Members of Congress and Americans with autism are getting to know each other a little better every day on Capitol Hill.
Through an innovative program launched four years ago by Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), interns with developmental disabilities have been placed in Congressional offices to perform staff work while rubbing elbows with the nation's top elected officials. In the process, they are helping change attitudes among key decisionmakers about what people with developmental disabilities can do in the workplace.
The program has proven so successful that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has just brought in two interns with disabilities to work in his personal office and the Majority leadership office, according to Salley Wood, deputy staff director for the Committee on House Administration, which manages the internship program.
Harper (left), whose son Livingston was diagnosed with Fragile X at age 4, started the program after visiting George Mason University's Mason LIFE program shortly after being elected to Congress. Mason LIFE has provided 47 interns who have worked with 66 Congressional offices. About 40 percent of the interns have autism, said Dr. Heidi Graff, the program director.
Wood said participation in the program has been bipartisan and now includes some Senate offices. The interns perform office work, such as collating, copying, mailings and assisting with constituent relations. She credited Mason LIFE with helping get the program off to a strong start and that the House committee wanted to expand the internships to other academic programs nationally.
"It's growing like wildfire," Wood said. "We started with three interns and now we have 12 to 15 each semester. Now you can walk into the Speaker's Office and be greeted by a young woman with a disability."
Wood and Graff said they work together to match the particular skills of interns with the needs of specific Congressional offices. Graff said the interns have proven popular because of their reliability and skills once they master a job. The HSC Foundation is funding stipends for the interns so that they are paid for their work.
Graff said it not uncommon at the start of the internships for Congressional staff to speak with the intern's job coach rather than directly to the intern. The Congressional staffers are advised to speak directly with the intern. Fairly quickly, the interns become a productive part of the office routine and blend in.
"They're getting lost in Rayburn like everyone else," joked Wood.
"We've changed some attitudes on the Hill," Graff said. "Some people had a bias towards people with developmental disabilities. We are gradually working one office at a home, showing what our students are able to do."
Graff and Wood agreed that the most pervasive hurdle was simply a lack of exposure to people with developmental disabilities and awareness of job placement programs.