Politics

Congress Weighs How To Increase Employment Opportunities For Americans With Disabilities

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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Juliegrace Brufke Capitol Hill Reporter

House Lawmakers questioned how to better employment opportunities for Americans with developmental and intellectual disabilities like Autism and Down Syndrome during a House Committee on Small Business hearing Thursday.

Eighty percent of those who fall on the spectrum are unemployed, despite being hard-working and capable, Rajesh Anandan, co-founder of a software startup that employs people with Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism, testified before the committee. Some of the best talent at his company, ULTRA Testing, have disabilities, Anandan said, and he has taken steps to ensure sure they’re accommodated so they can excel.

“These individuals can be overlooked when employment opportunities arise, and too often they are shut out from the workplace all together,” Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, the committee chairman, said in his opening statement.

Poppin Joe’s Kettle Korn owner Joe Steffy, who has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome and Autism, said in his written testimony that low expectations from others was his biggest hurdle to overcome, but with the encouragement of his parents he has established a successful business.

A lack of soft skills, such as interviewing, make it difficult for people with disabilities during the traditional interview process, testified Lisa Goring, executive vice president for programs and Services at Autism Speaks.

“Small businesses are in a position not only to develop new models that employ individuals with autism, but also to innovate in a way that directly responds to local labor market needs,” Goring told the panel. “The connection many small businesses have with their community is vital to creating the partnerships necessary to transition young adults into the local workforce, share best practices with other local businesses, and nurture a workforce comprised of people with varying abilities.”

Anandan said he relies on tests, games and simulations to get a grasp on applicants cognitive abilities over the traditional interview process during the hiring process.

Democratic Rep. Nydia Velázquez said there is often a misconception employers will have to purchase expensive accommodations to accommodate having an employee with special needs.

“We need to educate others so they begin to take the ‘dis out of disabilities and replace it with ‘abilities,’” Terri Hogan, the owner of Contemporary Cabinetry in Ohio, who brought Mike Ames, an employee who has Down syndrome to the hearing, said. “We also need to make small businesses aware of the huge untapped resource that is people with diverse abilities. Hiring people who are physically, genetically or cognitively diverse is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

Goring said employing people with special needs is beneficial to the U.S. economy, and despite the hurdles the face, people with disabilities often match or exceed their colleagues work performance.

“Estimated lifetime costs for supporting an adult with autism range between $1.4 million to $2.3 million, and the degree to which adults with autism fail to achieve independence contributes to increased lifetime care costs,” she said. “Research shows that employing individuals with autism, even with publicly-funded, intensive personal job supports, actually saves government costs by reducing the number of benefits that people with autism need when they are unemployed.”

 

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