visitors see that the workspaces, with buzzing conveyor belts and thudding sounds of repacking, look simply like a high-tech warehouse. They meet people like Violet Gentry, 40, who has cerebral palsy and had never had a job before last year, rapidly reshuffling items, practically indistinguishable from those working nearby.
Lewis’s book on his experiences, titled "No Greatness Without Goodness," was released in April. His own son, Austin, 25, benefits from Walgreen’s latest undertaking: a program training disabled employees to work in retail stores.
"My son drives, and that was like graduating summa cum laude from MIT," Lewis said. "A job, that’s like winning a Nobel Prize."
His son marks each month’s paydays on a calendar Lewis got him to track his work schedule. "So yes, a job is important to him, too."
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