We Are Able! By Nancy Henderson Wurst

October 29, 2005


Habitat’s secret: they hire the people no one else will. The challenges have been significant; the rewards extraordinary. The following excerpts from the book Able! were selected from an article in Exceptional Parent Magazine and used with permission.

Welcome to Habitat International, Inc, a veteran manufacturer of golf putting greens, indoor-outdoor and accent rugs, and other artificial-grass and needle punch products. Here, in a sprawling plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., a group of self-motivated, highly-productive, and “able” team members churns out 11,000 rugs a day and routinely outproduces the competition 2-1.

As usual, Michael Clark is working at breakneck speed as he rolls a swath of forest green 6’ x 10’ carpet so fast it makes a visitor’s head spin. Agile and efficient, Ryan Lowery scoots stacks of cut carpet to the end of a long table for others to load onto an orange stackable buggy. Always the consummate perfectionist, Sharon Adams makes sure the edges are lined up evenly before tucking the rugs into their boxes. Closer to the break area, where employees will soon gather to play pool or air hockey, more workers assemble and glue refrigerator boxes for Georgia Pacific, while others drive forklifts to tote plastic-wrapped carpet rolls to the front bays for shipment.

At first glance, there is no way to tell that Michael, Ryan and Sharon have various degrees of mental retardation. Neither is it obvious that Martin Arney has cerebral palsy or that Jason Cook has autism, or that Carl Wallace isn’t quite the same person he was before his stroke. At Habitat, they are just people, doing their jobs with pride and enthusiasm. Workers with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder make products next to those with Down’s syndrome, hearing impairments and severe brain damage from car accidents.

“Most people don’t live up to their potential. These people do,” said CEO David Morris, who launched the company with his father, Saul, in 1981. “They run circles around so-called ‘normal’ workers.”

Morris, a maverick artist who hated traditional factories, and his dad, a former carpet industry executive, had been running their artificial-grass rug business for five years when a friend named Joey DiVivo started nudging them to host an enclave of people with developmental disabilities. DeVivo, a social worker at Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga, was all fired up about a new program in which clients with mental retardation were learning to work at real companies. “We already had what we called at the time ‘work stations in industry,’ DeVivo remembered. “We had done subcontract work for a number of businesses here within the city and even from out of state.”

At first, Morris wasn’t sold on the idea. What if the clients couldn’t keep up, made a lot of mistakes, distracted his “real” workers or interfered with production? Despite Morris’ initial doubts DeVivo wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. “Come on, David,” she said each time she saw him. “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll stop.”

Eventually, Morris relented and DeVivo got her wish. One morning in 1986, eight developmentally delayed clients showed up at the plant (which was then located in Rossville, Ga.) The clients went to work folding golf putting greens, inserting them into boxes, and stacking them high for loading. Day after day, they labored elbow-to-elbow with Habitat’s full-time employees, and it didn’t take them long to catch on. Morris couldn’t help but notice how productive they were, and how pleasant to be around.

For several years, Habitat routinely hosted enclaves of people with developmental disabilities, first from Orange Grove and later from workshops run by the State of Georgia.

Over the years, the “Habitat” family grew very close. When a new person with Down syndrome arrived at Habitat, he or she could have been mentored by someone with the same condition. A man with one arm might show a colleague with a brain injury how to roll rugs. A team member with mental retardation might end up teaching a new hire how to cut carpet with greater accuracy. Up to 100 people now work in the plant during peak season, and most have special challenges.

When speaking with business owners, civic leaders, and even disability advocates, Morris often finds himself explaining that Habitat is indeed a highly-competitive, for-profit company, not a charity. Back orders and defects are virtually non-existent. So are absenteeism and turnover. The company has expanded a dozen times since it opened for business, has formed lucrative partnerships with former competitors, and has increased annual rug production from 85,000 to 1.5 million, with distribution in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia and South America. Between 2001 and 2004, at a time when many American manufacturers were suffering from an economic downturn that prompted many layoffs and closings, Habitat’s revenues actually tripled. “We didn’t even blink after 9/11,” Morris said. Business was so strong, in fact, Habitat moved to a brand new plant to keep up with demand, doubling the size of its operations.

None of this could have happened without the dedication and strong work ethic of Habitat’s mostly disabled workforce, Morris noted. “This is a ready-made group that just wants a chance. Here’s a group of people that will do the best job they can if you give them the opportunity. And they’ll show up for work. Not everyone in this group is perfect, but the vast majority really, truly wants this. They can do anything. What we found was that their biggest disability was us.”

Text used with permission. These selected excerpts from the book Able! first appeared as an article in
Exceptional Parent Magazine October 2005
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Reprinted with the expressed consent and approval of Exceptional Parent, a monthly magazine for parents and families of children with disabilities and special health care needs. Subscription cost is $39.95 per year for 12 issues; Call (877) 372-7368.

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