An answer to prayers

It gives people dignity. It provides them a purpose. It surrounds them with people who will love and support them.

70% of people with disabilities will never have a job. When it comes to a severe cognitive disability, such as autism, 95% are unemployed.

So when Randy Lewis’ son, Austin, was diagnosed with autism, he began to pray.

His prayer was to live one day longer than his son.

While most people say, “No parent should have to bury their child,” Randy was praying for the opposite.

Randy told me this prayer is common for people with disabled children. As parents, they know people will never love their children the way they do. And they want to live long enough to protect them from the cruelty of the world.

Can I save enough money to take care of my child?

Who will watch out for him?

Randy came into the Illinois Policy Institute office this week. He told me it was these questions that urged him to see if the company he worked for, Walgreens, could start hiring people with disabilities.

While Randy was senior vice president, he risked his job with a very unconventional proposal: What if Walgreens built a new $180 million distribution facility and one out of every three employees were disabled?

It was new territory. So the board of directors asked, “What if this doesn’t work?” Randy said, “Then just like everything else, we will adjust our plans. But we can go to bed knowing that we tried our best.”

The CEO of Walgreens, Dan Jornt, saw the amazing opportunity. He put his arm around Randy and said, “I hope you have big shoulders, Randy. Because we sure are going to need them.”

Randy did.

The next year, a state-of-the-art distribution center was built in Anderson, South Carolina.

Among the first employees were: Julia Turner, who has Down syndrome; Derrill Perry, who has an intellectual disability; and Garrick Tada, who is autistic.

When asked about her job, Julia said, “I tell you what — I love this job! I’m happy. I’m contented. I’ve got people all around me who are the best friends I’ve ever had in the whole world.”

This is what a job does: it gives people dignity. It provides them a purpose. It surrounds them with people who will love and support them.

The people who work for Walgreens earn the same pay, regardless of whether they have a disability. They earn the benefits. They have the same responsibilities.

This isn’t a charity program: It’s a revolution.

When the Anderson distribution center opened up, 30% of the employees hired had disabilities. Today, nearly 50% of the employees have disabilities.

The revolution has exploded out of the distribution centers, and now Walgreens has set an organization-wide goal that 20% of their workforce will have disabilities.

Best Buy has since emulated this goal. So has Meijer. So has Lowe’s. So have dozens of other major corporations.

This program has removed thousands of people from the welfare rolls. It replaced hand-outs with dignity and purpose. It gave Julia Turner her best friends.

The amazing part is individuals with disabilities have lower turnover, lower accident rates and lower absenteeism.

When COVID-19 struck, 20% of employees were absent. For the disabled population, it was only 2%.

Conventional wisdom would say giving a job to a disabled person is at least in part a charity. Turns out, it is darned smart business.

When Derrill Perry’s parents attended an open house in South Carolina, Derrill’s father pulled Randy Lewis close to him and he whispered, “Thank you. My family is finally safe. Now I can die knowing they will be all right.”

The prayer for Derrill’s father changed. He no longer needed to live a day longer than his son. Because, with a job, he knew his son could thrive without him — and he has.

Derrill’s father died the next year. Derrill now makes more money than his parents ever did.

A job. That’s one hell of an answer to a prayer.

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Matt Paprocki

President @illinoispolicy the nation’s leading state-based think tank.