Hiring Lessons from TV’s Glee

By , April 1, 2011

What’s the first thing that comes to mind about FOX’s smash-hit show “Glee”? The award-winning music? The quirky characters and storylines that play out each week at an all-American high school?

How about the message of inclusion and ability? That’s a lesson Glee tries to communicate in each episode, with characters that are gay, have a disability or are overweight. “Glee” has made such a shining example in the halls of William McKinley High, that the AAPD recently awarded the cast of “Glee” with the “Image Award.” Here’s how Glee does it, and how you can do the same in your company:

Lesson 1: Focus on Abilities

FOX and the “Glee” cast want you to focus on the abilities of these characters — the fact that they’re great singers, funny and charismatic. Characters’ abilities comes first, and the fact that a character is gay, paraplegic or has Down syndrome is part of who they are but not what completely defines them. As viewers, it’s intended for us to see past those details and focus on their strengths and talents.

That’s why “Glee’s” character Artie Abrams, who is a wheelchair user, is given the stage in one episode titled “Wheels.” It is probably one of the only music videos ever produced that stars a cute boy in a wheelchair. Abrams’ rolls coolly through the cafeteria in slow motion while singing a Billy Idol song, and then pops and spins his chair like it’s nobody’s business. Despite his disability, Artie can still sing and dance, in the way that he does best – and it’s brilliant.

Lesson 2: Accept Others.

There isn’t a better spokesperson for acceptance than Lauren Potter, who plays Becky Jackson on “Glee.” Potter,19, is an actress with Down syndrome and beat out 13 other girls for the role of Becky.

On the show, Becky is treated just like everyone else. She is a student who becomes an understudy to Sue Sylvester, the cheerleading coach. In one episode, Becky tries out for the cheering squad and is the only one to make the cut. Becky is also part of some of the singing and dancing acts, including a Madonna-themed episode.

In a video of the AAPD gala, Potter stepped on the stage to accept the “Image Award” and delivered a great message about how “Glee” has accepted her for who she is, and focuses on her ability as an actress and a team player. It’s true. Whether a person has a disability or not, everyone strives to be accepted for who they are – in high school, in the workplace and with their friends.

Lesson 3: Hire Talent That Builds Your Team

“Glee’s” cast has talent, and the show would not be the Emmy Award-winning program it is today without the skills and abilities of the cast, writers and people behind the scenes. Part of the notoriety and success of the show comes from characters like Becky and Artie, and if you’re paying attention, “Glee’s” subtle message to companies can be this: think about your workplace like a Glee Club (okay, maybe without the singing).

Your own Glee Club (company) should be made up of individuals whose different abilities effectively create a successful business, product, or service. As you consider hiring a person with a disability, look at how their unique abilities can strengthen your company’s performance in the eyes of your employees and customers. A person’s disability should be secondary in your hiring practices, because it’s just a label – and we all know that labels just get in the way.

Author: Suzanne Robitaille

Suzanne Robitaille is the founder of abledbody.com, a website on disability issues. She is the former assistive technology columnist for BusinessWeek.com, giving rise to her fascination with technology that helps people with disabilities surmount barriers in the workplace and life space. She is also the author of The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices. As a writer and blogger, Suzanne is a trusted source of disability information for The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, HealthDay, Media Post, Ability Magazine, Disaboom and more. Suzanne lost her hearing at age four and grew up profoundly deaf. In 2002 she received a cochlear implant, which she credits as "the ultimate assistive technology."