In Part II of this interview with Assistant Labor Secretary Neil Romano, he continues his conversation with ABILITY Magazine about the coming revolution in the American workforce:
People with disabilities are the next great wave, and they bring something special, because they have unique ways of doing their jobs. They have no choice. I know that I’ve always had to figure out different, innovative methods to get things done. Even the guy who started IBM said all innovation comes out of diversity. People with disabilities are going to bring innovation to every field. When they bring innovation, it stimulates new products, new services, and new procedures to get business done that will benefit everybody in America, not just people with disabilities.
I can use the obvious example of the curb cut. I always say to people, “When was the last time you rode your bicycle and didn’t ride off the curb cut? When was the last time you pushed your shopping cart off of the regular part of the curb? Which, by the way, 20 years ago, we all did. When we start doing what we can to add those productivity enhancements for people with disabilities, we’re going to see huge changes, because all we’re really doing is helping another group of people deal with a hostile environment. When we tame any environment, we tame it for everybody.
The three people in American history who had the most significant disabilities couldn’t breathe on their own. They had to put on special protective clothing because of the potential for infection. They couldn’t communicate, so entirely new communications devices had to be created. They had to monitor their bodies because they were fragile. They even had to make new foods because their swallowing apparatuses couldn’t operate normally. They couldn’t even move within 10 feet of their ultimate goal. But when these three guys came back from the moon, after meeting all those challenges, they brought with them a significant portion of the gross national product of America as we know it today. What did we really do? We really just made productivity enhancements and accommodations for people who could not survive in a hostile environment. It’s no different for people with disabilities. When they become fully incorporated, it’s going to change America—again.
I’ve said many times that when we have the inclusion of people with disabilities in the American workplace, it’s going to be one of the greatest boons to this country since the Industrial Revolution. We will get some of the most incredible products, services and procedures that we will proudly export around the world. Along with the tangibles, we will be exporting a new form of freedom: The freedom to give people the opportunity to reach their full potential, no matter what their ability level. To me, that’s very valuable.
I firmly believe that we’re all created equal, just as it says in the Declaration of Independence. I have always felt that the founders of America wrote a check that we must try to cash every day. That’s our job. They knew darn well that this country wasn’t an equal society at the time. But that’s what we must fight for. This is the next great wave of equality in America, and it will move us forward again.
I feel I’ve got an incredible product. I feel I’ve got the mother lode for businesses. That’s how I approach it. I approach businesses by saying to them what I think is the absolute truth: If you’re not hiring people with disabilities, you’re going to get run over by all the really good companies that are saying, “Oh, my God, there’s talent there, and we’d better mine it.” And they’re going to get the best and the brightest, and they’re going to get them soon. That’s the way it needs to be. I talk to businesses all the time. They ask me, “Neil, what can we do to be part of this with you?” I say, “You need to devote a portion of your advertising and go out there and say, ‘We hire people with disabilities, and guess what? They positively affect our bottom line.’”
I stood up before a wonderful group the other day, and they had their diversity initiatives. And they held up this sign that said, “We hire people with disabilities because of this and because of that.” And I read their brochure and I held it up in front of this group, the CEO, everyone in the audience, and I said, “You guys are liars. This is a lie. This is not why this multi-national corporation hires people with disabilities. You hire them because they’re talented, and you’re not doing anybody any favors. And they’re making money for the business, because if they weren’t, you wouldn’t hire them in these numbers. You wouldn’t work hard to recruit them. That’s what America needs to understand: People with disabilities contribute.
I always say, we have to move to an investment model. Even in government, we invest in our farmers, our students, our troops. How many times have you heard them say, “We invest in our people with disabilities. We have programs for them”? Not too often.
We’re used to 50 years of begging. “Please take the one guy with Down syndrome and throw him in the mail room, please, because we’re X disability group in your community, and isn’t that a nice thing to do?” I was sick to my stomach—an organization that I am intimately involved with is doing an ad. So I’m in my car listening to it, and it’s saying: “You know, people with disabilities can work,” da-da-da. Everything I’ve pounded into these people. And then they end the ad by saying, “Now don’t you really want to help these people who need a hand?” I just wanted to drive my car into a pole. They ruined it in the last four seconds! And that’s the problem. The problem is this constant, “Do me a favor.” No, do what’s right for your business and that’ll be the biggest favor you can do, but make sure when you’re doing it, you’re focusing on the fact that 45 percent of all people with disabilities who will get a college education will not work. As a corporation, you need to ask yourself, “Can I afford to let this happen, to have a college-educated person not work?”
I met with a group today that represents 600 major corporations. They said, “We want to hire people with disabilities, but we want to learn how to make our sites more accessible. We realize we’re filtering people out, and we don’t want to do that any more. We want to get involved right now. We heard what you had to say, and we’ve got to do this now, because we’re progressive businesses, and we don’t have a labor pool, and we need people.” That’s the other side of the coin that excites me. Sometimes I think business is ahead of some groups.
I remember trying to figure out how the folks at Gatorade went to a half-billion-dollar business from one that was making four-and-a-half million dollars. I wanted to meet with these people, because I’m a marketing guy. I wanted to know what they do. So I met with the president of the brand. The guy goes into a 15-minute rant about Gatorade being better than water. Not that Gatorade was competing with other sports drinks, but that it was better than water! He was convinced. He said, “I can give you 50 reasons why.” I figured he’d give me three or four. He gave me all 50 about why Gatorade was better!
We have to believe in people with disabilities and bring a similar zeal that says, “If you’re not doing this, you’re making a mistake.” Not “please do us a favor.” It is a completely different aspect of sale. I say to people all the time, “When was the last time you walked into a Home Depot and they said, ‘Please buy this product. It’s not as good as some of the others you can buy in some other stores, but you know what? Come on, do the guy who made it a favor’” That’s how we do it, and then we scratch our heads when people say, “No, I don’t think so.” I used to call it the day-old bread model. “Please buy this bread. It’s just a little stale. But we promise you, heat it, put butter and jelly on it, and maybe it’ll taste good.” And then we wonder why it doesn’t fly off the shelf.
HEDGE OF PROTECTION
To go back to where I started, I think it’s that desire to build a hedge of protection around people, because we care. But instead of freeing these human beings to be whom they can be, we have protected them to a point where we’re now in a situation where we have to canvas business people to convince them that these people are worthy of opportunity. And it makes the sale a little bit harder.
Because I’m sub-Cabinet level, I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States. I am what’s known as PAS around here, which means Presidentially Appointed and Senate-Confirmed. I was confirmed by the Senate, and I will likely be retired when President Bush leaves office. Of course, the next administration could make the decision to keep me if they want, or until they can fill the position. Those are the prerogatives of whomever is in the Oval Office. I knew I only potentially had a year here, so I put my head down, and I’m going to run until I hit the tape. I’m not going to slow down. I’ll figure out what’s next after this is over.
Before this, I was running America’s Strength, an organization I started to help people with disabilities find mainstream employment, and doing a lot of talks. I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t care where I’m going next. When I sold my business six years ago, I committed myself to this mission; it’s what my life is going to be about. Period. I have no other plans—whether I leave this job or stay in it—except to continue to do the same work with whatever platform I have. Whatever I’m afforded, I’m going to use it, because this is not a job for me at all. This is what I have become about: setting other people free. That excites me.
I’ve said to people privately many times: I was too young to have marched with Dr. King. I couldn’t be part of the Suffrage Movement. But this is where I can be a part of history. This is an issue in society where things need to change, and they need to change now.
We have to convince the American people that this is not just about people with disabilities, this is about Americans, period. Helping every American get to where they deserve to be, which is to be fully integrated into society, where they can contribute, and I truly believe that people with disabilities are going to bring more to the table than anyone ever imagined.
I’m sure you’ve been up to IBM and met the gentleman who invented the mathematical algorithm for speech. Did you know anything about this gentleman? He was a Russian refusenik and great mathematician who was thrust off to Israel. IBM finds out about him, and they also find out that he’s been deaf since birth. They bring him to the U.S. to work, and find out that not only is he deaf, but that he only speaks Russian sign language. So this gentleman finds himself in an environment where they’re working with him, but he’s a little bit off.
HELP ONE, HELP ALL
Basically, he started working on the mathematical algorithm for speech that is the basis from which Dragon comes. That patent—he’s now got almost 200 patents—is the basis for just about every voice-activated product that you use. Those are his patents. IBM has been leasing those patents out to people, everything from speaking to your navigation system in your car or your telephone. IBM has made billions of dollars off of this gentleman’s invention, which is designed to help him communicate with the people in the next cubicle at work. And that technology gets better and better. People use it all the time.
When my 13-year-old daughter was little, we had this switch put in so that she could say, “On,” and turn the lights on. Let me tell you, for a scared little girl it helped an awful lot to be able to yell “on,” when she was going up the steps, and didn’t have to reach that switch. The quality of life for every American has changed because of that mathematical algorithm.
A gentleman by the name of Dr. Robert Fishchell lives near our home. He is essentially the Thomas Edison of our time that no one’s heard about. Interesting guy. He worked for biophysics labs. He did little things like invent how to keep satellites from tumbling when in orbit, which then gave birth to every single piece of telecommunications we now have today. Little things like that, as well as the pop-up sprinkler. He invented the heart stent. During conversations with him, there are two things he always says to me. Number one is that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of everything that can be invented for people with disabilities has been invented. And number two is every time you have these conversations where people say, “Who can afford it? Who can buy it?” The fact of the matter is, if you make it, it’ll get purchased.
Once again, I cite the great curb cut controversy: “We’re going to spend all this money putting these in, and who’s going to use them?” It’s the same thing. “Who’s going to pay $300 for that?” But if you manufacture two million of them it makes it more economical. Put a universal design in it, and you may sell 20 million of them. And maybe the price drops to $25 apiece. We’re always very short-sighted in that area.
ONE ARM, NO PROBLEM
One of the things I’ve done here at ODEP is to get Jim Abbott, the former Major League pitcher, to be a spokesman for us. He’s incredible. I’m a big baseball fan. What he’s doing is going to baseball games across the U.S., and in the bottom of the third inning, for instance, the announcers will say to him, “Jim, how have you been? Tell me about your no-hitter. What are you doing now?” He’s going to be talking about his work to encourage employers to hire people with disabilities, and looking at what they can do, reminding us. He says: “Can you imagine if the coaches and folks had looked at me and said, ‘One hand? Sorry Jim, you can’t pitch.’ I almost won 100 games in the major leagues, I pitched a no-hitter, pitched in the playoffs, had a season of 18 wins. Certainly my employers didn’t hire me for my looks. They hired me for my left hand, not my right.” He’s going to be talking about that on TV.
We just finished something with Little League Baseball. During the Little League World Series, ODEP produced a video about Challenger Division baseball, which is for children with disabilities. We emphasized the fact that Challenger Division is being done because Little League Baseball recognizes that these young people are going to grow up and take the jobs of the future. It’s never been cast that way before. They need to learn all the same things you need at work: teamwork, leadership. These skills need to be taught early on. So we’re using every device we can, including an aggressive public relations campaign to get the word out.
Neil Romano is Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Department of Labor/Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)