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Thriving with Neurodiversity

The Benefits of Hiring People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Imagine a hiring initiative that taps into undiscovered talent, improves company culture and diversity, and helps the community at large.

It’s a movement that has spread through businesses as disparate as the service industry, high-tech companies and professional firms. It operates under different auspices, but it has a single message: People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) can become thriving members of your company’s team. Businesses that have actively sought out workers with IDDs have found a new source for employees in an increasingly tight job market.

That’s because, even as the U.S. economy celebrates a low unemployment rate unprecedented in recent times, workers with IDDs often find themselves left behind. (See sidebar for definition of IDDs.)

More than 80% of people with such disabilities are unemployed or underemployed, according to Best Buddies, a nonprofit that creates social and economic opportunities for people with a range of diagnoses, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injuries.

The statistics are not much better for young adults on the autism spectrum. The advocacy group Autism Speaks estimates that almost half of 25-year-olds with autism have never had a paying job.

The lack of employment opportunities for young adults with IDDs has the potential to become a pressing economic problem. About 15% of children from the ages of 3 to 17 have an intellectual or developmental disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Autism Speaks predicts that about half a million teens on the autism spectrum will enter adulthood in the coming decade.

“We’re going to be left with a lot of unfi lled positions as the Baby Boomers retire, and we need to look at untapped talent that has been underutilized in our workforce,” said Leslie Long, vice president of adult services for Autism Speaks. “People with autism and other developmental disabilities could fill that gap.”

THE BENEFITS OF INCLUSION

People with IDDs once found themselves with limited job options, such as sheltered workshops that paid participants less than the minimum wage and isolated them from the larger community.

But during the past few decades, advocacy groups have campaigned to incorporate people with IDDs into all facets of life, whether social or economic.

Those efforts at integration have paid off for people with IDDs — but also for the companies that have created more inclusive workplaces.

TheARC@Work, which helps with workforce integration for people with IDDs, surveyed its corporate partners in 2016 to determine how its help had affected their workplaces.

All companies surveyed reported increased productivity after hiring employees with IDDs, said Jonathan Lucus, managing director of TheARC@Work. 60% reported a happier, friendlier corporate culture. 

“Companies are saying it’s been a great business decision — not a personal decision, not a feel-good decision, but a great business decision,” Lucus said. “Companies who are not doing this are missing out on a part of the workforce that can be helpful to their bottom lines.”

Attorney Robert Friedman has seen that dynamic play out in the law firm of Holland & Knight. The firm hired its first employees with IDDs more than 20 years ago in its Miami office, where Friedman is a partner. Over the years, Holland & Knight has employed 22 people with IDDs throughout its network of 28 offices, including people at several of its locations abroad.

Friedman believes that the hiring effort signals that the company cares about more than making money.

“You get an employee who loves having a job, who is friendly, outgoing and just totally loyal,” Friedman said. “When you introduce employees with IDDs into your workplace, you’re saying to everybody who works there that you are committed to a diverse workplace, and to making sure that everybody has a chance to contribute to the community and the economy.”

Some companies that have worked to make their workplaces more inclusive of people with IDDs have found an increased sense of purpose among all employees.

SAP, a software and technology business, asks employees to volunteer as “team buddies” for new recruits who have been hired through its Autism at Work program. Hundreds of SAP employees have volunteered for the program in some capacity, said Jose Velasco, SAP’s global co-lead of Autism at Work. That kind of participation has boosted employee engagement and retention, and attracted new talent as well.

“There are a lot of people today — particularly younger folks — who are looking at the impact of the company they’re working for,” Velasco said. “People see this type of program and say, ‘Here’s a company that wants to transform the future of work.’ And we are able to attract those people who are like-minded.”

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

Companies that have already worked to diversify their workforces say the process starts with listening and education.

TheARC@Work often fields questions about how to treat people with disabilities before the hiring process even takes place, Lucus said. The answer? Not much differently than how they treat any other colleague.

As part of the workplace integration process, nonprofits such as Best Buddies offer training for existing employees and managers about interacting with people with IDDs, said Courtney Rogaczewski, the organization’s senior director of jobs.

That often means teaching “people-first language” that emphasizes the worth of the individual — for example, referring to a person with a disability, versus labeling someone “disabled,” Rogaczewski said.

HR professionals also learn how to eliminate the barriers erected by the traditional application process.

Some standard language in job descriptions eliminates applicants with IDDs before the process even starts, said Susan Webb, vice president of employment services at Ability360, an Arizona nonprofit that promotes independence for people with disabilities. 

Webb, an attorney and HR professional with more than 40 years of advocacy experience, shudders when she sees postings that require a valid driver’s license or the ability to lift 30 pounds — for jobs in which the duties do not include transportation or moving boxes.

Her advice is to stick to the essential functions of the job in writing a job description.

“You can label 50 people with the same diagnosis, and every single one of them is going to have a different limitation,” Webb said. “There is a broad spectrum of what a person with these types of disabilities can do. So, the best thing that an HR professional can do is to focus on the job you need done.”

The interview process can also create obstacles for people with autism or other IDDs, who may struggle with making eye contact or offering lengthy answers to open-ended questions.

To shift the emphasis from interviews, HR professionals can create “job shadowing” opportunities or provide a project that allows an applicant with an IDD to show off skills and strengths, experts say.

For example, SAP offers a six-week Enterprise Readiness Academy to employees it recruits through Autism at Work. Participants are assigned a project at the beginning of the academy, and they present their finished product at the end, Velasco said.

Companies may also create internal impediments by expecting a perfect fit every time they hire an employee with an IDD — an expectation that managers would never have for other employees.

Holland & Knight hired its first employees with IDDs with the help of Best Buddies. A person hired for a position in kitchen services didn’t work out. The result immediately caused some concern about whether the program was a good fit for the firm.

But the person hired as a replacement has gone on to work for the firm for 25 years, becoming a valued staff member who knows everyone by name, Friedman said. Lucus, of TheARC@Work, advises that companies start small, hiring a few people with IDDs and building on their successes.

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Lucus worked with a company that hired five people with IDDs through their inclusion program. A month later, two of the five new hires had left — not because they didn’t have the skills, but because the job wasn’t a good fit for them.

To shift the emphasis from interviews, HR pros can create “job shadowing” opportunities or provide a project that allows an applicant with an IDD to show off skills and strengths.

“If you have a job with high turnover, it didn’t stop you from hiring a neurotypical person again — so why should it stop you from hiring somebody who is neurodiverse?” Lucus said. “That’s why you start small, do it purposefully, and get that first win under your belt. Then you grow it over time.”

EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS

Companies such as Levy, which operates food and beverage services for stadiums and arenas nationwide, have seen their employees with IDDs fl ourish, expanding beyond the job skills for which they were initially hired.

Five years ago, Levy partnered with TheARC@Work to hire workers with IDDs for its food and beverage operations at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Greg Costa, who headed the effort for Levy, started new workers with IDDs at a simple but crucial task: keeping the condiment station clean and stocked. The NBA later recognized Barclays Center for providing the best condiment carts among its 29 arenas, Costa said.

Over time, employees with IDDs moved on from the condiment carts to work in concessions or serve as cashiers, said Costa, who now serves as Levy’s director of operations at the TMobile Arena in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas arena employs about 200 people in concessions; about 10% are people with IDDs, Costa said.

In a similar vein, SAP started its Autism at Work program expecting to fill two technical jobs: quality assurance and software development. Since its inception, the program has created fulltime job opportunities in two dozen roles for employees on the spectrum, Velasco said.

More than 320 people with autism have participated in some facet of Autism at Work, which has blossomed into a system of high school mentorships, professional internships and contract work.

Jeff Wang is among that number. Wang, who is on the autism spectrum, had a limited work history when he graduated from college in 2015 and started applying for jobs. After more than a year of fruitless searching, Wang was referred to SAP’s Autism at Work program. 

Wang, now 27, started as an intern, then became a fulltime employee in SAP’s HR department in Philadelphia, analyzing employee data and managing projects.

“It’s been a continuous learning experience,” Wang said. “It’s really about people at SAP. There’s a strong sense of community. Everyone is knowledgeable in their areas of expertise, and everyone is willing to help one another out.”

SAP has taken a sharing approach to the larger business community as well. Companies such as Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase and EY have joined forces with SAP to form an Autism at Work Roundtable, sharing best practices and expanding the program to more companies. SAP has fielded inquiries from 160 companies interested in implementing a similar initiative in their own workplaces.

Establishing such relationships has been a satisfying, if unexpected, benefit of Autism at Work, Velasco said.

“Look at the companies that have already done this — we are more than willing to share,” Velasco said. “This is not about a transaction. We’re not selling a product. We’re connecting with other companies to grow in the same direction, and to have a purpose and an impact on the community.”

Trisha L. Howard Trisha L. Howard is a freelance writer with WorldatWork.

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