Kathleen Durkin | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Kathleen Durkin

Background:  

Founded in 1949 in Baltimore County, The Arc Baltimore supports more than 6,000 adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. As one of the nation’s largest organizations of its kind, The Arc Baltimore provides employment training and support, day and residential services, family support and education, and public policy advocacy.

Kathleen Durkin has more than 37 years of experience in the field of disability services. She joined The Arc Baltimore in 2001 and was named executive director last year after Stephen Morgan, the organization’s long-time leader, retired. Durkin also serves on the board of directors of the Maryland Association of Community Services.

The Mistake:

The mistake was underestimating people with disabilities, but also underestimating the community and employers’ willingness to see somebody with disabilities as an asset.

I’ve been in this field for over 30 years, and historically we underestimated the skills and talents of people with disabilities in the workforce. Today we’re seeing more and more that they’re being acknowledged as true assets by their employers, but we never really thought of it that way back in the day.

We used to give people with disabilities something to do—simulated work or practice work.

I can remember years ago we would work with somebody to teach them certain skills and put something together, then they’d leave for the day and we’d undo their work. We’d just take it apart, and the next day they’d redo it.

We didn’t mean it ever to be this way, but it was really demoralizing. It was really more about filling their day, with the end goal of teaching skills. It should have been about finding ways to match who they are and what their skills, gifts and talents are with the needs of an employer or the community at large.

You learn from doing, and people with disabilities are no different. We thought we needed to teach them these skills in these simulated environments to get them ready to go out to work instead of allowing them the dignity of learning on the job like the rest of us do.

We underestimated both sides—we underestimated the person with the disability and we underestimated the acceptance of the community or an employer. Some of it was certainly the times, but I think as a service industry we didn’t adapt quickly enough and we didn’t validate the gifts that people with disabilities have. We thought people had to be able to do every task, and that’s not applicable to someone without a disability, so why should it be applicable to someone with a disability?

People with disabilities absolutely are assets in the workforce and they absolutely can contribute to the bottom line of an employer.

The Lesson:

The lesson is to see a broader view of what somebody with a disability can bring to the table.

Folks with disabilities have lots of gifts and talents, and that may look different for different people, but everybody has something to contribute. The value of work is less about the task and more about the contribution and the value that’s added.

It’s no different than any other work scenario—we match an employer’s need with somebody who has something to offer. It’s a win-win for everybody. You figure out what their gifts and talents are, and you figure out what the employer’s needs are and you match that. The lesson we learned is to really look at somebody’s gifts and talents instead of their deficits and disabilities and labels.

People with disabilities absolutely are assets in the workforce and they absolutely can contribute to the bottom line of an employer. We have folks working all sorts of different jobs. We have somebody who works in a hospital and sterilizes equipment, we have people working in warehouse environments, we have someone who stocks shelves in a wine store. The diversity of jobs out there is wide, and we can match people with disabilities to those jobs.

Diversity in the workforce is so important; I know that as an employer. The power of diversity, no matter what the diversity is, enriches a workplace environment. Any time you have an enriched workforce you’ll have greater retention. You’ll also have a better outcome if you have happy employees. Diversity enriches that for everybody. People want to work in a place they can contribute and bring value, and people with disabilities are no different—they want to work and feel good and give back, and the value they bring enriches their coworkers and their employers.

The Arc Baltimore is on Twitter at @TheArcBaltimore.

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