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Disability History

A Curmudgeon’s Lesson in Common Sense

People with disabilities continue to be among the most underutilized resources in our modern workforce.  Despite the hundreds of organizations and federal agencies that have created programs to remedy this issue, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities remains staggeringly high.  It begs the question, why have we not made progress?  Is there some sort of fundamental solution that we are ignoring or simply missing?  Is there a gem of an idea that can be replicated?

The answer to this final question we believe, is yes!  It’s not a new idea.  In fact, it is an ancient philosophy, implemented by none other than Henry Ford, the famously old curmudgeon behind Ford Motor Company.

Remember that old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  That was Henry Ford’s philosophy! He believed in helping others, not through charity, but by teaching them how to sustain themselves. His philosophy stems from a desire to solve the root problem, and not simply curb the symptoms of a pervasive issue. Mr. Ford himself admitted that this was a rather daunting task, yet he followed through, because in the end, it just made the most sense.

Henry Ford believed that people with disabilities can produce as much as those without disabilities, given the right task and situation. With this philosophy, he set out to have all of the jobs in his factory evaluated to determine what skill set each job required and which jobs were best suited for people with varying limitations.

He then actively recruited World War I veterans with disabilities and employed them not as charity cases, but as productive members of Ford’s team.  In fact, actively recruiting an otherwise ignored population, turned out to be a rather profitable and mutually beneficial arrangement.  Ford Motor Company gained a hard working, efficient employee, and the worker earned a living, escaping an otherwise destitute life.

In one instance, Mr. Ford sought out “bedridden” men, putting them to task screwing nuts on bolts.  According to Mr. Ford, “this is a job that had to be done by hand and on which fifteen or twenty men were kept busy in the Magneto Department. The men in the hospital could do it just as well as the men in the shop and they were able to receive their regular wages. In fact, their production was above the usual shop production. No man had to do the work unless he wanted to. But they all wanted to. It kept time from hanging on their hands. They slept and ate better and recovered more rapidly.”

For as much as Henry Ford was a pioneer in hiring those with disabilities nearly 100 years ago, in the present day, people with disabilities still lag far behind those without disabilities when it comes to employment.

One of the biggest barriers to employment for people with disabilities is the attitude or perception of the general public that they cannot work, or that if given the chance, will do the job poorly. Like Henry Ford, society must change this perception, and focus on the abilities, rather than the disabilities of people.

People with disabilities overcome a myriad of obstacles in their daily lives.  In doing so, they have developed a resourcefulness and fortitude that rivals the highest paid executive.  And, the fact of the matter is, employers are sorely missing out.  But not all employers…Walgreens is leading the way in hiring people with disabilities in both their distribution centers and retail outlets. Walgreens has vowed to work until ten percent of their workforce is comprised of people with disabilities. Furthermore, the Federal Government has launched a number of initiatives that will ensure ten percent of their workforce will be employees with disabilities by the year 2015.

Progress!

In life, we can only hope for progress. But in some cases we need only look back on the pages of history to see the solution was there all along, and that we need only implement it. Perhaps it is time we bring back the common sense views of Henry Ford and revisit the “good-old-days.”

In the end however, it is the attitudes and perceptions of those with disabilities themselves that can often be the most limiting.  Too many of us give up too easily at the first obstacle, or in response to the first “no.”  We must not give up on our dreams so easily.  We must learn to carry on, in spite of it all.  After all, it is far better to try and fail than to fail because we didn’t try.

Sources:

My Life and Work, By Henry Ford

Walgreens Inclusive Workplace

Office of Disability Employment Policy: Increasing Disability Employment in the Federal Government

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