Helena Lopes

In the fall of 2016, a student attending his final year of high school in the state of New York was unsatisfied about his work/life opportunities after graduation. He thought that if he did not like what life had to offer him, he should open his own business. And so he did. After partnering with his father, they ultimately came up with a product which may seem simple to many, but that yet had sheer success: socks. Specifically, ‘’crazy’’ socks.

After having opened their website and barely using advertising, orders began streaming in. Their mission is to ‘’spread happiness’’, which is also pursued by constantly donating 5% of their revenues to charities. They gave a speech at a UN conference, attended a forum of Ernst & Young (EY), were featured in a Google’s blog and also in a BBC’s article, just to name a few. Among their customers, they have former US presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

But there is a ‘’small’’ detail worth mentioning: John Cronin, the (former) student and conceiver of the growing successful business model, has Down’s syndrome. Moreover, while the firm’s workforce amounts to 35 employees, 15 of those are people with some form of different capability. Certain socks are linked to different charities, thus generating donations from each product which are given to charities tackling specific issues (breast cancer, autism, Alzheimer etc..).

What can we learn from this story? First of all, having stereotypes is not only useless but also counterproductive. While being different means that we have different needs and abilities, that is not a threshold for being categorized as a ‘’better’’ or ‘’less capable’’ person. The concept of ”difference” does not necessarily entail a hierarchy where someone is at the top and the less lucky at the bottom. Stories like this prove that it is possible to seamlessly integrate with people that are not quite like us, and still ‘’profit’’ personally and financially from it. How can we pretend to coexist with someone when the very society we live in does not provide them with the opportunity to live their own life with dignity, by earning their own money and undertaking enriching experiences?

Unfortunately, some businesses struggled more than John’s Crazy Socks. A pizzeria based in Denver called Pizzability, which opened in December 2018, found out that being a viral hit can be harmful even in the very short term. When customers started complaining about the service of (primarily disabled) workers by insulting the staff, confirming their intrinsic discrimination over disabled people, things started to get complicated. It was harder to pay the rent, settle invoices from suppliers or provide a wage to people in need. But when a local journalist decided she had had enough of this situation, she showed her discontent with a tweet, encouraging people to visit the restaurant instead of just walking by. This act proved to be a boost to the workload of the pizza place, increasing daily revenues from around $50 to more than $4000 (that’s 80 times higher). The ‘’frustration’’ of the customers now was aimed at the queue that was forming for hours before being able to enter the place. However, this only lasted two weeks, as people began to visit just to exploit the visibility of the place to post on social networks, without engaging in the experience of being customers.

This shows how difficult it is to introduce something when and where society is not ready or enough open-minded to accommodate these efforts. Even though this example may seem daunting, this is no reason for not keeping to try. Most people support these initiatives just for a feeling of pity, which can to some extent be considered itself as a form of discrimination: deeply speaking, how do you define someone who is ‘’different’’ or worth more than someone else? Why not just allow people to be treated like anyone else, without having to change our behaviour in their presence?

Many countries already offer tax reductions or subsidies to companies which hire someone with a form of disability, is it either physical or intellectual. However, often firms do not exploit this opportunity because although they may have economic incentives to do that, they feel it is not worth the effort and the time. Looking at a more corporate level that the aforementioned examples, a company which has been at the forefront of providing accessible and enjoyable workplace conditions is IBM. For instance, it introduced a disability awareness training program that all employees are required to attend, and is very flexible in adapting to people’s needs ever since the recruiting process itself.

While I was still in high school, my class participated in a project which consisted of spending an entire day in a daycare centre for people with disabilities. While at first it seemed challenging to interact because there was the fear of saying something wrong, that impression was immediately blown away by the enthusiasm and friendliness of these people. They considered you their brother even though you just spent a few hours with them, and could not understand why they were not able to come home with you. I realized that probably I had more to learn from them than they from me, which is why I would suggest anyone make such an experience. What could we lose in trying to break our stigmas and become better versions of ourselves?