Disability Doesn’t Mean Inability—Paul’s Story

18 Aug

In junior high I spent many a Saturday morning in a bowling league at our local alley. On the lanes adjacent to our league was a league for individuals with disabilities. They were a generally likable bunch. We often said our hellos and cheered for each other when someone did well. They also were kind in consoling me when I threw yet another embarrassing gutter ball.

One of the regulars in that bowling league was Paul. I don’t believe Paul could keep score in bowling, could hold a conversation beyond a few basic words, or read the sentence I’m writing. Paul had a profound cognitive disability.

But there is one thing I can attest to about Paul—he was a extraordinary bowler.

Paul was a delight to watch. His approach to the pins was graceful and smooth, and the ball seemed to explode out of his hand toward its target. When his ball hit the pins there was a deafening sound, a shatter, which echoed through the whole place. It seemed like the pins knew better than resist, and went scurrying to the gutter.

One Saturday Paul was really “on a roll”. He bowled one strike, then another, yet another, and then another. I noticed several people watching this display. Nobody cared Paul had a disability. What counted was that Paul could take up a bowling ball and perform a difficult task, and do so with excellence. And his audience found it worth their time to watch his handiwork.

I’m grateful for folks in that league. And I’m particularly grateful for Paul, because he taught me an exceptionally important lesson—disability doesn’t mean inability.

Yes, Paul was disabled. But he also had a talent.

He could bowl, could do so superbly, better than most. And I’d bet there are other things Paul could do. I’d wager each of the members of that league had some skill or ability that could be put to good use.

I think of Paul as we struggle to hire individuals with disabilities. The unemployment and underemployment of persons with disabilities is staggeringly high, several times the rate of the so-called able-bodied population. And according to government statistics this community has been penalized even more in the recession, losing jobs at a higher rate and when employed at a far lower wage.

I wonder if one of the problems we have in hiring people like Paul is because we only see disability; we don’t look for or see the talents or skills or potential that may be there.

We only see what the Paul’s of the world can’t do, versus what they can do.

A car dealership I know hired a young man who is on the autism spectrum. As is the case with many individuals with this disability, he was a compulsive type, who liked things neat and orderly and clean. The dealership trained him to be a detailer, preparing cars for customers. After a few weeks on the job his manager remarked: “He’s the best detailer we’ve ever had. Customers love how he takes care of their car.”

Another company I know has been hiring disabled employees for years. Compared to peer groups this cohort of disabled employees  stay longer, are absent less, and even use less health benefits.  And the cost, on average, to make “reasonable accommodations” so these employees can be successful contributors? About a hundred bucks.

Kudos to these employers.

They look beyond disability and see an opportunity where good people can contribute, can add value, and like my bowling pal Paul, can do something very, very well. I’d bet there are many more opportunities for employers to secure the talents of folks who may be disabled, but who can, like Paul, bowl a perfect game.

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