In spite of the fact that people with autism and other disabilities are perfectly capable of doing fantastic work, this often-overlooked population has historically struggled to find jobs. In fact, an estimated 80 percent of people with disabilities face unemployment.
But thanks to several companies, the tides are slowly beginning to turn. Business leaders are recognizing just how capable the disabled community is, and they are actively striving to add these individuals to their workforce.
Pharmaceutical giant Walgreens is one of these companies. Its decision is not only changing lives, but it’s also hugely beneficial to the company and is setting a great example for other businesses to follow.
Largely to thank for this development is former Walgreens SVP Randy Lewis, who was inspired by his autistic son, Austin—a young man who was nonverbal until the age of 10 and is now a successful adult.
“I underestimated Austin over and over and over, and he surprised me again and again and again,” Lewis said. “I came to the conclusion that there was a whole group of people out there probably that could do the job as well or better that we were unjustly leaving behind.”
So Walgreens hired 1,000 disabled employees to work alongside their non-disabled colleagues, providing them all with the same jobs and same pay.
According to Lewis, it was a fantastic decision. “The first building turned out to be the most productive in the history of our company,” he said. The disabled employees conducted their work more safely, they had better retention, and they had fewer absences.
One of Walgreens’ star employees is Julie Riley, a woman on the spectrum who has hearing loss and a learning disability. She works at the distribution center as an SPS picker, where she earned the nickname “Speedy” for her quick work. In fact, she moves so fast that the machine she’s working with sometimes breaks!
But her story wasn’t always this happy. When she was young, doctors predicted that she’d become a vegetable—if she even ended up surviving the genetic disorder she had. She luckily pulled through, endured bullying at school, graduated, and was hired at Walgreens.
Before she started, she was understandably nervous. Would her work environment be a repeat of her school environment?
Those fears were washed away as soon as she walked through the door on day one. She found that her job was awesome, and so were her co-workers. She even met the man who is now her husband! “They just like you for who you are, and it’s been a big change in my life,” she said.
Learn more about this wonderful story in the video below. A word of warning: you’re going to want to grab the tissues before hitting “play!”
A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.