In Praise of the Misfits

Why business needs people with Aspergers Syndrome, attention deficit disorder and dyslexia

IN 1956 William Whyte argued in his bestseller, “The Organisation Man”, that companies were so in love with “well-rounded” executives that they fought a “fight against genius”. Today many suffer from the opposite prejudice. Software firms gobble up anti-social geeks. Hedge funds hoover up equally oddball quants. Hollywood bends over backwards to accommodate the whims of creatives. And policymakers look to rule-breaking entrepreneurs to create jobs. Unlike the school playground, the marketplace is kind to misfits.

Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues. Some joke that the internet was invented by and for people who are “on the spectrum”, as they put it in the Valley. Online, you can communicate without the ordeal of meeting people.

To read more, click here

 

Disability Inclusion: The New Green?

October is National Disability Employment Awareness month, so all month I will try to bring some special postings about what is going on in the world of disability employment. I’m excited to kick off the month with a Q and A post with my good friend, J.R. Harding. My boss, Jim introduced me to J.R. a few years ago and we hit it off and have looked for ways to collaborate ever since. J.R.’s story is one of strength, determination and perseverance.

You see, J.R. was a star scholar and football player in high school. He had aspirations of playing football at an NCAA power house school. That is, until one altercation with a fellow team mate left him a quadriplegic. Despite the injuries he managed to graduate high school with his class.  He has since gone on to complete his Educational Doctorate. He has served on state and national advisory committees pertaining to disabilities, mostly focused on employment and transportation. He can also now add published author to his long list of accomplishments as he wrote an autobiographical book which was released last year, called “Now What?” It’s an inspirational story that I must recommend you read.

Q: Have you noticed any change in the receptivity of potential employers from when you initially graduated college to now?

A: Absolutely. When I first graduated from college in 1991, persons with disabilities could not get into  buildings, could not ride public transportation and the world honestly  did not know what to do with us. Today, I know thousands of individuals with disabilities working and volunteering in the community. Progress has been made, but we still  have a long way to go because most persons with disabilities are still unemployed.

Q: In your advocacy and policy work, have you noticed any particular industries more receptive to including disability in the workforce than others?

A: I have witnessed a “true sea change” with regards to the receptiveness of policy makers, employers and community leaders with regards to the abilities of persons with disabilities. They, the establishment, have come to realize that we, persons with disabilities, must be a part of any sustainability plans. Personally, I have found that the hospitality industry and related service industries appear to get it better than others.

Q: Do you feel like your co-workers attitudes change toward you over time, as they get to know you? Do you find people hesitant to work with you at first?

A: Although we, society, have had 22 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I still encounter hesitancy and the lack of comfort around persons with disabilities and especially those with significant disabilities. Like all things, over time, co-workers and the general public become more inclusive and more comfortable. In short, we all need help, with or without disabilities.

Q: What feedback have you heard from employers who have hired people with disabilities?

A: I have heard first hand, and witnessed that most employers, once they try it, including persons with disabilities on their team, they become new advocates for the cause. Companies have begun to learn that there is a return on investment from this type of diversity. At the same time however, the system that supplies qualified persons with disabilities, is not able to produce qualified applicants in a competitive marketplace. For example, if company A wants to hire 50 people with X type of skills in 90 days, the system is not likely to produce 50 qualified applicants with disabilities for the company’s needs. Rather, we must hope/find individuals with disabilities who are exploring skills and education within that field.

There are a number of companies at the state and national level which have embraced “this emerging market”, and in turn have benefitted from a dependable workforce, and increase bottom lines. In fact, an article in the September 6, 2012 edition of The Economist, identifies this action as the “new green”.

Q: What motivates companies to include disability in their workforces?

A: Unfortunately, I cannot make a blanket statement with regards to this inclusive behavior. What I can state with confidence, is that leadership and diversity begins at the top of the food chain (CEO, owner,  and HR directors). I have found that it is simply a culture that permeates throughout the company or business owner with regards to persons with disabilities. They don’t have to be persuaded, they know it is the right thing to do and that everyone has skills and abilities that should be harnessed.

Thanks for the great interview J.R.! It was great to speak with you, as always. And, to any company owners, CEOs or HR Directors reading who know they want to include disability on their teams, but don’t know where to find the applicants, please contact my company, Opportunity Works. We would love to help you diversify your workforce!

To read more, click here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/judyowen/2012/10/09/disability-inclusion-the-new-green/

How Autistics Triumped at SAP Labs

From the stable of SAP Labs, comes an inspiring tale of VR Feroze, Managing Director, SAP Labs India

VR Ferose


Age: 38

Designation: Managing Director, SAP Labs India

The Problem: People with disabilities such as autism are usually dependent on others throughout their lives. They lack communication skills, are not social, and businesses generally don’t employ them.

The Solution: Inspired by a Danish entrepreneur, he saw that they had amazing memory and can repeat tasks over and over again—skills that can be used in complex product testing. The best of them is as good as three engineers, he says.

Two years ago, I met Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow, and an outstanding individual. I invited him to come and speak at SAP Labs. His story was very moving. He was the head of an IT company. His son was diagnosed with autism and, for years, he was struggling with a thought that keeps parents of special children awake at night: What happens after I am gone?

For children with physical disabilities, things get better over a period of time. You lose a limb, you can get it back. Or, you get used to it, find employment and lead an independent life. But children with intellectual inability are always dependent on somebody. Getting a job is the bottom line, but autistics find that difficult. They have two challenges: They are non-social and can’t communicate. If you go for an interview and say you can’t communicate or work in a team, you won’t get the job even if you’re the smartest person in the world. In any interview, the focus is on rejecting people and not selecting them. We might not realise this, but that’s what we do. Because of his personal situation, Thorkil wondered: Will my son ever get a job?

His son was diagnosed with autism when he was three years of age, but it was only when he turned nine, that Thorkil got an important insight. He said that instead of focusing on what he can’t do, let me focus on what he can.

Autistics have amazing skills—not all, but many of them do. Some have a great ear for music. Some have an outstanding memory: As they see the world in pictures, their memory is photographic. And most of them have an ability to do the same tasks repeatedly. Thorkil asked himself, how can I use these skills in the world of technology? As he came from that background, he found a sweet spot there. He said, “Can I use them for doing testing because testing involves repeated tasks? Can I use them to build specific software where you need a lot of memory?” He tried their skills; he used them for building gaming software and for testing purposes. And it worked.

Today, he runs a company called Specialisterne, 80 percent of whose employees are autistic.

When Thorkil came to SAP Labs, his mission was to create a million jobs for autistics. He told me, “Ferose, if I have to create a million jobs, it has to happen in India. Only India has that kind of scale, and a lot of special children.” Personally, I thought it was an outstanding idea, but taking the first step is always a challenge. It’s very difficult to convince people. Integration is tough. The ramp up time is very high. We hired four autistics and three of them are with us now. I can say the best among them is as good as three engineers.

How do we scale it up? There are three aspects to it. The first is to spread awareness. We’re way behind Western countries in detecting the problem. India says one out of every 150 children born is autistic; US says one out of 70. Second is how can we help teach autistics. We have millions of differently-abled children. But special schools cannot scale up, because they need one-to-one teaching methods. If we have 100 autistic students, we need 100 special teachers. That’s not scalable. I personally see technology as the only way out. It may not solve it, but will surely help. The third is about inclusion. How does one make businesses hire special people, not as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative, but because it makes business sense. Only then will it be sustainable. Today, if I can tell you that one [autistic worker] is as good as three engineers, it’s because it makes business sense.

At SAP, we have done different things to address this. We started an iPad Lab as a part of Project Prayas. When Steve Jobs launched iPad 2, he spent nearly 10 minutes talking about how iPads can be used to teach autistic children. We donated a few iPads, but once we ventured into it we realised there was so much more to be done: How do you build a curriculum? What are the kind of applications they need to help them work? All the apps that we’ve had were very US-centric; they were created for US children. So we started building our own apps for Indian children. I think a bigger challenge is to make them employable. To do this though, you have to think out of the box, because most of them wouldn’t have studied beyond the 12th standard. The way you hire them is completely different.

To read more: http://forbesindia.com/article/my-learnings/how-autistics-triumphed-at-sap-labs/33945/1#ixzz2AVDOzRKX

The gift of dyslexia: HBO doc sheds light on learning disability

This nice piece throws light on dyslexia and the special abilities of dyslexic individuals.

http://www.sourcenewspapers.com/articles/2012/10/29/news/doc508e8d2f9f8d9575521809.txt?viewmode=fullstory

 

By Jessica Yadegaran, Contra Costa Times

 

Over the past 20 years, Stu Shader, of Pleasanton, has worked for some of the biggest tech companies in the country, including Apple, Hyperion, PeopleSoft and Microsoft, where he currently sells software to eBay and Intel.

What are the keys to his success? He’s a brilliant communicator, able to see the big picture and “boil things down” for his clients. He is perceptive, intuitive and, perhaps most importantly, Shader, 49, says he knows when and how to make accommodations in areas where he feels challenged.

“In big meetings, that means sitting in the front row,” he says.

Shader assures his colleagues that he’s not “kissing up.” He has dyslexia, a brain-based learning disability that impairs a person’s ability to read — in this case, words scrawled on white boards. Sentences can appear as a jumble of symbols. School, as such, can be one long, devastating experience.

“Oh it was awful,” he recalls. “I barely graduated from high school and didn’t think of going to college.”

But dyslexics are hardly deficient. Over the years, neurology researchers at Yale University have identified in dyslexics an array of higher critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities, like those Shader displays, fueling a movement to reframe the condition as an asset, not a disability.

A new HBO documentary by Marin’s James Redford (son of actor Robert) is leading that charge. “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia,” a 2012 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection, features interviews with super-achieving dyslexics, such as California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, about their struggles with reading and writing but also how dyslexia contributed to their success. The film debuts Monday.

Instead of struggling to interpret stacks of business reports, Branson, a high school dropout who went on to start Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines, received his reports face-to-face. Because he couldn’t decipher speech notes, noted attorney David Boies — who helped gay and lesbian couples in overturning California’s ban on gay marriage — cultivated oratory skills and an uncanny ability to recall a key fact or legal citation under intense pressure.

“I had to speak from the heart,” he says in the film. “I couldn’t B.S. anyone.”

Redford hopes these stories shed light on the gift dyslexia can be, especially for the one in five children who have the condition and consider the act of reading a hurdle that blocks their success in school and life.

“We want dyslexics and their families to see that the challenges of early education will be behind them one day and that the future can and should be brighter,” says Redford, who cast his dyslexic son, Dylan, in the film.

Dylan was functionally illiterate in the fourth grade but is now a freshman with honors at Middlebury College in Vermont. Like many dyslexics, he got there by advocating for accommodations, such as books on tape and more time for test-taking, Redford says.

Adi Gilo, of San Mateo, learned to rely on proof readers instead of spell-check after sending out a résumé blast a few years ago seeking a “potion” instead of a position.

“I read it 20 times, and it didn’t look wrong to me,” recalls Gilo, a cooking teacher who works with kids at the Rainbow School. She was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 6 and attended Charles Armstrong, a transitionary school in Belmont for students with language-based learning differences such as dyslexia. “Written communication with parents is still hard for me. I’ll never be good at grammar or spelling.”

Gilo, now 26, says she thought baking, which relies on exact, step-by-step chemical reactions, would be especially difficult for her to teach because she doesn’t think linearly about a problem. As it turns out, because she understands what is happening conceptually, she can explain the reaction occurring between ingredients in a creative way more accessible to kids, she says.

“It all boils down to the way dyslexics’ brains are wired,” says Claudia Koochek, the head of Charles Armstrong School. “It’s all about the right brain for them. They are very creative, empathetic people who see the big picture. We have dyslexics who are brilliant mathematicians. They can solve the most complex problem in their head. They just can’t show you their work.”

HBO documentary

James Redford’s documentary, “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia,” an Official Selection at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, debuts at 7 p.m. Monday on HBO. It will also screen at 1 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Napa Valley Film Festival. For more information and additional screenings, go tohttp://thebigpicturemovie.com