Not too long ago, I traveled down to Chattanooga to spend the day at a very unusual company: Habitat International. This is a manufacturing company, and most of its employees have either mental disabilities, physical disabilities, or both. At a time where the number of people with disabilities is on the rise, and employment for people with disabilities is on the decline, the fact that this company is almost alone in its hiring practices is both a shame and a waste. My story about the company is in Inc.’s October 2005 issue.
The few hours that I spent at the Habitat factory were fascinating for me. I am not often in the company of people with disabilities –not often around people with autism, schizophrenia, Down’s Syndrome, for instance. I have to admit that I felt some trepidation before my visit –the thought of walking around a factory where schizophrenic people pilot fork-lifts gave me pause,and I worried that I would in some way give offense to the workers. My job, after all, is to stare and to ask impertinent questions.
My worries were unfounded. The factory was a bit overwhelming, because it is so different from every other workplace I’ve ever visited. The mood is in some ways lighter than you’d find in a typical office park– the workers are obviously enjoying what they do, which is in itself remarkable. But there is also a feeling of additional tension that I couldn’t completely put my finger on at the time. No doubt, part of this was the typical response to a journalist’s presence –they weren’t sure who I was, or what I thought of them, and how I’d portray them in print. But part of it, I think, is the feeling that anything could happen at any moment, a sense of unpredictability that the company operates under. After all, it’s hard to know exactly how Habitat workers are going to respond to a new situation, or even to an old situation. The funny thing is, I think this is true in all companies –who the hell knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. In most companies, the reassuring "normal" stamp on employees foreheads helps managers to think the chaos is kept at bay. At Habitat, they know that chaos can erupt, and they’re prepared for it.