Q&A with the president & CEO of Goodwill

Mar 25, 2013
The CEO of Goodwill Jim Gibbons

Interview by Nicholas Drake

Every 38 seconds of every business day, someone lands a good job with the help of Goodwill Industries International. More than 189,000 people gained employment in 2011 through their participation in Goodwill programs, earning an estimated US$2.95 billion in salaries and wages. In Canada and the United States alone, more than 79 million people donate to Goodwill.

Kiwanis magazine recently interviewed Goodwill President and CEO Jim Gibbons about the challenges individuals with disabilities face gaining and retaining employment (see “Wanted: Workers With Disabilities,” Kiwanis Magazine, April/May 2013). A graduate from Purdue University with a degree in industrial engineering, Gibbons experienced macular degeneration as a child and lost his sight completely as a college student. He was the first person who is blind to graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration with an MBA degree.

What are the most common challenges persons with physical disabilities face when seeking a job, and how can they best overcome them?
Whether a person is blind or has any other physical disability, I’ve always thought recognizing the realities of the disability and getting past denial is often the first challenge to overcome. Once I recognized and accepted my blindness, I was able to focus on my many positive attributes and what I can bring to the workplace and to the world. Next, many people don’t know what to expect from a person with a disability, or they may have low expectations of what that person can achieve. Whether you’re a parent, friend, employer, or someone who works in the community, you should start with a belief in the human potential. The potential of folks with disabilities is a much better frame of reference.

What are the most common challenges persons with physical disabilities face once they land a job, and how do they typically succeed in overcoming them?
Many of the common challenges a person with a disability faces are similar to what I mentioned earlier. A person with a disability and professionals in the workplace should begin the relationship like any other. A person with a disability should recognize that he or she has much to bring to a professional environment, and colleagues should bring a perspective of open-mindedness. You will find that with technology, a few accommodations and thinking differently, the team member with a disability will not only be an engaged and contributing member of the team but the entire team will function more effectively because their minds have been opened to new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things, and new ways of achieving the goals and objectives of the team. 

What advice would you give to persons with no apparent physical disabilities in working with persons with physical disabilities? What can they do to make the working environment a positive outcome for everyone?
Communication is always the key. Usually it’s simply a matter of asking a person with a disability what he or she needs. Do not try to put yourself in that person’s position or make assumptions. Also, having high expectations of your colleagues and employees is appropriate whether they have disabilities or not. Always give them respect and the tools and support systems they need to be successful in their jobs.

What should employers and supervisors keep in mind when hiring, evaluating and working with persons with physical disabilities?
Employers should never imagine themselves as the person with the disability whom they are interviewing or employing. That often leads to erroneous assumptions. The key is to keep focus on what the person brings in terms of talents, not what he or she doesn’t bring such as the ability to see, walk or hear. In the hiring process, just like any other candidate, an employer should think of the person’s skills and abilities in the context of the job requirements. Finally, always remember that the person should always be part of the solution when it comes to the accommodations that might be necessary for success. When the person with a disability is empowered, it will ensure the right solutions are in place and the employer will gain the benefit of the skills and attributes of the individual.

What has been the biggest success of your organization in furthering the acceptance of persons with disabilities in the workplace?
The success of Goodwill has been driven by a belief in the human potential, a mission that revolves around the power of work, and a focus on empowering people to achieve their fullest potential. The organizational culture is a very key ingredient to any successful organization. In a larger sense, legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has raised awareness in the broader population, ensured tools and accessibility and served as a mechanism to keep minds open and the dialogue alive. As a result, individuals with physical disabilities have more opportunity and a backdrop and foundation for more success.