CXO

How employees with disabilities can fill tech skills gaps and drive innovation

People with autism or other disabilities are often overlooked in company diversity efforts. But this population represents a pool of untapped talent that can help fill tech gaps.

In touting diversity initiatives and seeking nontraditional hires, tech companies often overlook a key population, despite the potential skills they bring: People with disabilities, including those who are blind, deaf, or on the autism spectrum.

In 2016, less than 18% of people with a disability in the US were employed, compared to 65% of those without a disability, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Further, the unemployment rate for people with a disability was nearly 11% in 2016, about twice that of those with no disability (4.6%).

This population can help tech companies find more innovative solutions to problems, as well as make products more inclusive, experts say.

SEE: IT Hiring Kit: Programmer (Tech Pro Research)

"You're bringing a different perspective in," said Carolyn April, CompTIA senior director of industry analysis. "Somebody who has physical challenges or other challenges may be able to see the solution to a project or the development of a product in a unique way that the rest of us could not, and that's an asset to an organization."

People with disabilities may also represent an untapped pool of tech talent and can help fill the skills gaps that exist in many companies. People with autism, for example, tend to have a good memory, the ability to see patterns, high accuracy in repetitive tasks, and strong attention to detail, said Thorkil Sonne, founder and CEO of Specialisterne, a nonprofit that provides programs for career development to people with autism.

"I think any employer would be interested in a profile like that, to fill vacant jobs, and have a different way of solving traditional challenges," Sonne said. "There's an enormous untapped pool of very talent people that I think any employer should really pay attention to, because they could fill many of these vacant jobs."

Improving recruitment

Companies also miss out on a business advantage when they don't think more broadly about diversity and inclusion, said Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring at Microsoft. "There's no better way to make sure your products are inclusive for truly everyone than having people creating, writing the code, or designing it that have disabilities," Barnett said. "By including them in the fabric of the company, you will make sure your products when they go to market are truly inclusive for everyone."

However, many companies fail to actively recruit from these populations. Talking about disabilities can be uncomfortable for companies that lack experience in this area, Sonne said. "But the lack of inclusion of autistic people is so much based on biases and maybe fear of what they don't know, because they can see the talent," he added. "It's about how you manage autistic people, and how we go from talking about disorder and deficit to advantages instead."

SEE: How CXOs can develop a diverse workforce (Tech Pro Research)

Further, leaders can become stronger managers of all employees by working with different types of people, Sonne said.

To figure out how to better include people with disabilities in tech hiring, companies can reach out to local and national organizations for help. And to raise awareness and foster recruitment and retention efforts, employers should also form employee resource groups for those with disabilities, Sonne said.

"Companies will find that there are so many employees that have some kind of affiliation with people with disabilities, and they have so much compassion—if they can get a chance to be involved in inclusion efforts of people with disabilities, you will see a lot of engagement and gratitude to your company," Sonne said. "These are typically people who have some family affiliation with disabilities, and are used to living with it, so they can be a fantastic partner for the HR department in understanding and reducing the barriers for people with disabilities."

Specialisterne's model for assessment and employment has been adapted for jobs such as data analysts, quality controllers, coders, and software testers by employers including SAP, Microsoft, IBM, JP Morgan Chase, and Capital One.

Microsoft—which was included on a list of the best places to work for disability inclusion—undertook a number of inclusivity measures in recent years, including reworking job descriptions, training managers on interviewing nontraditional candidates, and making changes such as allowing candidates in technical interviews to code on their own machine that they are most comfortable with, Barnett said.

About two and a half years ago, Microsoft created an autism hiring program. Some 50 employees have been hired through the program, Barnett said.

Interestingly, half of those employees had applied to jobs at Microsoft previously, Barnett said. "Once we had a nontraditional front door and got them in front of trained hiring managers and let them showcase their skills, we had managers offer them full-time jobs," he added.

Every company's culture is different, and it may be best to take a crawl-walk-run approach, Barnett said. "You need to know your own culture and take those first steps, and then iterate on it," he added.

Ultimately in the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution, companies will need to be resilient, and able to move quickly to changes in the technology landscape, Sonne said. "I believe that the best prepared company will be the company who has the most diverse teams to work with," he added.

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Image: iStockphoto/g-stockstudio

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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