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Investing in Disability, with Real Returns

April 1 2009 | by


Rich Donovan is the founder and board chairman of LimeConnect, an organization that sources qualified people with disabilities for private-sector companies. Rich, who has cerebral palsy, is also the managing partner of Integrated Process Solutions, a consulting firm that helps private and public sector companies build strategy and benchmark results in the business-disability space. He talks about what Obama should do to remedy his Special Olympics gaffe, how companies can benefit from hiring more qualified people with disabilities, and why recruiting should start even younger.

Q: Rich, what did you think of President Obama’s Special Olympics’ gaffe on Jay Leno’s show?
The knee-jerk reaction is to complain about words and get angry. The best response is to kick off a dialogue about solutions and results. The biggest opportunity here is to bring the size of this market to light and set up a framework for integrating disability into the economic framework of society. It also puts stereotypes on stage, in what could be a difficult discussion, but I can’t think of a better guy than Obama to kick-off that discussion.

Q: What do you think Obama should do to remedy it?
He really needs to use a mass audience, like a State of the Union speech, to both apologize and, more importantly, lay out a real path forward. He also needs to use his influence as a leader, not legislation, to drive a benchmarked effort to hire folks with disabilities into public service jobs. He needs to challenge leaders in the private sector to do the same, as well as foster the view of people with disabilities as consumers.

Q: To that effect you wrote an open letter to the President asking him to do these things, and offered your help. Are you prepared for him to read the letter and call upon you to service the country’s 54 million people with disabilities?
Yes, if he asks, and we get a clean slate, we can have a fruitful discussion. If we put this issue into a context of productivity and innovation, and tie it to the bottom line, it’s easily scalable. Up to now, we have been treating disability as a black hole, pouring dollars in and expecting zero return. For any effort to be successful, it’s got to be sustainable. It’s got to align with private-sector objectives. The hardest part of execution is going to be forgetting what we think we know, and walking away from things that don’t work.

Q: As founder/chairman of LimeConnect, you’ve done a lot of work to bring more people with disabilities into the workplace — particularly in the private sector — through college recruiting. How do you convince companies to work with you to target this group?
It starts with the value proposition to shareholders. There are two main drivers of value in hiring people with disabilities: productivity gains and market-share gains. On the productivity side, we look at people with disabilities as extreme users. If you can find tools that make them more productive, those innovations can be applied to all employees and drive margins higher. On the market-share side, when one combines the global population of 1.2 billion people with disabilities with two billion stakeholders, people with disabilities represent 53 percent of the population. Capturing even a small piece of this market relative to the competition could easily make a year for most companies. This must come from the top. Managers must understand, clearly, why hiring people with disabilities is important to the firm. Not because it’s “socially responsible,” or even to reflect customer bases, but because disability can materially drive both productivity and top-line revenue.

Q: One of the ways you do this is through college recruiting. Why start so young?
I’d like to start even younger, and have a way to teach kids with disabilities to dream about careers at age five, like most kids do. The key is to develop a pipeline across all age, skill and experience levels. We started with college talent because it was the easiest model to act upon. We have started a lateral piece for more experienced talent. One of our partnerships, with the New York Jets and the New York City Department of Education, focuses on teaching grade-school kids to dream in elementary and high school. We like to prove models small first, and then scale up.

Q: Are companies doing enough to diversify their workforce with people with disabilities?
If I had to put a number on it, in terms of real focus on business drivers behind inclusion, we’re at less than five percent in terms of companies looking at people with disabilities in a manner that’s focused on results. Most companies who say they do this are more bark than bite. The point is that this has the potential to drive outperformance of the entire company, and most firms can’t conceive of that, because they are thinking in charitable terms. Firms need to put this on a performance footing, communicate that from the top, integrate process into the business lines and take some risks.

Q: Can you give me an example of one company that is making a real effort?
PepsiCo is really approaching this from front to back. They are driving a new recruiting effort through Lime, looking at ways to make their workers more productive, and starting to look at people with disabilities and their stakeholders as a viable market segment. Bob’s House, the 2008 Super Bowl advertisement, was their first public statement, but they’re backing it up with Jason McClean [Paralympics athlete John MacLean, the first wheelchair athlete to swim the English Channel], J-Mac [Jason McElwain, a 20-year-old with autism who rose to fame during a high-school basketball game] and others in their new Gatorade advertising campaign.


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