Thinking about Hiring People with Disabilities

When I spoke at a public event hosted by Illinois State Legislators nearly 20 years ago, I was followed by a young man, highly educated, well-spoken, with a likable personality, who is on the autistic spectrum. He had a double major in college . He made the Dean’s list every term. 

He was at the podium that day to tell the state legislators that at age 28 he was still unemployed. He had been underemployed, bagging groceries, for about a year, but finally, quit after he learned about the broken system that is supposed to represent him. Both the agency and the grocery store would get paid (I think it was $25,000) if he bagged groceries for 5 years. 

There is a local young man with a PhD from a top tier school who has never been able to pass the first round of interviews because of his speech challenges. 

Recently I read a LinkedIn post from a young man with a disability who had filled out 705 applications before he finally found a job. Things are getting better I suppose because he’s not bagging groceries. But why did it take him so long to find his first interview and job?

My friend’s son has a mechanical engineering degree from a reputable college. He was an intern in South America working on product design for children with autism. He has an auditory processing disorder which means that he needs extra time to talk and think. He has never had an in-person interview for a mechanical engineer position because he failed the phone interviews. He too has been underemployed by the agencies that are representing him, working in menial jobs that are well below his abilities. He has attended a few disability hiring conferences. Companies that are actively looking to hire people like him. He and his team (people he had just met) won first prize in an engineering contest at one of these events. No one ever called him back when he tried to connect with the people he had met at the conference, even the ones impressed by his first prize. 

My partners and I started to help with this disconnect by helping companies recruit, train, and provide natural supports for people with disabilities. We want to collaborate with agencies. We want to support families. 

As a recent graduate of Illinois Partners in Policymaking (PIP), I learned that many agencies don’t want to let go of “their referrals” because it may affect their grant dollars. Other leaders in these agencies throw away important news from the federal government – the families never see the information. Some families are (wrongly) afraid that they will lose Medicare or Social Security Disability checks if they let their adults with disabilities go to work.

There is a big disconnect in what well-meaning government, companies, and families are doing to try to employ people with disabilities. What I learned at PIP is that every player, company leader, agency executive, and parent and job hunter needs to update their thinking and work together to allow capable people to find meaningful work. I want to do my part.

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