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“Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.”

Doing the Right Thing

Nancy Henderson Wurst

In 1999, at the annual Business for Social Responsibility conference in Boston, a virtually unknown businessman named David Morris, from Rossville, Georgia, stood before executives from The Gap, American Express, and other major corporations and explained why his company has been so successful. “Simple,” he said: “I hire the people no one else wants to hire.”

As CEO of Habitat International, Inc., a major supplier of artificial-grass putting greens, accent rugs, and indoor-outdoor mats for Lowes, Home Depot, and other retailers, Morris knows better than most how to work with people with special needs. After all he’s been doing it for almost two decades.

Today, in a 50,000-square-foot former chicken hatchery with whimsical sculptures, a basketball court, and an employee-run radio station, three of every four Habitat workers (there are 70 during peak production) has a physical or mental disability, or both. People with schizophrenia drive forklifts next to those with Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy. Recovering alcoholics, deaf employees, and homeless people cut floor runners alongside co-workers who have suffered strokes, severe head injuries, or loss of an arm. All are cross-trained on every task in the plant.

Morris is convinced that his business, which has tripled its sales since 2001, even in the economic down-turn, flourishes not in spite of, but because of the company’s loyal, disabled workers. And he’s determined to share that message with others.

Since his appearance at the BSR conference, 47 year old Morris has helped entrepreneurs and human resources managers from across the country including a major competitor with 6,200 employees, set up their own programs to hire people with disabilities.

He has shared his humanitarian message with legislators, business peers, and community groups from Maine to Seattle, and has won numerous awards for his commitment to helping those with “distractions.”

Morris recently spoke with Spirit magazine about why he hires people with disabilities and why other employers should do the same.

Spirit: When did you first hire people with disabilities?

DM: Three years after my father Saul and I opened the business, someone at the Orange Grove Center (a training and housing program for the people with mental disabilities in Chattanooga) asked me to hire some of his clients.

At first I said, “No, I can’t do that.” I was scared. I finally said, “Okay, give them two weeks. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll get rid of them.“ Two weeks later, my employees came to me and said, “Why can’t we hire more people like this, who care, do their work with pride, and smile?” From that day on, we never looked back.

Spirit: What are the benefits of hiring people with disabilities?

DM: We have practically no absenteeism and very little turnover. We’ve also seen higher production, increased profits, better employee morale, greater respect from the community, and better customer relations. We’ve had major customers who were prejudiced about this. Once they come here, they say, “We want to buy everything from you from now on.”

Spirit: What stops most employers from hiring people with disabilities?

DM: The biggest problem, I think, is the fear of management that the person is different. What will the other employees think? You’ve got to go in real open-minded. It may take a little longer to train them, but once you can get your management to understand that these people are perfectly capable and that they can accomplish a lot, they will show you that they can be great employees.

Spirit: You hire these folks outright, instead of accepting government incentives or allowing the people with disabilities to work here with job coaches. Why?

DM: The company takes no grants, no state money, no federal money. One of the biggest things I try to explain is that when you do it, taking federal or state money, you’re not looking at it as a win-win situation but as a charity. Unfortunately, a lot of government agencies, and even some private groups have been so used to everything being defined by evaluations. That’s where we have really had success, by not reading the evaluations, but just trying to understand each person as an individual. If they have medical problems, like seizures, you’ve got to look at that, but we really don’t need to read that they’ve been trained in a workshop to put together ink pens. You or I would have trouble putting pens together all day because we’d be so bored.

Spirit: Have you had to overcome your own prejudices and fears?

DM: I came from Chicago one day 12 years ago, and a young man with Down syndrome was running a 25-ton press. And I said to my plant manager, “You can’t let him do that.” And she said, “There are safety devices.” But I said, “He’s not folding it right.” He had a speech impediment and he explained what he was doing, but it didn’t make sense to me. Well, I finally realized he was doing double the work in the same amount of time. My plant manager said, “Now tell him he can’t do it.” They teased me for a long time after that.

Spirit: How do you find your employees with disabilities, or do they find you?

DM: I hire them from the special education classes that come here to learn how to work. What better thing for Mr. Business than to have someone working for your company one, two, three years, who knows every job, and then hire him or her. I also hire them through disability groups or parents, and we often get calls from doctors who say, “I think this person has an ability.”

Spirit: How would you advise an employer to start a disability-hiring program?

DM: Do it through special education, where a school comes in with teachers who will teach you what to do. You have no risk; it’s just like they are on school property. The teacher’s job is to mainstream the students into the company. Later on, a person with Down syndrome may be the mentor for another person with Down syndrome. A person missing an arm may mentor someone like him.

Spirit: How do you respond to nay-sayers who think hiring people with disabilities will cost too much, negatively impact profits, or take too much effort?

DM: All you need to do is open your heart a little and trust in people. They do make mistakes, but so do I. And most of the modifications are minor. All it takes is changing your paradigms and your mindset and realizing that people with disabilities aren’t dumb. I understand how other business people might be fearful. But when you see a person who’s been told “no” every day of his or her life and now is saying, “Yes, I can do it,” it is hard not to get inspired.

Reprinted with permission from Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine’s May 2003 issue.

NADS News, March, 2005