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It’s time to reframe (dis)ability

janheadshotwebBy Jan van der Hoop

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the privilege to work in a couple of organizations who had the courage and good sense to employ people with disabilities. My first such experience dates back to 1979 or 1980, at what was then the Hilton (now Westin) Harbour Castle Hotel. I was in my late teens, young enough to have had little exposure to people with disabilities… so Lenny was a bit of a novelty to me when I first met him. I’m guessing he’d have been in his mid-20’s at the time, and had some form of autism.

Lenny worked in Housekeeping. His primary job was to collect the dirty sheets and towels that had been dropped down the laundry chutes in big totes, trundle them through the bowels of the building and deliver them to the in-house laundry, where he unloaded them to be sorted and washed by the laundry team. Then he’d take the clean laundry which had been pressed and folded, and stacked it carefully in a handful of staging areas for the room attendants to draw from as necessary. No small task in a 1000-room hotel.

There are a few things I found remarkable and admirable about Lenny.

Being on the waterfront at a time when that part of the city was still remote, getting to the hotel on public transit wasn’t easy. Yet Lenny was always there early, in spite of how miserable the elements. He was always smiling, happy to be there. And he worked like a horse, never complaining. If you stopped to say hi or ask him a question, he would always be good natured and polite… but he was understandably awkward and a man of few words. I also remember he was incredibly strong… nothing seemed to slow him down.

It’s funny – I was at the Oakville GO station last summer, waiting to pick up one of my kids. Who did I see waiting for a ride, but Lenny. Of course he didn’t remember me after well over 25 years, but I had to say hi. Yes, he’s still working at the Harbour Castle.

So. Why is any of this relevant? In the last six months, we’ve found ourselves working with the Ontario Disabilities Employment Network, applying our predictive analytics to help community agencies place people with disabilities into meaningful, steady work. The work is immensely rewarding on a personal level… and it’s great to be in a position where we can apply our tools to help employers see the ability, instead of being blinded (and blocked) by the disability.

Bar none, every one of the people I’ve met in the course of this work remind me of Lenny. Their (dis)ability may be different, but to a person they are willing to do the less glamorous, repetitive work. They are loyal. Reliable. Good-natured and undemanding. Along the way, the folks at ODEN have shared with me some incredible stats about the benefits (to the P&L, not just good karma) of hiring people with disabilities. The documented case studies are staggering.

Tired of hiring and training people, only to have them leave you or disappoint you? Drop me a note – I’ll be happy to introduce you to people who can help.

 Jan van der Hoop is President, Fit First Technologies. Jan can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

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