Last January, Laval business leaders attended a powerful conference in which the employment of people with disabilities and people with autism was explored in some depth. Hosted by the Chambre de Commerce et de l’industrie de Laval (CCIL), the event was titled “Employing People with Autism: Recognizing Potential”, and the keynote speaker was none other than Randy Lewis, former Senior Vice President of supply chain and logistics for Walgreens distribution centers across the United States.

Lewis is best known for spearheading a ground-breaking system that enabled a giant corporation such as Walgreens to successfully implement a workforce that included a large number of individuals with disabilities who were held to the same standard as those without disabilities—a system that also created a huge spike in productivity.

Lewis, now retired at 67, speaks at conferences nation-wide to show employers how it can be done: fairly, ethically, and even how the process can be beneficial and advantageous, along with making a strong impact on company and community culture.

Learning Curves and Changing Attitudes
The heart of Lewis’s speech at the event was centered around exposing certain injustices in the workplace today, and clearly demonstrating to employers what can be done to change them. “I want to help them envision that there is something out there, that this is their story. Employers need to be able to put a face to it[…]to see people with disabilities as people,” says Lewis.

Attitudes can take a long time to change, says Lewis, because most people are unaware of their attitude or stereotypical thoughts. “I think in the U.S. now it is much more visible that it was…but all we can do is expose the reality and some people will see it, and then those people have to have the will to do something about it,” says Lewis.

Lewis was very clear on how his company had to jump through many hoops and learning curves to get to the point where their South Carolina distribution center was designed specially for integrating people with disabilities. “This program was NOT a charity. We wanted to have people with disabilities next to people without disabilities doing the same job, held to the same standards, for the same pay, side by side,” explains Lewis. Walgreens became the first company in the United States to successfully implement inclusive hiring procedures and work environments on such a large scale.

Expose, Envision and Act
Lewis points out that his team took the time to really assess the success of the program across all factors: employee productivity, harmony in the work place, accuracy, safety, etc. “After extensive study, what we found is that our center was the most productive in the history of the company,” says Lewis. “People with disabilities performed better or just as well as people without disabilities. They worked safer, they have better retention and less absenteeism.”

What’s more, Lewis noted that the workers without disabilities began to see themselves as instruments of change. “When you’ve got everybody aligned toward the mission, and you’ve got everyone saying that their most important job is to make everyone around them successful, you’ve got lightening in a bottle,” says Lewis.

Lewis and his team learned through trial and error that when in doubt about whether a person with disabilities is suitable for a certain task in the workplace, just ask the person! “We had to learn to never assume what people can and can’t do,” he says. Over time, Lewis began speaking to other large companies to show them how they could implement the same strategies in their workforce. It became clear that with the right attitude and guidance, large corporations across North America were seeing the same success as Lewis. “They [other companies] were seeing great performance and great impact on culture, and they didn’t have to lower the bar at all, but they did, like us, have to open the door a little wider,” says Lewis.

Education to Employment
To help prepare children and teens with autism (and their families) for the challenges that arise in adulthood with finding and retaining meaningful employment, Lewis points to certain initiatives in Canada and the U.S. that have been steering things in the right direct. In Sarnia, Ontario, a long-standing community of volunteers and staff have been working to improve the conditions of individuals with disabilities, both for life and in the workplace. Community Living Sarnia-Lampton’s model is one that Lewis would like to see implemented in the United States.

He feels that what is missing from most early-intervention and IEP considerations in schools is a process in which a student and their family is given a set of goals to accomplish at different age ranges to help them prepare for the social aspect of adulthood, both for life and for employment. He also points to the Michigan START Project from Grand Valley University in the U.S., which is funded by the Michigan Department of Education. The START project provides evidence-based training, technical assistance and resources to teachers who work with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The Mission Continues
Lewis cautions us to make no mistake—it will take time and a lot of effort to make Walgreens’ success commonplace, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to give up sending his message to business leaders everywhere. “When I do this kind of thing, speaking at conferences, maybe only one out of 20 people will hear about it, and then an even smaller percentage of people from there will act upon it,” says Lewis.

Though many people assume that Lewis began these wide-scale efforts with the well-being of his own son in mind (who has autism), Lewis explains that this isn’t about his son, but that his son opened his eyes to what can be possible, and to all the amazing things people with disabilities can do (sometimes better than those without disabilities).

“This is about all those parents who lay awake at night just staring at the ceiling. This is about all those people who want to work, who can work, but aren’t allowed to because of our attitude and all these invisible walls we put up around our businesses,” says Lewis. “This wasn’t about disabilities and this wasn’t about charities. This was about justice.”

In an emotional moment, Lewis declares, “As parents [of a child with a disability], we share the secret hope that we may live just one day longer than our child, because we know what’s likely waiting. But a job…a job can change all that. It can mean independence, security, relationships. […] This is an idea whose time has come.”