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Walgreens program puts the ‘able’ in disabled

At a new, first-of-its-kind distribution center where a third of its workforce is disabled, Walgreens is laying the ground to transform opportunities for the handicapped. NBC’s Mika Brzezinski reports from Anderson, S.C.
/ Source: NBC News

For Julia Turner, who was born with Down syndrome, a full-time job might seem out of reach, but not here, at Walgreens’ first-of-its-kind Southeastern distribution center.

“I have found what I want, and I’m satisfied,” Turner said as she scanned boxes at the center, which officially opened June 14. The drugstore chain’s plan is to hire an 800-person workforce that is one-third disabled, but it is ahead of that goal, reporting that 42 percent of the 250 people it has hired so far have a physical or cognitive disability.

The Anderson facility is the first of what Walgreens’ parent, Walgreen Co. of Deerfield, Ill., envisions as a network of regional distribution centers where disabled employees are mainstreamed into the workforce. A second regional center, in Windsor, Conn., is expected to open in 2009.

The outreach is the brainchild of Randy Lewis, Walgreens’ senior vice president of distribution and logistics, whose 19-year-old son, Austin, has autism.

“Austin’s gift to me was to look past the disability to see a person,” Lewis said. It is a philosophy that many businesses have been slow to embrace.

Nationwide, only 35 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities had full- or part-time jobs in 2004, according to a survey by the National Organization on Disability. People without disabilities had an employment rate of 78 percent; in Anderson County, it is closer to 90 percent, according to county economic development figures.

Tommy Watson has Asperger syndrome, sometimes known as “high-functioning autism,” which makes him developmentally disabled in some ways but also fuels a startling facility with computers. When anyone has a computer problem at Walgreens’ Anderson center, they call Watson.

“It’s amazing,” he said.

No lowering of standards
The National Organization on Disability survey found that 26 percent of people with disabilities had annual household incomes below $15,000, compared with 9 percent of those without disabilities.

That is a trap Walgreens is determined not to fall into. Central to its initiative is that Watson and other disabled employees, some of them in management positions, work side by side with their colleagues, for the same pay.

The distribution center, which was built to support Walgreens’ expansion to 700 stores in the Southeast, is outfitted with touch screens for the vision-impaired, flexible workstations, wheelchair ramps and elevators. All workers receive disability awareness training, and managers go through a special program run by the University of North Carolinaon supporting disabled employees.

For Walgreens, the outreach is no charity. Disabled workers must meet the same performance standards as their non-disabled colleagues, Lewis said, and the company expects its new distribution center to be fully as efficient and cost-effective as its traditional facilities.

It is also a boon for Anderson, a manufacturing center halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., which gave Walgreens an incentive package reducing its property tax rate and setting aside some tax collections for infrastructure costs.

Anderson and several other surrounding counties are also partners at the facility, as are four state departments involved in vocational and disability programs. The Anderson County Disabilities and Special Needs Board and the state Vocational Rehabilitation Department oversee work tryouts for disabled candidates at the distribution center.

A future full of optimism
Lewis said the Walgreens program gives hope to the parents of disabled children, who he said often wonder “what would happen after I’m gone. Can I live one day longer than my child?”

Watson’s mother, Dianne Lipper, said Walgreens has answered that question.

“I don’t have to have that worry anymore,” she said. “He’s going to be [taken] care of here. As long as he performs his job and does his best for Walgreens, he’s got a home.”