Henry Ford once said, “There is joy in work. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something.” I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, work is essential to my self-fulfillment; it’s a huge part of who I am.
Work is a fundamental part of identity. It offers purpose and the opportunity to lead a more independent, self-directed life for all people, including millions of Americans with disabilities like me.
I was born blind, as was my sister Peggy. Yet, from a young age, our parents insisted that we contribute to household chores just like our four siblings, from making our beds to mowing the lawn. Now I liked my chores as much as any child does – not much – but my parents sent me an important message by requiring me to work, and it has had a lifelong impact. Those chores taught me the value of work at a young age.
However, the benefits of work extend far beyond any one individual. When all people are able to contribute and be recognized for their abilities, society as a whole reaps the benefits. This belief underlies much of my work at the U.S. Department of Labor, where I have been the assistant secretary for disability employment policy since 2009. I’ve been thinking about it a lot this month as July 26th marked the 23rd anniversary of a landmark event in our nation’s history: the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Like other civil rights legislation that came before it, the ADA works to ensure a more inclusive America, one where more people have the freedom to lead full lives, pursue their dreams, and reach their greatest potential. It also reaffirms the inherent value of one of our core national assets: our diversity.
From its earliest days, America’s strength has been derived not from the commonalities of its people, but rather their differences. That’s because diversity drives innovation.
The same concept applies in business. Research tells us that groups of people outperform individuals − even brilliant individuals − working independently. Even further, groups representing a range of perspectives outperform those with superior, but similar, skill sets. By fostering a corporate culture, respectful of individual differences, including disabilities, businesses benefit from varied approaches to confronting challenges and achieving success. That’s why many of today’s most successful companies proudly deem diversity to be a core value.
Today, more than ever, businesses need people with the ability to adapt to different situations and circumstances. They need people who think divergently. They need people who think diversely.
The anniversary of the ADA presents an opportune time for America’s businesses to affirm their commitment to workplace policies and practices − including internships and other work experience programs for young people with disabilities − that welcome the talents of all qualified individuals.
As a manager, I’ll always choose a solution that represents an amalgam of opinions and insights, rather than the one that approaches a problem only from only one angle. In business, as in society, diversity drives innovation.
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