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Neil Romano on Disability’s “Blind Spot”

September 16 2009 | by

Neil Romano

Neil Romano again stole the stage at the U.S. Business Leadership Network’s 2009 conference today with a candid speech about the business-disability paradigm, which he says is “still wrong.”

Romano admits he’s a marketer first and foremost. It seems he got into the disability scene when he realized nobody was marketing to the group. He also uncovered a host of other problems, like employment and healthcare, and helping the disabled became his professional and personal mission. He’s now the president of CORA, an organization that hires severely disabled people for tele-work jobs.

Romano’s former job as assistant secretary of the Labor Dept. went to Kathy Martinez after Presidnet Obama was elected, and he says “he couldn’t be happier with the selection.” He’s moved on, and shared some tough love with the BLN crowd.

When talking about disabilities, “you have to understand the issues. And you have to know how to market them,” he says. “Businesses care about profits so you have to show them how you’re going to make a difference to their bottom line,” he adds. But in order to do this you have to believe “so fervently and unshakingly in your idea” that will you go forward with it no matter what.

Romano believes that people with disabilities hold tremendous value for businesses, the economy and America, but says the paradigm is “still wrong.” Companies today are still operating on a legacy model that tells them to think about people with disabilities based on old hiring models of charity and do-goodness. “It’s not about hiring a few guys for the mailroom anymore,” he says.

What companies need to do, he asserts, is figure out the blind spot. By that, he means, to get companies to understand exactly what integrating the disabled into society really means. On the hiring side, it means hiring, retention and promotion. On the marketing side it means product development, packaging, marketing and advertising. (“What good is marketing Gatorade to the disabled if a person without hands can’t open the bottle?”) And it has to be done in an integrated fashion, across American businesses, he says.

Ideally, Romano would also like to see companies create what he calls “ability freedom,” in which people with disabilities can have the freedom to work and excel in any job they’d like. “You can export that, he says. “Made in the U.S.A. by people who are equal.”

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