December 10, 2012
One of the best experiences of my life was watching Jamie Smith, a young man with autism, leave his routine in Chicago, travel to the Special Olympics World Games in the chaotic Chinese city of Shanghai — and succeed.
Jamie's success -- managing in a foreign country and bringing home a silver medal -- was the result of one thing: hard work. And I've yet to meet a harder worker than him, or a person who more appreciates the opportunities a job presents.
Our workplaces have grown diverse, but jobs remain far too scarce when it comes to people with autism or other intellectual disabilities. Unemployment rates vary depending on the study but hover around 80 percent, and people with disabilities who do get jobs are routinely paid less than other workers. A stigma surrounds people with disabilities, and employers fear that accommodating workers from this demographic might be cost-prohibitive.
Fortunately, some progress is being made.
Walgreen Co., for example, has for years welcomed workers with intellectual disabilities. In 2007, it opened a distribution center in Anderson, S.C., with the goal that people with disabilities would make up 33 percent of the staff and be paid and treated the same as any other employee.
That number now tops 40 percent, and the company opened a similar center in Connecticut in 2009. It also has begun a separate program that recruits people with disabilities to work in Walgreen stores.
The results, according to Deb Russell, a manager in the company's diversity and inclusion department, have been statistically excellent. Turnover among employees with disabilities is 50 percent lower than that among nondisabled employees, and accuracy and productivity measurements are the same.
"People think accommodations will be expensive and daunting," Russell said. "What we found, especially on the accommodations front, is that it's minimal. Over the thousands of people we've had in the distribution centers, we've spent less than $50 per person. A lot of the time, all the accommodation they need is an open mind."
She said that more than 100 Fortune 500 companies have toured the South Carolina facility to learn more about the program.
"We've been so proud to see quite a few companies coming out recently with programs that are similar to ours," Russell said. "They take what we're doing and make it their own."
What's important to realize is that when Walgreen and other companies hire people with intellectual or other disabilities, they aren't doing it as an act of charity. They're doing it because the people they're hiring are good employees who help the company make money.
Scott Standifer, a University of Missouri researcher who studies employment issues affecting adults with autism, said he's encouraged to see large companies such as Walgreen, AMC Theatres and the investment firm TIAA-CREF, to name a few, aggressively employing people with disabilities.
"For decades the employment specialists who work with people with disabilities have been saying things like, 'These people are very dedicated; they will really love the work; they'll be very loyal employees,'" Standifer said. "The business community knows these agencies are trying to sell their clients, they're trying to convince the businesses to hire them, so they're skeptical. And there hasn't been much data to really back up their claims.
"But now we've got some large corporations who have invested and are evaluating their disability employment projects and are able to talk to other corporations as corporate peers. It's one thing to have job developers coming and saying these people are good workers, give them a chance. It's another to have Walgreens say, 'We are making more money by hiring these folks.'"
Standifer wrote a paper titled "Adult Autism & Employment: A Guide for Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals," which provides a wealth of information for employers, from advice on interviewing people with autism to explanations of the disability. That paper can be found at: tinyurl.com/autismemploy.
He also said he hopes to see more coordination between people in the autism community and an employment resource found in every state -- the vocational rehabilitation agency. These individual state agencies, overseen by the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration, focus on finding jobs for people with disabilities.
"One of the things that I'm excited about is that the autism community, as they start to understand vocational rehabilitation, will also start to lobby for increased vocational rehabilitation funding," Standifer said.
He also pointed out that studies have shown employing people with disabilities saves the country money.
"It has turned out to be cheaper and better to do whatever it takes to get people with disabilities working," he said. "When you support that, they don't need as many other social services. They're not needing Social Security disability income and other things. It's cheaper, it's better and it's healthier."
And, dare I say, it's the way things should be. Our workplaces have always benefited from inclusion.
We should aspire to work alongside people with disabilities, not as an act of good will, but with the hope that we might benefit by learning from each other.
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