Inclusive Manufacturing: The impact of Disability Diversity on Productivity in a Work Integration Social Enterprise

In our study, Narayanan and Terris (2020), we examine the implications of employing a diversity of individuals with disabilities on productivity in the context of an apparel manufacturing environment. The study's context is related to the employment of individuals with disabilities, an important societal challenge. For example, a Cornell University Study notes that 12.7% of the population has some form of disability (Erickson et al. 2017). Similarly, The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also reports that the participation rate of individuals in the workplace is at 20.6%, compared to 68.6% for those without (BLS 2017). The high unemployment rates in the disability space also continue to be a concern among many firms. Organizations such as Disability:IN are stepping in to encourage firms to come together and improve employment opportunities. A key question is whether there exist approaches where organizations can support individuals with disabilities, and improve their productivity? The question is an active area of interest to multiple research streams. 

This year also marks the 30th year of the Landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that paved the way for the right to accommodations for individuals with disabilities. Magazines such as Economist have also cast disability employment as the "new green." Other challenges characterize disability employment, especially the push for competitive integrated employment — where individuals work side-by-side with no pay or positional disparities. In this study, we examined the implications of disability diversity — based on two measures, (a) the number of disability categories employed in a production line, and (b) the evenness of disability category dispersion employed in a production line in two apparel factories predominantly employing individuals with disabilities. 

Our key finding is that it pays to employ individuals across the disability spectrum from a productivity standpoint. An additional finding is that an even distribution of individuals within a team across the disability spectrum also results in higher team productivity. Further, a combination of both a higher number of disability categories and greater dispersion of the specific disability categories in a team may help provide additional productivity benefits. The study argues that supporting individuals across the disability spectrum may provide organizations the flexibility to manage allocations of individuals across tasks, find appropriate person-job fit, and potentially carve better roles for its employees. Concerning evenly distributing individuals across the disability spectrum within a team, these likely improve fairness perceptions of task allocations in a group. These fairness perceptions are noted in prior research as key to successfully employing individuals within organizational settings.

The study draws on more than 13,000 workdays of objective productivity data collected within a single factory. The study was done in collaboration with Peckham, Inc. located in Lansing, Michigan. The firm is unique in that more than 75% of the hours billed come from individuals with significant disabilities. To overcome a single organization limitation, we also performed additional interviews with other similar, not-for-profit organizations regarding the challenges of employing individuals with disabilities and leveraged practical insights from within the firm. 

The study also has a direct implication for many smaller organizations focused on serving individuals with disabilities in other work integration social enterprises (WISE) that serve individuals with disabilities but have substantial productivity challenges, as noted in the popular press (Neumann 2019). Our results and anecdotal discussions with executives suggest that many of these organizations may be better off by diversifying the pool of individuals with disabilities they serve. This may create more opportunities for task allocation and help improve the viability of such an organization. However, these come at the cost of creating the support infrastructure and is a complex issue. 

While our study argues for this to be the case in an apparel setting, this may also apply across other task settings. In addition to the key results, there are several issues that the study raises that have a bearing within the operations management literature. Specifically, we implore organizations to consider individual abilities and how they can relate to the tasks they work. The research raises the need to study the interplay between (a) technical tools that are used to support execution of task, for example, a counter that may help individuals with poor eyesight perform their jobs effectively (Narayanan et al. 2019); (b) accommodations provided to individuals in performing the job — including issues like additional breaks, varying work hours etc., and (c) programmed instruction approaches — that are focused on clarifying the process level instructions when work is performed. The three issues (a)-(c) need to be matched to unique individual abilities. These also allow management to carve jobs that fit individual abilities better. At a team/firm level, the challenges are more complex. One such example is in the online appendix of the study. 

Finally, we believe the study only scratches the surface of the challenges within non-profit environments that employ individuals with disabilities. We hope future studies can uncover systematic approaches to dealing with challenges in an interdisciplinary manner that covers operations management, industrial engineering, human resources, ergonomics, and vocational rehabilitation.  


 Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017) Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population by disability status and selected characteristics, 2018 annual averages. United States Department of Labor. Accessed August 11, 2018,

 Erickson W, Lee C, von Schrader S (2017) Disability statistics from the American Community Survey (ACS). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute (YTI). 

 Narayanan S, Terris E, Sharma A (2019) Abilities-first: Steps to create a human-centric, inclusive supply chain. Supply Chain Management Review (November), 34-41.

 Narayanan S, Terris E (2020) Inclusive manufacturing: The impact of disability diversity on productivity in a work integration social enterprise.  Manufacturing & Service Operations Management

 Neumann E (2019) Sheltered workshops for people with disabilities: A reliable opportunity or an outdated system? Accessed December 1, 2019,

 Roels G, Staats B (2018) Call for Papers: M&SOM Special Issue on People-Centric Operations. Accessed October 21, 2020,


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