School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Different path but same destination (part 3/final)

Over thirty five years ago Republicans and Democrats came together in support of the “simple yet profound” belief that students with disabilities are entitled to an education alongside their non-disabled peers. In passing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Congress recognized that the public school system was not meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Prior to this, children with disabilities were turned away routinely from their public schools. Indeed, in 1975, more than one million students with disabilities were not allowed to attend public school.

Fast forward to today – millions of students with disabilities now receive a public education. In this respect, IDEA helped dramatically shift the paradigm of how we think about educating students with disabilities.

But, as explored in two previous posts, what happens to students with disabilities after they exit school? Are they ready for employment in the real world? And is the real world ready to employ them? The answers to these questions have substantial implications, given that an estimated 2.5 million undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. reported disabilities in 2008 (as described by Toddi Gutner in “How to tap talented students with disabilities”).

Some big-time companies are stepping up to help address this pressing need. And as is so often the case, parents continue to lead the way, primarily through the formation of non-profit groups that provide training, networking and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Here are some inspiring examples.


Lime Connect – launched in 2006, this program recruits students with “hidden” disabilities, such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia from top universities, including Princeton, Duke, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania. Lime Connect helps these students land internships and ultimately careers at major corporations, such as Google, Target, PepsiCo, Apple, Cisco, McKinsey & Company and others, according to Toddi Gunter with Reuters. Students gain both networking experience as well as connections to other students with hidden disabilities; the connections to similarly situated students is one of the more popular features of the program, writes Gutner.

Unlike some job-training programs for students with disabilities, Lime Connect’s selection process is highly competitive; last year, 125 students applied for 20 fellowship slots. Once chosen, interns do not receive special treatment from their respective companies. According to Lime CEO Susan Lang, “they compete with everyone else. All they’re getting is the connection.” Many land jobs with their companies once the internship ends.  And these companies appreciate the unique qualities these capable students bring to the table. 

When these companies get exposed to our exceptionally talented men and women who have already climbed a mountain and overcome something in their short lives to be successful, they want them on their team

Tom Wilson, former head of global talent sourcing/recruiting at Merrill Lynch and Lime Connect board chairman.


Aspiritech – Founded in 2007 by two parents whose adult son with Asperger’s Syndrome had just been fired from his part-time job bagging groceries despite having a four-year college degree, Aspiritech is a non-profit with a mission to “provide a path for high-functioning individuals on the Autism Spectrum to realize their potential through gainful employment.” Based in Chicago, Aspiritech provides a path to employment by aligning “the unique talents of the autism community,” such as attention to detail and technical aptitude, with the needs of the business community. They provide software testing services to companies.


Specialisterne stands as one of the most-recognized global efforts at employing people with disabilities. Its stated goal is to create one-million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges “through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a global change in mind-set.” Founded in Denmark by parents of a child with autism, (father) Thorkil Sonne mortgaged the family home to cover the start-up costs. Specialisterne trains people with disabilities like autism to do IT work, such as software testing. Gareth Cook of the Boston Globe writes that Microsoft pays “top dollar” for IT work done by Specialisterne“because the quality is superior.” The company recently was recognized as a “good practices” organization for its compliance with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Specialisterne now has a U.S. presence in Minnesota.

How can state legislatures help? Massachusetts is considering a bill to revise licensure requirements for special education teachers, allowing them to seek certification in “transitional services.” According to Scott O’Connell of GateHouse News Service, advances in educating students with special needs have “boosted chances at finding employment” but without appropriate transitional support at school “those skills go to waste.” According to O’Connell, some students then “simply go on to receive state services” instead of working.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep Tom Sannicandro, seeks to improve the quality of transitional services offered at the high school level. “Right now they’re not adequately prepared for that transition,” says Sannicandro. “A lot of times there’s a drop-off.” Like IDEA over thirty-five years ago, this bill also has attracted bipartisan support among legislators.

Beth T. Sigall

December 12, 2011


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