What's the first image that comes to mind when you hear the words "disabled person?" Most people immediately think of a wheelchair-stricken individual physically incapable of participating in the daily activities most of us take for granted.
In fact, much of the problem begins with the word disability itself. By definition, people with disabilities are labeled by the fact they lack select abilities others have.
"When you start with the word 'disability,' you begin thinking about what the issues are, not what the abilities will be," says the new CEO of The Cerebral Palsy Foundation, Richard Ellenson. "It's critical to understand that when you begin with that word, you're looking for the wrong things."
Ellenson is energizing the Cerebral Palsy Foundation by challenging public perceptions of the word disability and evolving the Foundation's historical focus on research to include initiatives and collaborations that will allow individual ability to be better understood, supported, and expressed. He says the ultimate goal is to create an inclusive society that recognizes a person's unique talents and skillsets first, and physical challenges second.
For the purpose of helping shift the paradigm about people with disabilities, I'll refer to them as exceptional within this article in hopes of changing how we perceive them in the world.
Ellenson believes current technology exists which can address many obstacles for integrating the exceptional into the workplace. "There's braille, screen readers, motorized wheelchairs, hearing aids, and infrared where a person's speech is transmitted to a receiver right in a person's ear. The technology we already have today, well implemented, could completely change what's possible for people."
Ellenson's insights are not merely conjectured. A former entrepreneur who founded two companies specializing in assistive technology for exceptional people, Ellenson first gained recognition by being a catalyst for schools to adopt a more inclusive classroom approach. His own son Thomas, 18, is a skilled teen with cerebral palsy, and verbally communicates with a speech device.
Ellenson also believes low expectations suppress the understanding of what exceptional people can do in the workplace. "This isn't just a socially responsible proposition," he says. "People with disabilities are great hires."
Here are four main reasons why.
- They are extraordinary problem solvers. Exceptional people face unfathomable challenges every day, which means they're often great problem solvers. In today's business environment, companies need to tap into creative thinking and resourcefulness to drive the organization forward, and exceptional people have those in spades.
- Well-defined skills are of great benefit. Exceptional people may lack the ability to do certain things, but when you look beyond that you usually find highly developed skills in other areas. Interestingly, physical limitations may lead to focus, which creates spectacular results.
- They are often loyal employees. Working together to overcome obstacles is the basis of phenomenal working relationships. When employers begin tackling the basic issues of access, it forms the foundation for an extensive, mutually beneficial and productive future.
- When the focus shifts from disability to ability, everyone benefits. A focus on the determination to succeed, and a supportive culture, is the recipe for an engaged and productive workplace. Observing the physical challenges of our exceptional counterparts can often inspire us all to increase our own efforts.
As Ellenson envisions our society's evolution to this new standard of inclusion, he also notes the importance of having an honest relationship with exceptional employees.
"People with disabilities are frequently uncomfortable sharing their challenges," says Ellenson. "A person with cerebral palsy often has dyslexia or associated vision issues. Clear paths exist to address that, but unless you've created an environment of open discussion, you might find an employee trying to hide those issues, which can result in a less productive relationship and frustration for everyone involved. Create a good working environment, with a clear path to success, and you get results."