Randy Lewis

Fortune 50 executive, disability advocate and consultant Randy Lewis discusses how individuals with disabilities can be supported and helped by educators Oct. 3 in the Mary Linn Auditorium of the Ron Houston Center. 

Northwest welcomed disability advocate and Fortune 500 executive Randy Lewis for the annual Ploghoft Diversity Lecture at the Ron Houston Center for the Performing Arts.

Associate professor for the School of Education and Ploghoft Chair David Kiene said Lewis spoke at Mozingo Conference Center for the Maryville community prior to his lecture on campus Oct. 3.

When Lewis and his wife found out their son, Austin, was autistic, the Walgreens executive said he thought to himself, “How is Austin going to get a job?”

Lewis then built a new Walgreens distribution center in South Carolina and announced of the 600 people he would hire, 200 of them would be people with disabilities.

“If we’re going to go big, let’s go high,” Lewis said.

He promoted equality by hiring employees regardless of ability. Lewis put a sign on the inside of the distribution center that read “Them” crossed out, which represented people with disabilities.

Lewis said he had to believe in people with disabilities and their strength to make his project happen.

“It’s not the number of people who are involved in a movement, it’s how big the dedication of the people that are in it,” Lewis said. “It’s the people who hang in there, and that means sometimes you have to be other people’s strength when they don’t have it – that’s what I had to do. When they didn’t believe, I had to believe for them.”

Lewis shared stories of people who worked their way up to manager positions. The Walgreens distribution centers now employs 2,000 people with disabilities overall.

“Truth be told, we have not found a single disability that we automatically exclude,” Lewis said.

Horace Mann Laboratory School Principal Laura King attended the lecture with her two sons Robby and Eric King. At the end of the lecture, Laura King asked her son, Eric King, if he wanted to speak to Lewis after the lecture. She said it was because of people like him that Eric has a job today.

“He is a part of a new program in St. Joseph at Mosaic Hospital, where he is actually doing his senior year through Mosaic in a program called ‘All Students Achieve,’” Laura King said. “He goes to the hospital everyday, does an internship and gets job training, so when he graduates from high school, he can then be employable.”

Eric King is nonverbal, but said the lecture was good.

Kiene said his main takeaway from the lecture was for people to see potential in others.

“Who do you see when you look at somebody?” Kiene said. “Do you see someone with a disability? Or do you see somebody who has potential? It’s not looking at their disability but looking at what they’re capable of doing.”

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