ANDERSON COUNTY, S.C. -- Working goes beyond collecting a paycheck for many employees with disabilities at the Walgreens Distribution Center in Anderson.
For some, a job is a ticket to a new life. "They have voices they didn't have before," said Angela Mackey, career outreach coordinator at the center.
Since opening in 2007, the center has been a symbol of possibility to a significant part of its workforce. Currently, 184 employees out of 500 at the site have disabilities, and the International Labour Organization has taken notice of the company.
The United Nations agency promotes and protects dignity, equality and worldwide labor standards. It's publishing profiles of Walgreens and 25 other companies that make a priority of hiring and retaining people with disabilities.
Mackey can't think of a disability not represented at the center. People with autism, mental or physical disabilities all have a place to work there.
"I think my own disability gave me insight into what would make our team members successful," said Mackey, 35, who was born with cerebral palsy.
Workers with special needs receive rewards for a good job. One employee with a cognitive disability loves horror movies, so his rewards are pictures of scenes from "Halloween" or Frankenstein movies.
Putting words into pictures with touch-screen software allows workers to use function keys instead of doing a lot of typing and reading. Large monitors show pictures of an open cardboard box in one bubble and then bottles inside of the box in another bubble. Photos of animals remind workers where their stations are, and flashing lights tell them from which lane to unload.
The pictures breed confidence.
At a "de-trash" station, Thomas Biggers unloads ibuprofen. He kicks empty boxes onto the conveyor belt. In a yellow cage across the aisle, workers sort pharmaceuticals.
A sign adjacent to a wide doorway bears the word "them" with a slash painted through it. "There's no us and them," said Larry Kraemer, human resource manager.
Turnover is about the same for people with and without disabilities. Mackey credits the center's success to partnerships with school districts, vocational rehabilitation programs through much of the state and the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind in Spartanburg.
"It really isn't a Walgreens thing, it's a community thing," she said.
The International Labour Organization is forming an organization that will assist businesses in training and hiring people with disabilities. Nationally, Walgreens already does that. Best Buy, Clarks Shoes and Sears are among the companies that have come to Anderson for training.
"They want to have companies around the world focused more on employing people with disabilities," said Deb Russell, manager of outreach and employee services at Walgreens.
Walgreens employs disabled workers at all 14 distribution centers and at return centers.
The International Labour Organization will pair Walgreens with other international companies with hopes of similar results. "We just want other companies to copy us," Mackey said.
But fear is a deterrent, she said. "A lot of people with disabilities are on Social Security. We feared they would work for six months and then quit because they miss their check."
It's a chance Walgreens is glad it took, Russell said. "We just needed to understand how to be a little more open-minded, and it gave us the opportunity to see the capability of people with disabilities."
Getting a job is a leap of faith for workers, too, and often leads to other milestones. Mackey has watched many co-workers move to Anderson, get married and start families -- things that might not have happened had they not been hired.
"The opportunity is the hard part," Mackey said. "Once you're given a chance, disability or not, you can prove yourself."