Feb. 11, 2008— -- At first glance, the Walgreens distribution center in Anderson, S.C., seems ordinary enough. But upon closer inspection, it's anything but. More than 40 percent of the 700 workers here are disabled.
Walgreens employee Julia Turner has Down's Syndrome. Derrill Perry, who works right next to her, is mentally retarded. Garrick Tada has autism. Luann Bannister, one of their training supervisors, is in a wheelchair.
"I tell you what — I love this job!" Turner exclaimed. "I'm happy, I'm contented, I've got people all around me who are the best friends I've ever had in the whole world."
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href="http://www.startonsuccess.org/">Start on Success is a program that helps high school students with disabilities transition into the workforce.
And Angela Mackey, who recruited most of them, has cerebral palsy.
"I hope that from my work and from this program, I'm showing that disability or not, we all have potential. We all have value," Mackey said.
Though the job market continues to be a bright spot in an otherwise troubled economy, with the unemployment rate still just 4.7 percent, the national unemployment rate for disabled Americans is more than 44 percent. Almost two decades after the first President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, disabled Americans continue to face enormous barriers in the workplace. But in this building, abled and disabled workers do many of the same jobs and earn the same pay.
href="http://www.nod.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Feature.showFeature&FeatureID=1681">Army's Wounded Warriors (AW2) is a collaboration between the National EmployAbility Partnership and the U.S. Army to ensure that the most severely injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are productively engaged in pursuing their careers after they return home from active combat.
Luann Bannister observed, "It seems to be that a lot of corporate America tends to think you need to give someone with a disability an easier job. Everyone here is on equal ground."
In this building, people with disabilities are not invisible.
Lynn Laughter said, "When you see someone on the street with a disability, everybody avoids that person. Here, we come up and shake your hand. It's totally different."
The quiet revolution happening in Anderson is the brainchild of Walgreens executive Randy Lewis, who has a 19-year-old son with autism.
"As a parent, I saw the future and so the question is, given our position, what do we do about it? Maybe we could be an example, maybe we could use our position of leadership to try to change the work environment."
Lewis admits that the project is "very personal."
Lewis says the distribution center in Anderson is no less productive than others. In fact, Anderson is more productive. The training and technologies that help disabled workers do their jobs better help all employees do their jobs better, he said.
"People come to me and say, will this work in my environment? Yes, it will. This is not just a good thing to do, the right thing to do. This is better," Lewis said. "When you walk through this building, there is a sense of purpose. Everybody knows why they're here. Everybody helps each other. This has transformed the people that work here."
The program is giving many jobs and financial independence to people — sometimes for the first time in their lives. And Lewis makes it clear that the disabled people are eager and capable.
"This building is not about charity. It's about opportunity." he said. "These folks that work out here perform just as well as anybody at their job."
When asked by ABC News if it felt good to get a paycheck every week, Turner responded, "It sure does. And if anybody needs a big check, come over here and they'll give it to you."
But only if you earn it.