Hiring people with disabilities can pay big dividends

October 13, 2020 6:00 am

MDI workers on the shop floor. Photo courtesy of MDI.

This is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and, yes, awareness months can feel inauthentic and forced, but I can’t think of a better and more critical time to celebrate this one. 

People with disabilities have an employment rate one-third the general population, and the complications that come with COVID-19 and its impact on employment and job safety have only made it worse.

This October, I encourage organizations to step up and bring employees with disabilities into their workforce. While this may seem like a difficult task, particularly during a pandemic, there’s much to learn from the social enterprise model created by John DuRand, the founder of our company MDI. This model continues to be the foundation of our organization.

The basic principle of this model is that a business can be more successful with a social purpose.  

At MDI, we provide skilled labor, space and resources to carefully assemble and package products for companies and provide reusable corrugated plastic solutions for those looking to pull, push and transport their products around the world. Our employees assemble and package everything from plastic totes and containers and — more recently — face shields and other medical equipment. 

As a nonprofit manufacturer with a target of half of our employees having a disability, it is important to us that folks with disabilities find inclusive jobs where they can gain purpose, independence and empowerment. We also know that doing so improves society as a whole, with more people working, paying taxes and contributing to our economy.

Statistics show that 20% of the population has a disability of some kind, documented or undocumented — and the American workforce does not reflect that proportion. 

And, we have come to know that many people’s abilities to contribute in the workplace are being underestimated. There are approximately 100,000 Minnesotans with disabilities who could work but have slipped through the cracks.

Business leaders may ask, how can I hire people with disabilities without losing money, efficiency or quality of work? 

Our response is to look to the social enterprise model I mentioned earlier.

This model attracts and retains talent who have a passion for executing that social purpose. Trust us: People who are moved by passion — as opposed to, say, money — are likely to work harder and more creatively than you can possibly imagine.

It creates a workplace and culture that allows employees to do their best and execute high-quality work, regardless of ability. 

As a manufacturer, we have quality standards and production numbers we have to meet, both in line with our customer’s expectations and to meet certain qualifications for required certifications. We hit those numbers and standards every day, thanks to our employees — both with and without disabilities — working side by side.

It’s proof that an inclusive and supportive work environment is not only possible but necessary to the success of a business.

For example, folks with disabilities may need different or more job support. At MDI, our employment services team regularly checks in with employees to ensure they are carrying out their jobs as effectively as possible. They help employees understand their shifts, responsibilities and expectations; and assist employees that lose access to transportation or need help getting other services outside of work.

All our employees benefit from this whether they have a disability or not. These are resources that everyone might need at one point in time, whether it be due to financial stress or mental health issues or a traumatic event in their lives. Prioritizing the health and wellbeing of our employees empowers them to do great work for our customers.

So as the awareness and acknowledgement of employment for people with disabilities continues this month, and as your organizations do the hard work of planning for the future during a pandemic, don’t overlook people with disabilities — look to the social enterprise instead. Your organization will be better for it.

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Peter McDermott
Peter McDermott

Peter McDermott is the president and CEO of MDI, a nonprofit Minnesota manufacturer with the mission of providing employment opportunities and services for people with disabilities.