School House Wonk

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

Archive for the tag “Transition Services”

Leveraging Unique Talents

It’s graduation season, a time of celebration as students mark major transitions in their lives, moving onward and upward from high school, college or graduate school. For parents, graduation represents a major milestone on their child’s journey towards independence and adulthood.

But for many parents whose children have autism or other disabilities, graduation is a goal often postponed, sometimes indefinitely or even permanently. Even those fortunate enough to earn a degree often struggle to get and keep a real job for real pay. While we’ve improved access to education for people with disabilities, access to transition services and meaningful employment remains far too elusive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21% of all disabled adults participate in the workforce, compared to 70% of their non-disabled counterparts. The numbers for the autism community are particularly troubling; one 2009 study revealed that employment rates for people with autism are among the lowest of all disability groups.

This week, SAP, a German software company, announced plans to help the autism community change its employment odds. The world’s biggest business-management software maker intends to hire people with autism as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists.

“SAP sees a potential competitive advantage to leveraging the unique talents of people with autism, while also helping them to secure meaningful employment,” the company said. SAP will begin its hiring project in Germany, then North America, with the aim of having people with autism make up 1 percent of its 65,000 member workforce by 2020.

To achieve this goal, SAP will partner with Specialisterne, a non-profit that “works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a global change in mind-set.” SAP’s partnership with Specialisterne is the brightest spot thus far in a modest but promising trend of training and employment projects aimed at people with disabilities.

SAP executive board member Luisa Delgado said that SAP and Specialisterne “share the common belief that innovation comes from the ‘edges.’ Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century.”

Management consultant expert Peter Drucker famously stated that “the task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make weaknesses irrelevant.” SAP and Specialisterne are applying this same principal to people with autism by utilizing their unique strengths while helping them overcome their challenges, so that they can work, contribute to society, and lead meaningful lives with dignity.

Well done.

Beth T. Sigall

May 25, 2013


Help Wanted

It is common for employers to require that prospective employees have a high school diploma to apply for certain jobs. But what if a high school diploma requirement was disqualifying prospective employees with disabilities who did not earn a high school diploma, but could otherwise perform the job? And would such a requirement violate the Americans with Disabilities Act?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the answer is “yes.” In an “informal discussion letter” that could have far-reaching and profound implications for persons with disabilities seeking employment, the EEOC held that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) employers cannot use a high school diploma requirement to weed out qualified applicants with disabilities. The employer must instead consider whether the essential functions of the job could be performed regardless of diploma status. If yes, then the employer must make “reasonable accommodations” for the person to perform the job (although the prospective job applicant need not be given preferred status for the job over a non-disabled applicant). Here’s how the EEOC articulated the standard:

“If an employer adopts a high school diploma requirement for a job, and that requirement ‘screens out’ an individual who is unable to graduate because of a learning disability that meets the ADA’s definition of “disability,” the employer may not apply the standard unless it can demonstrate that the diploma requirement is job related and consistent with business necessity. The employer will not be able to make this showing, for example, if the functions in question can easily be performed by someone who does not have a diploma.”

In EEOC: High school diploma requirement might violate Americans with Disabilties Act, Dave Boyer of The Washington Times describes how employment attorneys are advising their clients in the wake of the EEOC’s letter. Attorney Mary Theresa Metzler recommends that employers “review their job descriptions to determine if a high school degree is truly necessary, or would aid the employee in performing the essential functions of the particular job.” Metzler provides perspective on the EEOC’s thinking in the same article:

The EEOC may be inclined to test its view on the high school diploma requirement and its impact on the disabled in a court case. While such a requirement is routinely included by many employers, a deeper analysis may demonstrate that a lesser educational requirement might suffice.

My Take – While some may view the EEOC’s recommendations as sending the wrong message at a time when our national and state education policies seek to increase high school graduation rates, as previously noted in this space, the sad fact remains that the employment rate for persons with disabilities remains unacceptably low. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21% of all disabled adults participate in the workforce, compared to 70% of their non-disabled counterparts. By insisting that employers examine their threshold job applicant requirements more closely, the EEOC is doing its part to help bring more persons with disabilities into the workplace. Real jobs for real pay for people with disabilities can and should be more than a lofty aspiration. If a person with a disability did not earn a high school diploma because of their disability, but is otherwise qualified to perform a job, employers should do their part to help bring that person into the workforce.

Beth T. Sigall

January 8, 2012

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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