Today my son Aaron and I attended a presentation by Mark and John Cronin at the Down Syndrome Research Foundation. This father and son team are the founders of John’s Crazy Socks. They shared wisdom about being entrepreneurs, running a business and championing inclusive employment.
I’ve been to a lot of talks in my time and have grown leery of those peddling cheery inspirational messages. Mark and John’s talk was not like that at all. Their words were exceptional in their realness. Their story about their successful business was authentic and engaging. It went way way beyond the inspirational realm – they moved me to think hard. John’s Crazy Socks was born from a dark time, when Mark lost his job at age 58 at the same time John was finishing high school at age 21. Mark termed this end of school time the “21 year old cliff.” (We have a similar cliff here in British Columbia, but it is at age 19).
I wrote recently about my hatred of the notion of this cliff called transition in Everybody Grows Up. While I’m committed to celebrating Aaron’s advancement towards adulthood, I’m also scared. I have no crystal ball for his future, but looking at the ‘system’ alternatives, it seems like because he has Down syndrome, his path is narrow and pre-determined by agency day programs, job coaches and part-time minimum wage work.
I want him to be excited about his future, to have options and choice just as my other two children did at his age. This only seems fair to me. Why should Aaron be denied opportunity because of his extra chromosome? (She asks naively). Aaron is denied opportunity because he lives in an ableist world.
Do you know what Mark and John Cronin did in response to this reality? They started their own damn company, which now employs 39 people and last year grossed $5.5 million in their second year of operation. Mark and John went off script and created their own reality. That’s what moved me deeply. I realized that’s what we have to do, too – in partnership with our son.
“Ideas can come from anywhere,” Mark said. “If there’s something you love, chances are there will be others who will like it too.” John always had a slick fashion sense and liked wearing crazy socks: hence John’s Crazy Socks company.
I was also struck by the company’s commitment to inclusive employment. Twenty-three of their 39 employees have disabilities. Mark emphasized their company is not a charity – their staff (called sock wranglers) have to earn their jobs. He spoke proudly of the power of their workforce and shared principles that can apply to all organizations: give people a mission they can believe in. Put people in a position to succeed. Make sure everybody knows what they do matters and how it feeds into the mission. That’s profound employee engagement advice for any organization.
John’s Crazy Socks makes accommodations for their employees, but think about what Mark said, “There are accommodations because you make accommodations for any workers.” Not just workers with disabilities. This is so true. We all need accommodations in one way or another to work. This is just part of employing human beings.
Finally, the Cronins addressed the notion of paying their employees above minimum wage. “We don’t expect minimum work, so why pay minimum wage?” asked Mark. This way of thinking is so evolved beyond those awful news stories that I read about organizations ‘allowing’ people with disabilities to volunteer for them. Not paying people for working because they have a disability makes my head explode.
“We pay people to establish the dignity of work,” Mark emphasized. Amen to that.
John and Mark gave me much to think about. There were a lot of take-aways for an one hour talk. Afterwards, my son Aaron proudly posed for a picture with John. The other folks with Down syndrome in the audience high-fived John and hugged him. He was a celebrity in their midst.
“Follow your dreams,” John told them. We need to support our adult children to follow their dreams, to not settle for some miserly government prescription of what a life should look like.
As John’s dad, Mark ended with this: “I’ve spent my entire life preparing for this moment.” At this point I turned away from Aaron to hide my tears. Aaron isn’t a charity case. His life has meaning. Stories of people with disabilities working aren’t just ‘cute’ stories.
Today was one of the first times that I felt a jolt of hope for my son’s future. My epiphany is that we don’t have to do what the system tells us to do. Thank you John and Mark Cronin for that gift. Now, everybody head over to https://johnscrazysocks.com/ and buy yourself some awesome socks.