Filiz used to work as an accountant. She was well liked by her peers and her supervisors, and yet something about the job didn’t feel right to her.  “Being blind meant that it took me longer to complete tasks,” she says. “They were nice about it, and our team always reached its targets, but I felt terrible knowing that I was the one everyone waited for all the time.”

Eventually, she left her position, and today she is much happier, having embarked on an entirely different career. She now works for discovering hands, a German nonprofit that trains blind women in standardized diagnostic breast exam techniques and then places them in jobs in physicians’ offices or clinics. The nature of the work—helping to identify breast cancer as early as possible—gives Filiz great satisfaction, but there’s also something else: In this position, her blindness has proven to be an advantage. “I know I am better than most at this—in particular better than those who aren’t blind,” she says.

Data confirms her perspective. In Germany, discovering hands has found that visually impaired examiners find irregularities in breast tissue that are on average 30 percent smaller than those doctors find during regular exams. What’s more, they find 50 percent more irregularities than their sighted colleagues do. In light of this, it’s no surprise that a growing number of insurance providers and other payor organizations are contracting with discovering hands to reimburse the fee for this service.

A Compelling Business Case

That Filiz was employed prior to her work with discovering hands isn’t the norm. In fact, most of her colleagues at discovering hands were previously unemployed. Demir, for example, was forced to quit her job at a travel agency as her sight slowly deteriorated. She took on job training and learned Braille, but found that it was impossible to even get job interviews.

Situations like Demir’s are common: In the United States, more than 22 million of the 173 million working-age people are disabled, yet according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 20 percent of these individuals are employed. Countless charities and social initiatives have been wrestling with the challenge of finding meaningful jobs for disabled individuals for years with very limited success. And many companies that hire disabled workers do so only to fulfill promises of social responsibility; very few have arrived at a solution that creates satisfying employment and presents a compelling business case at the same time.

The good news is that more organizations seem to be finding the same sort of sweet spot as discovering hands has. Both software company SAP and mortgage lender Freddie Mac, for example, have identified people on the autism spectrum as having capabilities that make them uniquely suited for jobs such as software testing, debugging, and assigning customer-service queries. Nonprofit organizations Specialisterne and Auticon exclusively employ people on the autism spectrum as consultants in IT quality management. Rising Tide, a car wash in Florida dedicated to empowering people with autism, reports high levels of customer service as a result. And Chris Downey, a blind architect, draws on his unique perspective to realize environments that offer greater physical accessibility and enjoyment than standard design (watch his TED talk here).

Building on Success

These ventures are breaking new ground with sustainable business models for employing the disabled. But it shouldn’t be overwhelmingly difficult for other businesses to follow their example. Here’s what needs to happen:

  1. Nonprofits and other organizations supporting disabled individuals should work purposefully to help them identify their unique skills and workforce preferences. This could result in a standardized capability “heat map” for businesses and consulting firms to identify capability matches at their organizations.
  2. Established businesses should meanwhile spell out their business capabilities and needs, and map roles across their organizations that disabled individuals could fill.
  3. Consulting firms (for instance those providing human resources and strategy support services) should develop frameworks and capability mapping approaches to assist their clients. 
  4. Social innovators and entrepreneurs should look for opportunities, as discovering hands did, to connect businesses, nonprofits, and disabled people. As co-founder Frank Hoffman put it, the only limitation of discovering hands, which is expanding internationally, is “the number of blind women we can bring under our employment.”

Not every disabled individual can bring a special skill to the workforce, but many can. If only a small proportion of these uniquely skilled individuals find occupations, it will bring meaningful employment opportunities for millions, generate enormous value for businesses, and help integrate important members of our society into the workforce.