Nearly 20 years ago, author Robert Fulghum catapulted to the top of the bestseller list with a simple credo: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. In this collection of essays, he made a compelling case that life’s most important lessons are best learned through the eyes of a child.
I agree, and my experiences, both personal and professional, indicate that Fulghum’s principle applies not only to individuals, but also organizations. Yes, kindergarten — home to energetic, wide-eyed 5-year-olds with open minds, vivid imaginations and a zest for life — is a true think tank for the ideals needed to transform any organization’s workplace into an inclusive one. It is a classic symbiotic community made up of children working together to help one another, behavior that benefits the whole group.
Have you ever met a kindergartner who didn’t want to be class helper or share a box of crayons? Kindergartners possess the basic characteristics needed in today’s workforce to create diverse, inclusive settings — workplaces that wholeheartedly welcome all people for what they bring to the table. Kindergartners don’t focus on differences. They see people as just that — people — not their age, gender, ethnicity or disability. Employers should similarly focus first and foremost on the talent people with disabilities bring to the team and appreciate their diversity of thought, discussion and perspective.
Kindergartners have keen insight into human behavior. They sense emotion and fearlessly act accordingly. As people with disabilities, we may appear to be different, due to the use of prostheses, adaptive technology and mobility devices, to name a few. But our emotional intelligence allows us to quickly access and understand others in a variety of situations, manage frustrations and put things in perspective. These are attributes smart employers recognize and value.
Kindergartners are aware of the changing world around them and adapt. If something doesn’t “fit in the box,” they are quick to adjust, learn new ways to approach it, or simply change the rules. Employers can and should do this, too. Creating accessible workplaces and providing productivity tools and job accommodations is often easier and less expensive than one thinks. Research regarding accommodations indicates that fifty-nine percent cost nothing, and those that do typically cost less than $500.
Kindergartners are naturally inquisitive and resourceful. This is easily seen through their endless “but why?” questions and their sharp negotiating skills. People with disabilities are inherent problem solvers. We have to be. We’re naturals at finding a way to work around and through issues, challenges and the unexpected. What workplace today couldn’t benefit from that form of thinking?
Most of all, kindergartners teach by example. Just watch them. They find a way to include everyone. I grew up and attended kindergarten in Bismarck, North Dakota, where winters were typified by single-digit temperature readings, 50 inches of snow, blustery wind and seemingly endless frigid dark days. I saw daily how these winters bred a community culture built on helping one another and inclusivity. My use of four prostheses may not have made me the best player on the baseball team, but I was happily and naturally included. In fact, there wasn’t a time during my childhood in the Peace Garden State that I wasn’t included.
Inclusion works in communities, and inclusion works in the workplace. As Fulghum wrote, “It doesn’t matter what you say you believe − it only matters what you do.” So, this National Disability Employment Awareness Month, act on the wisdom of youngsters. Build an inclusive workforce, one where we can all achieve our corporate and human goals. #InclusionWorks. Need proof? Break out the crayons and spend a day with kindergartners. The picture they create will be one of inclusion.
John D. Kemp is the president and CEO of The Viscardi Center, a network of nonprofit organizations that provides a lifespan of services that educate, employ and empower children and adults with disabilities.