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How Companies Are Finally Recognizing the Value in Employees With Developmental Disabilities

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Something curious is happening in corporate America. Business leaders are discovering a whole new source of talent they never realized existed: people with autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Of course, this population has been there all along. But now that their bottom-line value is beginning to be understood, best-of-breed companies are competing to capitalize on the myriad opportunities presented by hiring people who, until now, have been roundly ignored.

For people with developmental disabilities, unemployment is still the frustrating, overwhelming norm. But the compelling advantage for everyone involved in disability inclusion is why the United Nations General Assembly chose employment as the theme of the 2015 World Autism Awareness Day on April 2nd, when it launched an employment “Call to Action” inviting businesses to commit to employ people on the autism spectrum.

Decades ago, protection was the paramount concern for people with developmental disabilities. Employment, when it happened at all, typically centered around sheltered workspaces, where community interaction was minimal at best.

But across the country, the evidence is becoming inarguable: getting the best out of these individuals stems from an inclusive, not exclusive, environment. And inclusion doesn’t just serve people with disabilities; it has profound benefits for companies as well.

“More and more companies out there are realizing there’s an untapped pool of talent that makes for very good workers,” Peter Bell, President and CEO of Eden Autism Services, told me. “Employers are becoming interested in hiring these people not because it’s charity, but because it’s the right business decision.”

The United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN) grew from this intersection between capitalism and disability, with a focus on helping businesses increase performance by leveraging disability inclusion in the workplace, supply chain and marketplace. The organization’s driving ethos is that business responds to its peers; if a company’s competitors are showing positive returns to their shareholders, that company will want to follow suit.

“Everyone is striving to build an inclusive culture,” Jill Houghton, Executive Director of USBLN, said. “As companies are on that journey, we see how it drives innovation, morale, better customer service, better problem solving — everything increases for the better as a result of inclusion.”

#1Michelle InsideView

The nonprofit sector and progressive thinkers within companies are developing exciting new ways to advance the growing interest in employees with disabilities. “There are these mountains of innovation that are happening,” Williams noted. Many of these leaders “have their hand on a different part of the elephant. It’s stunning.”

What kinds of mountains and elephants are we talking about?

The Arc of Jefferson County in Alabama serves many people who have been institutionalized for behavioral issues and can’t pass background checks in the interview process. So the nonprofit began building its own separate businesses (yes, you read that right), ranging from a bakery to a shredding company, all for the intent of training and employing its own people. President and CEO Chris Stewart calls their wildly entrepreneurial approach “a belief in the dignity of risk.”

The Arc of Indiana in Indianapolis has taken this approach one step further by committing to build a Courtyard by Marriott hotel which will house a training institute to provide a postsecondary opportunity in hospitality, food services and healthcare.

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Ryan works at Carson Manufacturing, an Indianapolis-based company that makes emergency sirens. His supervisor says he is very independent, professional and competent.

The Arc San Francisco capitalizes on the city’s tech sector and progressive spirit to help train and employ more than 700 current participants. Through customized approaches to community-based employment for competitive wages, The Arc SF is working with corporate giants such as Salesforce and Twitter to integrate people with autism and developmental disabilities into their companies.

As word of the success of these programs spreads, the competitive nature of companies takes root and spurs other businesses to figure out how they can get into the game and connect with people with developmental disabilities. “The idea of diversity is being redefined,” Meredith Manning, Director of Communications for The Arc SF, said. “This is really working.”

Houghton is the first person to tell you that the growing corporate interest in disability inclusion doesn’t mean that businesses are lowering their expectations. Quite the opposite. “Sometimes we underestimate people’s abilities,” she said. “Sometimes in the name of helping people, we hold them back. But businesses, they’re just looking for good employees. I see powerful success stories every day. And I believe that business can help motivate the change for people with disabilities.”

In his address about 2015 World Autism Awareness Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon encouraged public offices, corporations and small businesses to create life-changing opportunities for people with autism and help them successfully integrate into workforces around the world.

Eden Autism Services adult participants on the job at Wawa take a break from stocking shelves to meet with Eden’s President & CEO, Peter Bell. Wawa, a big supporter of Eden’s employment program, has been employing participants with autism from the organization for over 35 years.

Ann Cameron Williams, CEO of nonprofit consulting firm ao Strategies, agrees with this directive. “I would challenge every company out there to take on a person with developmental disabilities as a part of their staff,” she said. “Not just working on the periphery but being fully integrated into their organizations. It’s amazing what people can do if given the chance.”

Williams also encourages parents to talk to their children from a young age about college and careers, which is easier to do if diversity is visible within the community. “If more kids with developmental disabilities grow up taking it for granted that they will get jobs, just like everyone else, they will have more power to self-direct their paths,” she said.

“People with autism — or any developmental disability — want more, and they can do more,” Dr. Glenn Motola, CEO of The Arc San Francisco, said. “We need to stop poor-streaming people into jobs that are great for starting out but shouldn’t be the job you have to keep for the rest of your life. Let’s raise the bar on expectations, support people with real-world, adult learning and advancement opportunities and create the inclusive future we know is possible.”

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Pursuing her dream to be a journalist, Michelle hosts her own podcast, A View From My Window, at The Arc of Indiana. Her goal is to interview Anderson Cooper.

So today, look around at your place of work. And if there aren’t any employees with developmental disabilities on your team, ask yourself why not. For everyone who interacts with your business, the inclusion of people with autism and developmental disabilities would, by all accounts, be transformative.

Clarification: This article’s previous headline read, “How Companies Are Finally Recognizing the Value in Employees With Intellectual Disabilities.” Per the writer’s request, “intellectual” has been changed to “developmental.”

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Originally published: May 1, 2015
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