Doctors call me “high functioning,” but I’ve had cerebral palsy since birth, which means I walk and talk with quite some difficulty—which was on the edge of “employability” back in 1965 when I first started working for Wisconsin Dairies. Wisconsin Dairies was one of the parent organizations of today’s Foremost Farms USA, a $3 billion business which ranked in the Fortune 500 during the early 1990s.
I started working, through the recommendation of my uncle, as a newsletter editor for Wisconsin Dairies when it had $30 million in annual sales, but it grew rapidly through 16 mergers and consolidations, and my career grew with it. For 10 years, I served as vice president of corporate communications for Foremost Farms USA, leading a staff of five professionals. I also selected and trained a total of 24 colleges-student interns during my 28-year stint with the organization.
So, I know what it sometimes takes to survive as an employee with a disability in a largely non-disabled business world. And, as a business leader, I’ve also picked up some people management skills of my own.
For 45 years, I have been collecting ideas about how to effectively lead from a disability perspective. Below are 12 of them that I find particularly helpful in today’s business climate.
- Learn how to manage a diverse team of individuals, including those with a disability. Show that, under your leadership, a team can produce exceptional results precisely because members have learned to tap each other’s strengths and compensate for another’s weaknesses. You can do that by creating opportunities for each team member to show what they can do on the team or with a special assignment for the team.
- Set up a place on your company’s Intranet in which each of your employees (not just the person with a disability) can privately post compliments, suggestions and complaints in a non-threatening way to facilitate your in-person communications with each individual.
- Make it a habit to make regular, personal contact with each of the members of your group – not just your employee with a disability. They should not have to come to you.
- Build relationships with leaders in other companies to learn from their successes and setbacks in employing people with disabilities. Such networking, particularly with others from diverse backgrounds and functional areas unlike your own, will provide you with lots of new ideas.
- Live by your words and set an example. Treat your employee with a disability according to patterns that you would like his co-workers and your colleagues to follow.
- Use appropriate discipline to protect individuals within your group from infringing on each other’s individual rights or the rights of the group. Remember that your employee with a disability can be the one who is hurting others as well as the one who is being hurt. However, know when your employee needs to solve a problem herself — and when you need to intervene.
- Be forgiving because you realize most people deserve a second chance if they demonstrate that they are willing to learn from their mistakes. But, also make sure that your employees, disabled or not, realize what you expect of them. Forgiving is not lowering your standards for performance. That’s particularly important when an employee who has a disability is involved.
- Be patient while your employee with a disability is learning a new task, realizing that those who learn the fastest are not always the best performers or those with the most “staying power.” Your patience shows you respect others—and that others can trust you.
- Respect and encourage as well as console your employee with a disability when he has experienced failure. Show concern—but also show your appreciation that he tried and encourage him to take another (maybe lesser) step forward.
- Develop a story folder of anecdotes that you can draw upon to make your points with your employees about issues they currently face. Your employee with a disability, by the way, needs “non-disability” stories as well as those that address her personal issues about disability.
- Give your employee with a disability the same orientation and training you give others within your group so he is prepared to challenge himself and succeed within your company.
- Include your employee with a disability in cross training—just as you would other members of your team. She will become more enthused about putting her new skills to good use, and you’ll gain a better qualified, more well-rounded team.
As I look at this list, I realize all of these points are essentially about effective management and not about disability at all.
But, in another sense, you and your employee with a disability (or any other difference) have a mutual interest. As someone who is “different,” he has a larger-than-usual stake in how well you perform as a leader. And he can be your “bellwether” about how your work team is really functioning in terms of including not just individuals with disabilities but those without disabilities as well.
As a result, the extra time you may be initially required to spend in helping him perform well in his job and as a member of your team may actually provide you with an opportunity to showcase your skills—and grow—as a leader.
Excerpted, in part, from Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities by Lighthouse International. Compiled and edited by Jim Hasse. Copyright © 2010 Lighthouse International.