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You may have seen those big blue trucks in your neighborhood collecting stuff that might otherwise be thrown out: old desks, clothes. They belong to Northwest Center (NWC).

And when the cable company gives you a remote control or replacement power cord for your DVR, it might have come from one of the center’s businesses — and so might that gift package from Starbucks. Lots of businesses you know have contracts with this organization you might not know about.

The center is business married to social service and part of a larger movement to change how we Americans see each other. A huge part of the center’s mission is getting people with developmental disabilities into the workforce. A visit seemed timely because October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and the National Governors Association made employment for people with disabilities a point of emphasis for 2013.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates only 20.5 percent of Americans 16 and older with disabilities are in the workforce, compared with 69 percent for people without disabilities.

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How society views people with disabilities continues to evolve. NWC has always had to change, even dropping the last part of its original name, getting rid of the word by which people with developmental disabilities and developmental delays were frequently labeled in 1965 when the organization was created by a group of parents concerned about their children’s futures.

NWC has become more aware along with the rest of society, and NWC more and more sees itself in a leading role, showing others how to bring marginalized people into the mainstream, not as a philanthropic act, but because it benefits everyone.

The managers at NWC admit it took time for their own practices to catch up with their philosophy, but their practices have grown, in a sometimes painful process.

I met with some of the staff and clients/workers at their headquarters in an industrial area off West Marginal Way South in Seattle to hear their story last Thursday.

Mike Quinn is in charge of manufacturing for NWC. He joined the organization after nearly 30 years in industry and recalled walking into one of the NWC workplaces where workers were putting notebooks together, except for one young man who was taking them apart. The job was to put them together, but a supervisor told Quinn the young man couldn’t do that. The supervisor felt sorry for him and just let him be. That’s not how NWC operates now. They don’t baby-sit; instead, they train workers, and pay them according to their productivity. Supervisors and trainers are challenged to find a job and a procedure for doing the job that works for each worker.

President and CEO Tom Everill said that sometimes in the past, “For many of the people coming here, their biggest liability was us.” It was staff not seeing potential. Seeing everyone who comes in as a person who can contribute requires a different mindset. And as supervisors stretched to consider how to get the most from each employee, they sometimes improved the process for everyone. Staffers who couldn’t make the leap to seeing every worker as capable either left or were let go.

Workplace diversity is a competitive advantage, Everill said. He and Quinn said they see NWC as a civil-rights organization spreading the word to other businesses about the benefits of diversity for everyone. This year NWC was chosen top nonprofit manufacturer by Seattle Business magazine.

Northwest Center has an unusual model. It’s a bundle of different pieces that cover a lifetime. Northwest Kids Center serves children from birth to 12 with therapy and an early-learning program. Northwest Center Employment Services places workers with disabilities in local businesses.

And NWC runs 10 for-profit enterprises, all of which include people with disabilities in their workforces. They’re not charities and many times customers don’t know who’s doing the work at first. Some of the NWC businesses have their own identities: American Data Guard, Electronetics, and Argus Janitorial & Building Services. NWC employs about 1,000 people, 450 of them with disabilities and almost all of them paid minimum wage or higher, Everill said. Their customers run from Amazon to Value Village, Home Depot to Safeway.

When I visited NWC Assembly & Packaging last week, workers were putting together gift packages for Starbucks and preparing packs of recycled equipment for Comcast.

The young man Quinn had found taking apart notebooks was winding and wrapping power cords. It’s a repetitive job that would bore most people, but he said he enjoyed it and told me about getting faster and faster. He’s also paid above minimum wage.

Everill said NWC used to be a place for people with developmental disabilities to spend their days, “but we came to realize that’s not good enough.” Learning how best to include more people in society is an ongoing challenge, an ongoing process at NWC and in society at large. Our country has had a long history of excluding various groups of people, Everill said. Now we’re learning that we all benefit when more people reach their highest potential.

Those big blue trucks work because we don’t want to waste the unused stuff in the back of our closets. NWC’s business model and philosophy work because they don’t let human potential waste away in a closet, either.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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