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Virginians with disabilities get help finding jobs

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Story at a glance

  • People with disabilities experience higher unemployment rates than the able-bodied.
  • Virginia’s governor issued executive actions to promote hiring of people with disabilities.
  • The private sector has an important role to play, and some companies are leading with new hiring programs.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has just issued “the most comprehensive executive actions in Virginia history to ensure inclusion and opportunity for Virginians with disabilities,” according to the January 2020 press announcement. (The full text of Executive Order Forty-Seven is available here, and Executive Directive Six is available here.)

Janice Underwood, who was recently appointed Virginia’s first-ever director of diversity, equity and inclusion, tells Changing America the positive impact this will make in many lives.

“By 2023, the Commonwealth of Virginia will increase the level of employment of individuals with disabilities by five percent. These executive actions will help us get there by ensuring education and employment equity for Virginians with disabilities,” Underwood says. “Specifically, we will collaborate with state agencies, advocacy groups, and institutions of higher education to prioritize hiring and workforce diversity best practices in state government,” she says. 

“As Virginia’s first-ever Chief Diversity Officer, I will also work with state agencies and diverse stakeholders to ensure a more welcoming and affirming learning and workplace culture for people with disabilities.”

The goal, according to Underwood, is to “make Virginia a national exemplar for inclusivity with the increased hiring of individuals with disabilities.”

Charlottesville, Va., mom Jocelynn Crum Helmbrecht has a son with a disability, and she says she welcomes this news. “Inclusion often only becomes important when you love someone who is excluded,” says Crum Helmbrecht. “I am hopeful this is a giant step toward people like my Wesley having opportunities many often take for granted.”

Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show how difficult it can be for those with disabilities to get hired, even with college degrees. Across all educational attainment groups, jobless rates for those with disabilities are higher than those for persons without a disability.

John Horna of Richmond, Va., who lost his eyesight as a teenager due to Leber congenital amaurosis, a rare inherited eye disorder, understands the challenges. Although employed now, the hardworking college graduate recalls there was a time when he was struggling to make it, as potential employers may not have wanted to take a chance on him. It’s important, he says, for an employer to realize that a person with a disability “is just as competent and confident.”

Companies such as Microsoft are leading the way on diversity and inclusion. 

Microsoft’s Autism Hiring program was launched in the spring of 2015, aligning with World Autism Day. Changing America connected with Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at Microsoft, who tells us why Microsoft decided to create this program.

“Given that 80 percent of people with autism are unemployed or underemployed, we knew there was an untapped pool of talented people with autism who have the skills aligned to the work we are doing every day at Microsoft,” says Barnett. “We created the program because Microsoft, as well as the global workforce, is stronger when we have a diverse workforce that comprehensively represents those we serve,” he states. “When we started the program, our approach was simple. We learned that our traditional hiring process, the front door to Microsoft, could be a major barrier of entry for many talented candidates. By adjusting the shape of the door, we could help candidates showcase and demonstrate their talent to hiring managers.” 

To break down the barriers Microsoft created an Autism Hiring Program. Candidates are invited to campus and participate in a skills assessment program, gain feedback via mock interviews and meet with hiring managers. “In addition, we offer each hire an immersive onboarding process with a comprehensive set of services to support the transition to working at Microsoft,” says Barnett. This includes training sessions for the teams and managers of the new employees to help them better understand autism, as well as a job coach from a nonprofit.

Joey Chemis, a data scientist at Microsoft who was hired through the Autism Hiring Program, appreciates this. “For me, the Autism Hiring Program was the chance to finally make it,” says Chemis. “You’re saying here’s the things that come with autism that the standard interview process would flag, here’s how we accommodate those issues and make them less of an issue, and here’s how we allow a person to really shine and show their true colors and abilities.”

Chemis says his experience at Microsoft has been positive. “My colleagues have realized I am a normal guy. I am quirky and nerdy like the rest of them and, while I am happy to disclose the fact that I have autism, I don’t want to let the autism define me,” he says.

Microsoft joins other companies also working to increase inclusivity. “We regularly work with other organizations like SAP, JP Morgan Chase and Ford, and last year we helped launch the Autism @ Work Employer Roundtable  to create a forum to share ideas,” says Barnett. “We’ve made significant progress to increase employment opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum.”

Collaboration is key, says Barnett. “Our North Star is to change the unemployment rate for people with disabilities, and we can only do this by working together with others.”