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A New Lens: Unique Abilities, Not Disabilities

28 Aug, 2021

The benefits of workplace accommodation and respecting the human dignity of all

by Kent Johnson, J.D., Senior Corporate Advisor, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation

Part of the blog series, Authenticity & Connection


“Survival of the fittest.” It’s a principle we can observe again and again, not just in the wild jungles, deserts, and seas, but also on the world’s political stage, and even in our workplaces, as dominant powers sometimes subjugate and abuse those who are vulnerable. Is this who we are as human beings?

I was deeply moved this week when a corporate leader described being clinically blind as a “blessing.” He opened our eyes. He explained how the constraints of blindness have enabled him to lift others up, to show others how to build trust and collaboration, and to strengthen the fabric of corporate culture. This was just one vignette in a tapestry of inspiring personal stories at the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation’s “Dare To Overcome” conference at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, also held virtually worldwide.

The concepts discussed at the conference have powerful and broad relevance, not just to the needs of people with varying abilities among us. Whether faced with a disability or not, we all, in some way and in some places, from time to time, struggle with constraints and weaknesses. Though they may not equate with disabilities, per se, we can learn much from our colleagues with disabilities about how our constraints and weaknesses might present opportunities for blessing. Fact is, we are a community of people who need each other. Help, freely given to the vulnerable without expectation of recompense, is the lifeblood of civility.

The cultural enrichment that comes from heightened sensitivity to others’ needs is just one facet of the business benefit that flows from embracing people with disabilities. Another benefit comes from the insight and heightened abilities they bring to work. For instance, one speaker at the conference described how a company’s focus on accommodation of autistic people led to new AI facial recognition technology that has far broader uses. And, since all technology can be used for good or evil, it’s important to give voice to those who might be especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of some uses.

Some might think discussion of disability and vulnerability is a bit “off topic” for a foundation focused on religious freedom in business. Here are three thoughts on the connection:

(1) As “Dare To Overcome” speakers pointed out, people of every faith, no matter how dominant on the world stage or in particular communities, are in the minority somewhere else. People of every faith are subject to marginalization, oppression, and even genocide somewhere. At the Dare to Overcome conference we heard a poignant cry for help for Yezidi women in Iraq. Religious hatred isn’t the same as physical or developmental disability; but people who indulge in religious hatred have disabled their civility.

(2) Nearly all faiths urge compassion towards and protection of the vulnerable of society. They teach that the arrogance of the powerful is a form of blindness. Some point out the ironic fact that, when we are weak and recognize our weakness, then we are strong. And many affirm the great value of every human being, regardless of one’s social standing or particular set of vulnerabilities.

(3) Like we benefit from accommodating people with various disabilities in the workplace, we will benefit in a similar way from accommodating people of diverse religions in our midst. (Note: I’m not equating religious belief with disability. Far from it. But in some cultures, minority religions are wrongfully treated as a liability or problem.) Companies ought to give voice to members of religious minorities for many reasons, including that of enabling deeper, more trusting connection among coworkers. A corporate culture that humbly acknowledges, respects and listens to its people of different faiths – without imposing the idea that all their respective truth claims are equally valid – is open to fresh, breakthrough insights. The blessing of insight from diversity is especially transformative and healing in cultures where a particular religion or way of thinking is viewed as dominant. Even in what we consider a “free” society, we must be vigilant to guard against the blind arrogance of the powerful, or it will marginalize the vulnerable and foreclose this blessing.

The theme “Dare to Overcome” presented three challenges. The first and obvious one is directed to those of us who have disabilities and constraints: We should keep striving and never lose hope.

The second speaks to all of us; especially those in the dominant culture and in the mainstream, who may think we have no disabilities: We should dare to overcome the prevalent cultural pressure to think of ourselves as self-sufficient or good enough without help.

Third, we should humbly appreciate and celebrate the unique abilities and perspectives that disabled people bring (as illustrated by the blind corporate leader). In so doing, we will nurture relationships of trust, we’ll strengthen the fabric of civility in this all-too-hostile world and we’ll be living true to the values we profess: the values that make us human.

We can do much better than replicate the harsh realities of the wild jungle, the barren desert and the roaring sea. Our workplace culture ought not be a place where it’s “survival of the fittest” or the most powerful. Work ought to be a place where respect and accommodation for every human being — regardless of status or affiliation — are the starting point. Caring for each other, regardless of vulnerability, is a good start. Our faiths lead us to this. Together, let us “dare to overcome!”

To drive home the point, let me end with this inspirational clip of the “Dare To Overcome” Virtual Global Choir.