Northwest Center shakes up how businesses think about disability

SEATTLE — A group called Northwest Center is shaking up how employers think about disability.

One of the nonprofit’s goals is to get companies to recognize how many benefits a diverse workforce can bring to the table in a way that’s really good for business.

Walk into Northwest Center CEO Gene Boes’ office and the first thing you’ll notice is a very large photo of his daughter, Tori.

“She’s on the autism spectrum, she’s moderate to severe, she is verbal but not conversational,” said Boes.

The picture was a gift, but the prominent display in his office is a choice.

“Who is that, and what’s the connection? So, it keeps the mission front and center,” said Boes.

Northwest Center’s mantra is “people of all abilities.”

“It’s really grounding how far we’ve come, but also how far we have yet to go. So for me, I use it as encouragement and a grounding,” said Boes.

The nonprofit works to deliver equal opportunities for children and adults with disabilities, whether physical or developmental. For example, someone like Boes’ daughter, Tori, who isn’t conversational, wouldn’t be able to complete a standard interview process.

“But she is incredibly capable and loves to be engaged with the community,” said Boes.

That’s true for many of Northwest Center’s clients — people with skills and talents that can benefit a company’s workforce.

“What we prove is the error of putting people in a box. For us as employees, we focus on ability,” said Boes.

Northwest Center will help companies figure out accommodations, whether the job is office work, reception, service or another field.

“They find they get tremendous employees they never would have considered, so that’s part of the journey,” said Boes.

But Boes says one of the biggest challenges is just starting the conversation.

“Speaking about disability rights in particular, to be, I guess, unfiltered in that, we’re not even part of the conversation,” said Boes.

Boes said the disability community is the largest minority.

Over 20% of the population has declared a disability. Boes says getting companies to understand the workforce and talent they’re missing out on is part of their work.

Boes wants to be clear, this is something that’s good for a company’s bottom line.

“So we’re not asking you to be charitable. Quite frankly, I don’t even want social responsibility to be the biggest reason you do this. Although it has great social responsibility contribution in that. But it’s good for business,” said Boes.

Northwest Center references studies that have shown that companies that hire people with disabilities improve efficiency and morale.

It’s not a chore, and it’s an investment,” said Boes.”We have five commercial businesses that prove that. So we can bring business success metrics to employers that say, ‘this is going to give you tremendous advantage on attrition, absenteeism, productivity, quality and safety.’”

Throughout his conversation with KIRO 7 reporter Deedee Sun, Boes referenced the company’s four “founding mothers” several times. They were parents of children with developmental disabilities who refused to accept that their children couldn’t be taught.

“They were incredible role models. I gain tremendous inspiration from them because they looked at the world as it was and said, ‘that’s not acceptable and we’re going to do something about it,’” said Boes.

Moving forward, the company is working to grow and spread that mindset.

“I think the greatest investment up front is changing the way you think,” said Boes. “If you can include people on a human level, and marry that up with their competence, you’re actually unleashing their potential.”