Eillie Anzilotti’s recent article for FastCompany highlights a Chicago-based nonprofit called Aspire, which provides services to people with developmental disabilities. Now, however, CEO Jim Kales wants to expand the company’s focus to incorporate a job training system that can place more disabled workers in roles.”For decades, people with autism or other developmental disabilities have been shut out of traditional jobs,” Anzilotti wrote. And Aspire seeks to achieve just that through workplace simulations, reminiscent of Microsoft. In past pieces on diversity, we’ve covered issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and religious protections. Now it’s time to talk about workers with disabilities -- valuable yet underappreciated talent who also find themselves the victims of stereotypes and discrimination.
The Benefits of Inclusion for Disabled Talent
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, accommodating disabled talent -- as all other classifications of diversity -- strengthens a company’s bottom-line. The report cites cases from 3M, Pepsi, Merck and AT&T. A similar study from DePaul University found that the organizations it researched enjoyed low absenteeism and stellar retention levels. Longevity among disabled talent was above average when compared with the rest of the workforce. They also described these workers as loyal, reliable, committed and high performing producers. Better yet, the diversification of the business culture promoted a more positive work environment for everyone.
What’s really interesting is that those same companies noticed that people with disabilities did not apply to jobs directly -- they came through staffing firms. As early as 1998, according to the Center for Association Leadership, staffing professionals have been “leading the charge” to recruit and train talent with disabilities.
“An exciting synergy is under way between HR professionals who increasingly use temporary staffing agencies to find qualified employees and a huge population of disabled but capable individuals actively seeking full-time work opportunities,” the association pointed out at the time.
Today, with the incredible rise of the blended workforce and complementary talent, staffing leaders have assumed greater roles in human resources functions: sourcing, placing, training, qualifying and matching top talent to an increasing number of job openings. For motivated workers with disabilities, staffing professionals represent a crucial link to employers who want hardworking and devoted professionals. It’s important to note that only 15 percent of people with disabilities were born with those conditions -- the rest became disabled later in life, after years of developing vocational skills and experience. Unfortunately, a stigma against them still persists in some corners of the business world.
As Manpower illustrated in a pivotal 2001 report on workers with disabilities, “The cost of accommodation to people with disabilities is not high, and the benefits far outweigh the costs. Employees with disabilities contribute to productivity, are satisfied and are retained by employers.”
The good news is that a growing population of business leaders are recognizing the valuable contributions talent with disabilities bring to their organizations.
Why Microsoft Wants Neurodiversity
In Vauhini Vara’s excellent piece for FastCompany, ”Microsoft Wants Autistic Coders,” she follows the journey of Blake Adickman, 26, who is employed in the Microsoft program. The article is enlightening and inspirational. It also shows how tech companies are making bolder efforts to recognize and capitalize on the unique capabilities of diverse talent.
“The impulse to hire more autistic employees is based on the same premise as hiring, say, women and people of color,” Vara writes. “Doing so not only welcomes in a wider range of creative and analytical talent, but brings more varied perspectives into an organization, and makes for a workforce that better reflects the general population of customers.” Beyond that, a number of social, economic and employment factors are driving awareness.
- In 2012, one in 68 children were diagnosed with ADS. That’s an increase from the 1980s, when figures settled around one in 10,000. Researchers believe the dramatic rise largely results from clinical advances that allow doctors to correctly diagnose more children on the spectrum.
- Half of these children demonstrate average and above-average intelligence, and they will be entering the workforce soon. However, advocacy groups such as Autism Speaks estimate up to 80-percent unemployment rates for autistic talent.
- “Now that autism diagnoses are on the rise,” Vara explains, “the state of the autistic workforce is attracting the attention of people who are in the position to change it: high-level corporate executives who happen to have autistic children and understand that, given the right setting, autistic people can not only thrive but can show off skills and traits that non-autistic people are less likely to have.” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has two special needs kids himself.
- Companies who have welcomed autistic workers say they are ideally suited for tech roles: detail-oriented, intellectual and methodical.
Autistic talent have so much to offer in the way of productivity, critical thinking, exceptional technical skills and innovation. For contingent workforce programs, particular those focused on helping clients achieve mission-critical IT or engineering projects, neurodiverse talent are perfect candidates. And given the state of employment, many are available and eager to contribute.
In 2015, Microsoft’s director of inclusive hiring and accessibility worked with the neurodiversity program champions to design a small pilot program. While it may sound unorthodox, creating a pilot program as part of the contingent workforce solution could be ideal.
- Take a project, or an aspect of a project, and create a separate team environment for the selected neurodiversity workers.
- Give them a couple of weeks to work on the task with a small group and interact with managers.
- Have an advocate from the contingent workforce program oversee the work and ensure that the talent have all the support they need.
- The goal is to create an “open application process” where client hiring managers can identify the talent with appropriate skills, the ability to navigate the group’s social dynamics, and readiness to integrate into the wider workforce.
This is precisely what Aspire is working toward, as well.
The idea for the workplace-simulation training model came from a business acquaintance of Kales’s who was doing some consulting work for OfficeMax. Kales’s friend has a teenage son with autism, and while he was working with OfficeMax, he came up with the idea of the retailer developing a mock distribution center that would act as a training facility where his son could learn the ropes of a job there in a safe environment.
Simulation-based training is also a prime area for the boons of virtual reality, as we have discussed recently. VR creates a more visceral, immediate sensation that forces a human response rather than a transactional decision. Here, in these reactions, is where VR shines as a tool for training, empathy and inclusion. That’s one reason why the virtual world promises a wealth of opportunities for staffing and HR professionals.
- VR can replicate physical conferences and candidate interviews.
- VR opens the doors for global classroom instruction, skills development, training, onboarding experiences and orientation.
- Through VR, we can replicate scenarios that disabled talent could face on the job, preparing their responses and approaches to solving common workplace challenges.
On the other side of the aisle, VR may also emerge as one of the most effective resources for bolstering diversity and inclusion, helping employers understand the issues that disabled workers must confront every day. Many people can sympathize with another’s plight, yet they can’t feel the weight of those struggles without the same shared experience. In terms of employment culture, empathy is crucial.
What if managers could see the world from the eyes of their talent? What If they had direct insight into their pressures, challenges, successes? What if workers got to experience a day in the life of their managers? Perhaps they would walk away with a different opinion of how difficult those roles may be. Creating empathy, which is what VR does best, could improve every aspect of work.
Proactively Providing Accommodations
Staffing professionals began making strong inroads to cultivating disabled talent in the late 1980s, realizing that these overlooked workers often boasted higher performance ratings (with 90 percent receiving reviews ranked “good” or “excellent”), longer tenures, greater productivity and higher cost efficiencies for employers. Yet today, the spectrum of disabled workers are still an underrepresented group. Staffing curators understand the best practices and compliance regulations associated with hiring, accommodating and managing this talent. And they have an excellent opportunity to help connect these valuable workers with businesses in need. Here are some best practices.
- Treat applicants with disabilities the same as other candidates. Utilize skills assessments, application reviews, personal interviews, testing and vetting processes tailored to the job requirements -- not the condition of the talent.
- Don’t just scour online job boards for candidates -- develop social recruiting networks that source talent from associations, groups, foundations, community organizations and others focused on serving the needs of people with disabilities.
- Host immersive training programs where you can simulate the conditions and tasks of the client company, which allows you to mentor and make adjustments prior to the first day of work.
- Use the same intense analytics, job profiling and matching processes to locate the best business cultures available for candidates, ensuring a mutual alignment of interests, values, mission and duties.
- Work closely and proactively with clients to report and request valid accommodations, create policies that comply with ADA regulations and minimize potential disruptions before the onboarding process begins.
Empowering Every Worker
People who are not considered neurotypical or physically unchallenged have significant contributions to offer, and are capable of high quality output. It’s not just a matter of enforcing accommodations, it requires a shift in mindset and cultural perspective. Working with diverse talent makes us better people. The experience can be inspirational and teaches us new perspectives, new ways of looking at our world, and new approaches to overcoming challenges. As the industry continues to worry about unfilled job openings, a candidate-controlled market and new ways to attract skilled talent, staffing curators may already have a vast pool of capable and qualified workers waiting to seize your opportunities.