Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Goodwill Industries Exposed

I thank my friend and fellow autism writer, speaker, and advocate James Williams for drawing my attention to the pay scandal at Goodwill Industries.  Like many sheltered workshops for disabled people, the Goodwill Industries pays many of its disabled workers much less than minimum wage.  This discriminatory policy is legal in the U.S. because disabled people are not considered worthy of being paid even minimum wage, let alone a living wage.  The justification for this discrimination was written into the Depression-era Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.  Thus, the New Deal included a foundational document which legalized discrimination against disabled people, and which created two classes of Americans: "normal" people who are entitled to labor market protections and disabled people who are denied these rights.  This legalized discrimination only reinforces and strengthens society's prejudices against disabled people and also makes it much easier for employers to continue to systematically exclude autistic and other disabled people from living wage jobs.

Under Section 14(c) of the law, employers can apply for an exemption certificate which allows them to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage. University of Michigan law professor Samuel R. Bagenstos wrote a policy brief attacking this policy for the National Federation for the Blind.  In 1986, Congress made the law even worse by removing any floor on the pay of disabled workers subjected to the policy (Bagenstos, p. 4). Thus, disabled workers who are subjected to this approach are not entitled to any wage protections whatsoever. A 2001 report from the General Accounting Office found that 95% of disabled workers subjected to this blatant form of discrimination are in sheltered workshops run by non-profit agencies such as Goodwill Industries and not in private industry (Bagenstos, pp. 4-5).  Also the law has created a boom in the sheltered workshop industry, which has expanded from less than 150 such workshops in 1934 to 2,500 such workshops with 300,000 employees today (Bagenstos, p. 5).

The most humiliating aspect of the policy is a practice called a time study.  Employers determine the amount of time it takes for a disabled worker to perform a given task and then compare it with the amount of time it would take a non-disabled worker to do the same work.  The wages of disabled employees rise and fall every 6 months based on the outcome of such studies.  Non-disabled workers in corporate environments are not subjected to such a policy, and so disabled workers should not be forced to endure it either.

The time studies are a source of enormous pressure for some workers at Goodwill.  Sheila Leigland, who is blind, once earned $3.50 per hour hanging clothes for four years at Goodwill.  But after her knee surgery, her wage was cut to $2.75 an hour.  She quit her job because it no longer even covered the costs of her transportation.

Goodwill Industries has now been exposed for participating in this abusive labor practice against disabled workers.  Not all Goodwill Industries facilities engage in this policy, but 7,300 employees out of 105,000 at this non-profit firm are subjected to the policy.  Some Goodwill facilities in Pennsylvania paid workers as little at 22, 38, and 41 cents an hour in 2011.   Goodwill of the Columbia Williamette paid some workers just $1.40 an hour.  In San Diego, the lowest-paid workers were paid just $3.32 an hour at Goodwill.

Some highly educated but disabled workers are forced to endure this form of discrimination.  Harold Leigland, 66, a blind worker with a college degree and a former massage therapist, currently earns $5.46 in a Goodwill facility in Montana.  He says,"We are trapped.  Everybody who works at Goodwill is trapped."  He feels forced to work in these types of abusive labor conditions because he knows no other employer will hire him due to discrimination. Similarly, a college-educated woman with cerebral palsy was assembling rubber mats for $3 per hour, according to a former federal rehabilitation commissioner.

Goodwill is not the only agency which engages in this form of discrimination.  The Helen Keller National Center, a New York school for the blind, also participates in this practice.  Students at the school earned $3.97 an hour to $5.96 per hour at the Applebee's in Westbury, NY.  Students at the school also earned $3.80 an hour to $4.85 an hour at the Barnes & Nobles in Manhasset, New York.  I imagine that Helen Keller would turn over in her grave if she knew that a school named after her was perpetrating employment discrimination against disabled people.

Thus, while I support the proposal to boycott Goodwill for its abusive labor practices against disabled people, the problem goes much deeper and requires a more systemic solution.  The only long-term answer is for the disability community to come together in a united fashion and campaign to pass a a bill which would  eliminate the discriminatory practices which are allowed under current laws.  This policy continues because it is legalized and institutionalized discrimination, and thus the disability community must work together to end it.  The wage exemptions for disabled people under current laws must end because they are unjust and designed to promote discrimination and prevent disabled people from earning a living wage.  Rep. Greg Harper (R-Miss.) has sponsored a bill to end this discrimination. He said,"Meaningful work deserves fair pay.  This dated provision unjustly prohibits workers with disabilities from reaching their full potential."

I thank the National Federation of the Blind and the Autism Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) for their activism on this issue.  Andy Voss, ASAN President for Sacramento,CA,said,"It is appalling that organizations that purport to assist workers with disabilities in job training, would hold them back by circumventing the standard of living that minimum wage provides other American workers." I also encourage the broader autism and disability communities to join the struggle against the payment of sub-minimum wages to disabled people in sheltered workshops. The longer term goal should also be to move as many disabled people as possible away from sheltered workshops and toward competitive employment.  The presence of sheltered workshops is an inherent form of segregation and an invitation to exploitation and exclusion. Thus, the aims of the disability community should include the gradual abolition of sheltered workshops and the integration of disabled people into the mainstream workforce.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Goldman Sachs UK and Freddie Mac Open Finance Doors for Autistic Employees

I support the efforts of organizations such as Specialisterne and SAP which are expanding options for autistic people in the IT field. SAP announced ambitious plans to hire autistic people as 1% of its workforce, primarily in computer programming and quality testing jobs.  SAP's goal is to ensure that autistic people are hired at the same proportion as their percentage in the population and thus fairly represented in the company.  I think the IT field is an ideal place for many autistic people because it is heavily analytical and detail-oriented and not socially driven.  I think every effort should be made to place trained autistic computer scientists into appropriate jobs that allow them to maximize their strengths.

But I also believe the effort to place autistic people into IT jobs by itself is woefully insufficient.  I am a good example of an autistic person who is talented in finance and accounting and not in IT.  When I graduated from college in 1997, these types of jobs were not open to autistic people, and I didn't know I was autistic.  I was blocked from pursuing these types of jobs after college and after finishing a graduate degree in taxation in 2008.

For this reason I strongly applaud the decisions of Goldman Sachs UK and Freddie Mac to begin opening these types of jobs to autistic people.  Between 2003 and 2007 alone, Goldman Sachs UK hired 22 interns in a wide range of departments including legal, corporate services, equities, investment banking, investment research, operations, and technology.  Thus, unlike many other corporations which limited autistic people to IT jobs, Goldman Sachs decided to open a wide range of opportunities to autistic job candidates.  Of the 22 interns, 4 are currently working permanently at the company in investment banking, operations, and settlements.  Goldman Sachs UK hired these interns in cooperation with Prospects, the innovative employment service of the UK's National Autism Society.

Richard Bremer explained the bank's reason for hiring autistic people:
"Employers can hugely benefit from the skills and qualities a person with ASD might bring to a job in their company. People with ASD tend to be reliable, hard working and motivated. Their attention to detail is often well above average, as are their high levels of accuracy and consistently good performance on repetitive tasks. Their approach is straightforward and honest. They may have technical skills of a high order and a good knowledge of facts and figures.
A sound business case can be made for employing more people with ASD. The firm gains reliable and effective employees, progresses towards meeting its commitment to diversity and raises awareness of diversity among its staff."

I can only hope that more companies begin to realize that excluding autistic people from the workforce is a huge mistake.  Employers are knowingly choosing to miss out on a huge talent pool which can make a tremendous contribution to their company. 

Jonathan Young, a business analyst at Goldman Sachs UK, is a great example of a young autistic person who has benefitted from these advances.  "I'm the company's global go-to guy for all the information used in every single one of our internal and external presentations," he says. "I'm moving up the ladder every year in terms of responsibility or promotion. My ambition is to maintain this momentum. In 10 years, I want to be someone fairly big."  He speaks with the confidence of a young man who was embraced for who he was and not blocked from earning a living due to the autism.  

In addition, hedge funds represent an important refuge for autistic quantitative analysts.  The article stated,"Nick Finlay, head of investment management at Hays Financial Technology, said that hedge funds are still willing to recruit candidates based purely on technical know-how: “Hedge funds want gifted technical programmers who are all about problem solving and complex programming. Softer skills are secondary.”  In these positions employers are looking for intellectual ability and not social skills, and so autistic people can flourish in these roles.  

One more encouraging sign is that some investment banks are beginning to adapt the interview process for autistic IT candidates.  Ben Cowan, director of recruiter Astbury Marsden said,"It always pays to flag the condition before interview in order for the bank to manage the process better.”  I hope that one day more employers also work to make the interview process more accomodating and less intimidating for autistic job candidates in a wide range of fields, not only IT.

In addition, I was very excited to see the job descriptions for a summer internship program set up by Freddie Mac, the giant U.S. home mortgage guarantee firm, in cooperation with Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.  The program was started in 2011 and is now in its 3rd year. Two of the positions were in the familiar IT fields.  But one internship was offered in strategy, planning and development under the guidance of the San Francisco CFO.  Another internship was offered in securities. 

I would have flourished in these positions if they had been made available to me earlier.  And so I have mixed feelings upon reading this news.  I am sad that I was denied this opportunity and happy that younger autistic people are finding the chance to flourish professionally.  I hope that Goldman Sachs UK and Freddie Mac are only the beginning of a broader change in the corporate environment in the U.S. and UK.  I hope they start a gradual process of transformation that will eventually lead to the larger scale hiring opportunity for autistic people in finance and business.  I dream that one day autistic college graduates in a wide range of fields do not have to live in fear of being denied a job because of our social differences.   

Mourning Alex Spourdalakis, Seeking Change

Like many autistic people, I am outraged by the murder of Alex Spourdalakis.   I am particularly shocked by the fact the murderer was his own mother.  I am an autistic adult woman who has no children of my own.  But frankly I cannot begin to comprehend the level of evil involved in a mother murdering her own child.   I think the central issue to be addressed is not the failure of the medical community or the media but rather the barbaric choice of a mother to murder her own child.   Broadly I agree with the perspective of Jo Ashline, a mother of a special needs son.

Alex was a 14 year old non-verbal autistic boy who never had a chance to live.  Deprived of proper medical care and then murdered by his own mother, his short life was a tragedy.  Ironically, the well-intentioned autism activists did all in their power to help Alex in the best way they knew how.  They quite correctly protested against the failure to provide Alex with appropriate medical care for his gastro-intestinal problems and against the decision to place him in restraints in a psychiatric ward while he was in a hospital.  And they actually succeeded in their goal of removing him from this hospital that failed to properly care for him.

But they never imagined in their worst nightmares that sending him back to his mother would end up killing him.  They counted on his mother to protect and care for him because the vast majority of mothers have loving instincts.  And as mothers of autistic children themselves, they could not understand that a tiny minority of mothers exhibit murderous instincts toward their own children. The blame for this tragedy ultimately lies with the mother who made this barbaric choice.

I did a brief investigation into the cases of mothers murdering autistic children and found it was not an uncommon phenomenon.  A quick Google search uncovered the murders of at least 5 autistic children by 4 mothers in 2010 alone in the USA.  In addition, at least two autistic children were murdered by their mothers in 2011, including one in the UK and one in the USA.  In 2012, two autistic children were murdered by their mothers in the USA.  The victims came from all walks of life, races, and social classes.  They included:

The victims were often very young and totally defenseless children, 4 of them being under 10 years old.  Daniel Corby was just 4 years old.  Zain and Faryaal Akhter were just 5 and 2 years old.  Jude Tzekov was just 8 years old.  The focus of our mourning needs to be on the innocent children and not on the mothers who chose to murder them.  The children were the most severely disabled autistic kids - often non-verbal, unable to care for themselves, completely dependent upon their parents and caregivers for basic needs such as eating, bathing, and dressing.

In many cases the murdering mothers either killed themselves as well or tried to kill themselves, reflecting a high level of despair about their situations.  The alleged reasons for the murders ranged from frustration about school placements to inability to find housing for children after a pending divorce to fear that social services would take a child away from its mother.

The social service agencies were involved in at least two of the cases, those of Ajit Kaur-Singh, 12, and Zain and Faryaal Akhter, 5, and 2.  The social service agency in the UK that was responsible for Ajit Kaur-Singh's welfare understood that his mother was not capable of taking care of him and threatened to remove him from her care.  Child Protective Services in Texas investigated the Akhter family for leaving Zain at home alone in 2009 while rushing Faryaal to the hospital for a respiratory infection.

Part of the solution to this problem involves providing additional support, especially respite care to mothers and families who feel overwhelmed by the responsibility to provide round-the-clock care for their severely autistic and dependent children.  These mothers are genuinely and understandably overwhelmed, and they need emotional and practical support in caring for their children.  They also are in vital need of regular respite services which can allow them to take an occasional break from the constant responsibility of caring for their children.

But part of the solution is for social service agencies to do a better job of investigating and protecting vulnerable autistic children who are not able to care for themselves.  Social service agencies need better training to help them understand the demands that these mothers face and to detect the early warning signs that these mothers are not capable of providing proper care for their children.  The lives of Ajit Kaur-Singh and Zain and Faryaal Akhter might have been saved if they had been removed from the home and placed in the care of loving foster and adoptive families that are willing to take on the responsibility of raising special needs children.

The broader autism community needs to understand that the responsibility for protecting autistic children lies not only with their parents but with the whole autism world and ultimately the entire society.  Severely autistic children are extremely vulnerable and require a higher level of protection and support than other children.  More programs need to be available to protect autistic children whose parents are incapable of taking care of them. Unfortunately even the best programs and services cannot save every autistic child, but these children are in dire need of extra help from the autism community and the broader society.

In addition, I support the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network's call for the murderers of Alex Spourdalakis to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  This atrocity is a hate crime and needs to be treated as such.  According to the press release, his mother and killer refused offered services from the Illinois Department of Children and Families prior to committing this atrocity.  Her murderous act was a hate crime against a disabled person and must be punished severely.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Support Elaine Day's Writing on Asperger's and Women

i wanted to draw your attention to the work of Elaine Day.  She is a woman and an Aspie.  And she wants to write a book about her experience as a woman growing up undiagnosed on the spectrum.  I think that women are underrepresented as writers in the autism world, and that the experiences of autistic women don't get the coverage they deserve.

Ms. Day is running a campaign on Kickstarter  to raise funds for her project.  She hopes to raise $1,000 within the next 17 days and has already raised $440 toward her goal.  If you can afford to make a contribution and want to support autistic women, I encourage you to do so. I think autistic women and autistic people in general need to support one another and so I am supporting Ms. Day.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Game-Changer for Autistic Scientists

This post is designed to describe two potential game-changing career options for autistic scientists.  I have found at least two web sites that allow scientists to participate in solving problems for pay.  In this way you can be paid for your knowledge and not your social skills.  Your background in biology, chemistry, physics, and computer science can come in handy and help you.  Large companies post these challenges, and they pay significant sums to solve them.  Your inability to function socially with colleagues and bosses in the workplace does not matter.  Your ability to think outside the box and solve scientific problems can earn you a good income.

One of them is called IdeaConnection, and I have belonged to the site for quite a while.  The payment for solving an idea challenge varies from $500 to $10,000 depending upon the challenge.  They also offer payments of $2,000 for technology sourcing leads, that is finding companies with particular technologies or products.  Some of the projects involve working in virtual teams, whereas others involve working alone.  The online environment makes working in a virtual team easier for an autistic scientist than working in an office setting where social miscues can cause tremendous heartache.

I found the other site, Innocentive, by reading the outstanding book Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business by Jeff Howe.  This site offers even higher payments for solving scientific problems, usually between $5,000 and $100,000 per challenge.  And the profiles of the successful solvers in the book indicate that autistic scientists can succeed in solving problems.  One problem-solver, Giorgia Sgargetta, has a PhD in chemistry but works as a quality manager in a pesticides plant (pp. 41-42).  Ed Melcarek has a masters in physics and now earns a significant income by solving scientific problems.

TopCoder is another web site mentioned in Howe's book on page 122.  The site offers short-term computer science problem-solving challenges that usually take place over 2-3 days and generally offer smaller prizes of $1,200 to $2,000 per challenge solved.

These sites are potential game-changers for unemployed and underemployed autistic scientists who are looking to either expand their income or break out of poverty and support themselves.  Removing the social pressures of working with colleagues and bosses can allow autistic scientific creativity to flourish more fully, thus allowing autistic scientists to maximize their potential and obtain fair compensation for their efforts.

One key point to keep in mind is that scientists should not limit themselves to only solving challenges in their fields.  For instance, Melcarek usually solves chemistry and biology problems using his physics and electrical engineering background (pg. 151).  Karim Lakhani, a PhD candidate in MIT's business school who studied InnoCentive, said,"We actually found the odds of a successful solver's success increased in fields where they had no formal expertise"(p. 151).  For this reason, scientists should try to tackle challenges outside their fields in addition to ones in their areas of expertise.

Count Your Beans: Successful Autistic Owned Company

This blog post represents the first of a series of profiles of successful autistic-owned companies.  The purpose of the series to give hope, inspiration, and practical tips to current and aspiring autistic entrepreneurs.  In addition, the goal is to help autistic entrepreneurs find the kind of business ideas that play to our intellectual strengths and make allowances for our social weaknesses.

Count Your Beans is an example of a successful on-line business owned and run by an autistic entrepreneur.  The founder and co-owner, Karen Krejcha, was diagnosed with autism after her son was found to be autistic.  Ms. Krejcha runs the company along with her husband Chris.  This company sells collectible dolls and bears online with a focus on the Marie Osmond doll line.

I think the company is successful for a number of reasons:

1.  They focus on a specific and well-defined niche.  Thus, rather than trying to sell every type of collectible doll available, they specialize primarily in the Marie Osmond doll line.  This niche focus allows them to maintain relationships with the sales people for Marie Osmond, minimize the size of their inventory, and gain traction among their customers who identify them with a particular well-known brand.

2.  The on-line format allows them to interact with customers via phone and email, thus avoiding the confusion caused by inability to read non-verbal social cues in face to face interaction.

3. They provide constantly updated product news for the Marie Osmond doll line.

4.  Their payment, customer service, shipping and return policies are spelled out very clearly and explicitly in order to avoid any confusion in this area.   Problems in this areas are a common source of customer dissatisfaction, and so they must be addressed properly to avoid problems where possible and to solve them quickly when they do arise.  

5.  Their information section for each product is extremely clear and detailed.  The product name is included  along with a detailed item description, picture, size, price, discounts, the release date, and the item number. Thus, the customer knows exactly what she is ordering when she places an order.

6. The copy for each item is cleverly written, interesting, and designed to keep customer interest.  For instance, the Adora Belle Cowardly Lion from Marie Osmond's new The Wizard of Oz collection #040110153 "will be a great addition to your home. This porcelain cutie is dressed in a Cowardly Lion outfit complete with a badge of courage, furry lion body, mane and tail. Includes The Wizard of Oz Story Book Box."  The copy explains what customer problem the item is designed to solve: providing decoration and art to the home.  In addition, the product's physical attributes product are described in detail.  

7.  Their web page is properly designed to be easy on the eyes.  Thus, each page contains only a small number of items and is not cluttered with too many items.

8.  The inventory is kept constantly updated so that customers know when an item is out of stock or has reached a low level.   This information allows customers to make more informed purchase decisions and avoids the frustration that can arise when a customer orders an item and it is found to be unavailable.

9.  They sell a small portion of their inventory on eBay and Amazon, thus allowing them to reach more retail channels for their products.

10.  They try to entice more customer spending through a customer loyalty program called Bonus Beans.  And normally Bonus Beans expire one year after they have been obtained, thus requiring the customer to spend them withing one year.

11. They have always donated a portion of their earnings to charity, and now they have founded their own non-profit organization called Autism Empowerment.

Thus, the keys to success for an autistic-owned on-line business include serving a well-defined niche, providing clear customer service policies, offering detailed product descriptions, and maintaining constant inventory updates.  The on-line business format plays to the autistic entreprenuer's strengths because it allows to memorize our inventory and eliminates the confusion caused by misread social cues in face to face interactions.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Opening the Closed Systems of Business and International Relations

I am an autistic woman who is writing a self-employment guide for autistic adults.  As a result of our social deficits, autistic people typically struggle perhaps more with marketing than with any other aspect of entrepreneurship. And so my research for my book has focused extensively upon marketing. 

My research has included reading the outstanding book The New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott.   The book is full of excellent examples of marketing campaigns that involved thinking outside the box and focusing on the customer’s needs, wants, and problems.  I highly recommend it for autistic entrepreneurs, and all entrepreneurs who want to improve their marketing campaigns. I found the book incredibly helpful as it has greatly expanded my understanding of marketing and customer-centric thinking.  I also recommend his web site at www.webinknow.com

He emphasizes the importance of understanding the buyer persona that a company is trying to reach. For example, on pages 30 to 31, he tells the story of Mike Pedersen, a golf fitness professional who has succeeded by targeting a very specific demographic: the 60 year old golfer who has declining physical capability.  He develops his content by getting inside the mind of his customers and understanding exactly what they are looking for. 

But I want to ponder a different issue in this blog post.  I wanted to understand why so many big companies were so resistant to adopting his more effective method of customer-centric marketing and so stuck on traditional forms of advertising and marketing that are increasingly ineffective in the digital age.  For instance, on pages 1 to 3, Meerman Scott tells the story of looking on the web sites of the Big 3 car companies when in the process of buying a car.  The car companies bombarded him with ads marketing their products to him instead of trying to solve his problems.

And I realized part of the problem is that the large corporate world, like the international relations field, is a closed system.  In the large corporate world, you are either included as a manager or employee, or you are treated like you don’t exist. In the latter case, you are left on the outside looking in without any prospect of any real communication or meaningful interaction with the corporate entity. 

In my case, I was excluded from the mainstream corporate world when I graduated from college because I didn’t fit in socially as a result of my undiagnosed autism.  And so the corporate world would be likely to automatically dismiss my insights as unworthy of consideration because of my social differences.  I think this resistance to new ideas in the corporate world is a consequence of it being a closed system which excludes anyone who does not fit in exactly with the corporation’s understanding of itself and the world. 

In my original field of international relations, I found a similarly rigid and close-minded attitude among my professors.  I was driven out of the Russian studies department of an Ivy League college in the 1990’s by a campaign of covert anti-Semitism.  As a result, I was prevented from pursuing my original goal of earning a PhD and becoming a professor. 

For many years, I attempted unsuccessfully to participate in the field on a part-time basis as a freelance analyst of international affairs.  But my ideas and insights were repeatedly dismissed because I was not a part of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.  Soon after receiving my autism diagnosis, I told my professors that I couldn’t work in the foreign policy establishment because of my weak social skills.  And I asked them if they could help me find a way to participate in the field on a part-time freelance basis.  Instead of trying to accommodate me, they tried to pressure me to return to a system where I knew that I didn’t belong. 

I think the solution to this problem is for corporations and the international relations field to open their minds to a wide range of ideas and solutions that differ from their preconceived notions of thinking and working.  They need to find a way to include the insights of people like me who think differently, who don’t fit in socially, who cannot function in rigid and closed environments with conformist rules.   They need to move away from their rigid approaches.  They need to challenge their tendency to divide the world between insiders and outsiders and to automatically reject the ideas and insights of perceived outsiders.  I think both business and international relations are missing out on great ideas because of their rigid approaches.  I think  that a more open attitude toward outside ideas would free them to find a much wider range of solutions to complex problems.