Show don’t tell: Embracing inclusion is a must for economic progress

Field notes on from a creative writer at the economic horizon

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“Dawn Patrol,” illustration by Benjamin Young
Hero image
“Dawn Patrol,” illustration by Benjamin Young

What I learned from Professor Reich is that we’re all better off when everyone is included in the conversation and therefore able to share in economic growth. This concept serves me well every day as a creative writer for brands facing uncertain markets, the mother of an autistic daughter preparing to take on an uncertain world, and a human seeking to connect and empathize with others in uncertain situations. Across those categories, I push for better, leveraging a key rule of writing:

Show don’t tell.

Writing worth reading paints a vivid picture, leading and entrusting readers to come to their own understanding. Rather than saying that the night was dark and stormy, you can show shaking shutters straining to hold on, a curled-up dog hiding under the bed, or the drilling assault of raindrops. When you take a step back, “show don’t tell” becomes a call to action in a much broader sense for brands, employers, and humans.

Showing you care about people means taking action to ensure they feel seen and heard. I believe that this is not only the right thing to do, but it’s the only way we can navigate the challenges we face economically, socially and individually. No more feel-good soundbites and platitudes while leaving people by the wayside because of their difference — this amounts to failure for business and for people.

An example of telling-not-showing is our society’s claim that we revere individualism. We celebrate lone cowboys, so-called bootstrappers and against-the-odds pioneers, but we’re extremely selective about who we allow to go their own way. What we say is at odds with what we do, and the remedy is an honest examination of how economic forces shape our view of “others.”

I work in an industry that’s trying to find the way forward as the ground shifts beneath our feet. Our new economic reality requires new ways of fueling growth, solving problems and managing change. What if an intentional, fundamental shift in how we view difference and disability could help us build a bright future, together?

During my college years, I had the privilege of being a student of economist, scholar and gifted teacher Robert Reich, who served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration after working for Carter and Ford. His class, which I attended at Brandeis University, was a mind-opener, connecting the macro and micro, literally and figuratively, by showing how directly the lives of people are impacted and in many cases sidelined by economic forces beyond their control.

…the common good is about inclusion — joining together to achieve common goals.
Robert Reich
Workers on the assembly line in 1932 at Ford Motor Company Rouge Plant, which employed more than 100,000 people at its peak. The manufacturing process started with raw materials and rolled out a completely new vehicle every 49 seconds.
Workers on the assembly line in 1932 at Ford Motor Company Rouge Plant, which employed more than 100,000 people at its peak. The manufacturing process started with raw materials and rolled out a completely new vehicle every 49 seconds. (The Henry Ford)
Workers on the assembly line in 1932 at Ford Motor Company Rouge Plant, which employed more than 100,000 people at its peak. The manufacturing process started with raw materials and rolled out a completely new vehicle every 49 seconds.
Workers on the assembly line in 1932 at Ford Motor Company Rouge Plant, which employed more than 100,000 people at its peak. The manufacturing process started with raw materials and rolled out a completely new vehicle every 49 seconds. (The Henry Ford)

Peering back just to the 20th century, when our national economic engine ran largely on conformity, manufacturing required an endless supply of factory workers — those who could literally and figuratively stay in line and ensure rapid and consistent output. The rise of eugenics dovetailed with industrialization, solidifying the idea that the disabled and different were less productive, less able to conform, and therefore their lives less valuable. Not only is this deeply wrong on a moral and humanitarian level, but it also prevents economic progress.

One in five Americans has a disability, and overlapping with that is the 20% or more of the population that is neurodivergent, spanning ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism and other differences. Within this substantial minority group lies enormous untapped potential that we are only beginning to recognize.

While at school his dyslexia was treated as a disadvantage, Richard Branson says, “Out in the real world, my dyslexia became my massive advantage: it helped me to think creatively and laterally, and see solutions where others saw problems.” (Rob Kim)
While at school his dyslexia was treated as a disadvantage, Richard Branson says, “Out in the real world, my dyslexia became my massive advantage: it helped me to think creatively and laterally, and see solutions where others saw problems.” (Rob Kim)
While at school his dyslexia was treated as a disadvantage, Richard Branson says, “Out in the real world, my dyslexia became my massive advantage: it helped me to think creatively and laterally, and see solutions where others saw problems.” (Rob Kim)
While at school his dyslexia was treated as a disadvantage, Richard Branson says, “Out in the real world, my dyslexia became my massive advantage: it helped me to think creatively and laterally, and see solutions where others saw problems.” (Rob Kim)

Companies like SAP, Microsoft and Google are starting to make gains in addressing the issue by showing the value of all kinds of diversity, not just telling. But still, according to the Brookings Institute, “Only 40 percent of adults with disabilities in their prime working years (ages 25–54) have a job, compared to 79 percent of all prime-age adults.”

The accessibility problems of today are the mainstream breakthroughs of tomorrow.
Eve Andersson Director of Accessibility Engineering at Google

These statistics are troubling, especially in light of the fact that touchscreens, keyboards, OXO Good Grips, email, voice recognition technology, and bendy straws are just a few familiar examples of how inclusive design, with outliers and difference at the center of ideation, is a pathway to innovation that benefits everyone.

The Swivel Peeler was originally designed for ease of use for people with arthritis, but it turned out to be a better solution for all. In 1994, it became part of the permanent collection at MoMA. (Source: OXO)
The Swivel Peeler was originally designed for ease of use for people with arthritis, but it turned out to be a better solution for all. In 1994, it became part of the permanent collection at MoMA. (Source: OXO)
The Swivel Peeler was originally designed for ease of use for people with arthritis, but it turned out to be a better solution for all. In 1994, it became part of the permanent collection at MoMA. (Source: OXO)
The Swivel Peeler was originally designed for ease of use for people with arthritis, but it turned out to be a better solution for all. In 1994, it became part of the permanent collection at MoMA. (Source: OXO)

At a time when we face daunting challenges, we must face and eliminate the bias that prevents us from accessing a full range of human experience and ingenuity. This idea is a long time coming — in fact, Henry Ford’s early factories stood out in their day because, despite a general trend toward homogeneity in work and workers, they were among the first workplaces to value diversity inclusive of disability.

In his book published in 1922, My Life and Work, Henry Ford explained, “Those who are below the ordinary physical standards are just as good workers, rightly placed, as those who are above. For instance, a blind man was assigned to the stock department to count bolts and nuts for shipment to branch establishments. Two other able-bodied men were already employed on this work. In two days the foreman sent a note to the transfer department releasing the able-bodied men because the blind man was able to do not only his own work but also the work that had formerly been done by the sound men.”

Politically incorrect language aside, Ford demonstrated the power of inclusion long before it was sought or touted by anyone. He had the wisdom to categorize the countless niches of labor in his plants based on different levels of physicality, mentalities and skill and activity requirements, and matched people accordingly — including thousands of soldiers who’d lost limbs while fighting in World War I.

According to The Henry Ford, “It was estimated that Ford Motor Company employed as many as 13,000 people with disabilities in 1927.” It’s incredible to consider the shared economic and societal benefits, as well as individual dignity and upward mobility, that these hiring practices enabled.

Innovation calls on firms to add variety to the mix — to include people and ideas from ‘the edges.’
SAP’s Autism at Work program announcement via HBR

Today, the gains to be made through inclusive hiring are beyond anything Ford could have imagined. The shift from physical labor and mass production as economic driver to creative capacity and intellectual capital means that the playing field is more level than ever before, and vastly more rewarding of different ways of seeing and being in the world.

Autism is certainly not always experienced as a disability, but it’s a difference that tends to be incompatible with traditional, interview-based hiring methods. SAP is one of a growing number of employers who have adapted their hiring processes to welcome neurodivergent candidates, and their Autism at Work program is paying huge dividends. Per a 2017 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “Neurodiversity is a Competitive Advantage,” “Preliminary results suggest that the organization’s [SAP’s] neurodivergent testing teams are 30% more productive than the others.” The group’s intolerance for disorder and ability to detect patterns spurred them to proactively team up with a client to redesign their launch process and avoid cyclical crises that had become too common.

I wonder what Ford would say if he knew that to this day, most employers resist inclusion due to, as the same HBR article points out, “the assumption that scalable processes require absolute conformity to standardized approaches.” Yes, this mentality is alive and well despite our culture’s ongoing lip service to individualism. Thankfully, a sea change is underway. More and more, disability and difference are being recognized as windows into new possibility rather than obstacles to progress.

We face daunting economic challenges today, but there is nothing we can’t do if we believe in the value of every human being. Not in outdated notions of productivity, but in richness of perspective and each human’s ability to adapt, thrive and contribute in our own ways. And not just through empty words, but real efforts to tap the potential in everyone.

Source: Microsoft
Source: Microsoft
The question is would I take a pill to make my disability go away? And that’s a really hard question because I have so much insight and such a rich life that not having this perspective would really change the way I kind of view the world.
Victor Pineda Urban planner, filmmaker and globally recognized expert on inclusive and sustainable cities.

Today, success requires standing out, rather than staying in line. The holy grail of innovation requires paradigm shifts fueled by ways of thinking that originate far from the normative center. In a quickly changing marketplace, companies and brands continue to strive for difference, rooted in truth that no one else can claim. I hold out hope for the prosperous day when we not only say that the same is true for people, but we consistently show it, too.

I wish for a world that views disability, mental or physical, not as a hindrance but as unique attributes that can be seen as powerful assets if given the right opportunities.
Oliver Sacks
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