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Congress highlights role of small business employing those with autism

May 19, 2016

The U.S House Small Business Committee, led by Chairman Steve Chabot, held a hearing today on the role that small businesses can play in employing individuals with developmental disabilities: “Help Wanted: Small Business Providing Opportunities for All.”

“For adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities or disorders, finding sustaining employment can be a real challenge,” said House Small Business Committee Chairman Steve Chabot (R-OH). “These individuals can be overlooked when employment opportunities arise, and too often they are shut out from the workplace all together.” He added, “Yet across the country we are seeing examples of how small businesses, with their ability to adapt and accommodate, are able to provide employment opportunities to those who might not otherwise get a chance.”

The hearing included witnesses from Autism Speaks and entrepreneurs across the country: Lisa Goring, executive vice president of programs and services at Autism Speaks; Terri Hogan, owner of Contemporary Cabinetry from East Cincinnati, OH; Rajesh Anandan, co-founder of ULTRA Testing from New York, NY; and Joe Steffy, owner and proprietor of Poppin' Joe's Gourmet Kettle Korn from Louisburg, Kansas.

Approximately 50,000 people with autism enter adulthood each year in the United States and access to employment opportunities are critical for those individuals to reach their fullest potential. According to the hearing notice by the committee, “only 34% of people with intellectual or developmental disorders are employed, and only 26% of these adults have a full time job. Difficulty in finding employment remains a barrier preventing individuals with intellectual or developmental disorders, syndromes, or disabilities from growing and improving their quality of life.”

Autism Speaks is committed to expanding employment opportunities and supports for adults with autism by coordinating with private employers and advocating for the strengthening of pre-employment and transition programs.

Lisa Goring shared updates on the Autism Speaks’ commitment to employment opportunities and a small business-focused employment initiative, Advancing the Role and Impact of Small Businesses in Employing Adults with Autism.

“Autism Speaks is working with an integral part of our nation’s economy – small businesses – to improve employment outcomes for individuals with autism, increase chances for self-sufficiency and independence, and help businesses improve their bottom line,” said Lisa Goring, executive vice president of programs and services at Autism Speaks in her testimony. “What we have learned is clear—the innovation and flexibility unique to small businesses and entrepreneurs enable them to lead the way in employing individuals with autism.”

Last year, Autism Speaks also launched TheSpectrumCareers, a portal designed to connect individuals on the spectrum with jobs and employment support service providers. The Autism Speaks Employment Tool Kit is also available to help people find and keep employment. Stories, tips and resources were developed from a collaboration of people, including adults with autism, dedicated to increasing the employment participation of adults on the spectrum.

In 2015, Autism Speaks launched two pilot programs aimed at providing technical assistance to small businesses and entrepreneurs that are working to create greater employment opportunities for adults with autism. One program provides instruction, counsel and online support to individuals/small businesses in both English and Spanish in South Florida and will expand to three additional cities this year. The Midwest Small Business Accelerator (MSBA) program is based in Chicago, and is delivering an in-depth, 8-week curriculum to small business participants from the Midwest.

Employers and entrepreneurs share their small business success stories

A moving highlight of the hearing was the testimony shared by Joe Steffy, owner and proprietor of Poppin' Joe's Gourmet Kettle Korn, who is a 30-year old man born with Down Syndrome and later diagnosed with autism. Joe is now in his eleventh year as a business owner.

“In high school, my IEP (Individualized Education Plan) team began to plan for my transition into adulthood.  The team had very low expectations. The worst disability there is, is that of low expectations. They said I would never hold a job, that I had no attention span, could not focus, would need to live in a group home and go to a sheltered workshop.  My parents disagreed.  They knew I was capable of working and that I learned by watching,” said Mr. Steffy.

Poppin Joe’s Kettle Korn was born in April of 2005 with the help of his parents, the Kansas Department for Developmental Disabilities, and Social Security.

He added, “My business works for me. It creates new opportunities for me to grow as a person, and to be an engaged, valued member of my community.  With the right support system, being a self-supporting entrepreneur can be, and is, a reality for me.”

Rajesh Anandan shared his experiences employing individuals with autism as an entrepreneur, growth architect, the co-creator of UNICEF Kid Power and co-founder of ULTRA Testing, a high quality software testing company.

“Today, thanks to widely available technologies and tools that enable data­ driven hiring, digital­ first communication and remote team management, any business, small or large, can leverage the talents of individuals on the Autism Spectrum. Our experience at ULTRA has proven that by doing so, companies can not only gain highly capable employees, but can also achieve consistently superior results,” said Mr. Anandan.

“We need to educate others so they begin to take the “dis” out of disabilities and replace it with ‘abilities,’ said Terri Hogan, the owner of Contemporary Cabinetry East in Cincinnati, OH, who was accompanied today by Mike Ames, an employee who has Down syndrome. “We also need to make small businesses aware of the huge untapped resource that is people with diverse abilities. Hiring people who are physically, genetically or cognitively diverse is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.”

Read the full testimony submitted by witnesses here and watch video of today’s hearing here.

Traction in Congress grows on employment issues for those with disabilties

Pre-employment preparations are a key to the success for individuals with developmental disabilities like autism. Improving career and technical education for all students planning to enter the workforce, including many individuals with developmental disabilities has gained traction in Congress.

To this end, Autism Speaks has advocated access to critical programs, including pre-employment or transition programs, career and technical education (CTE), vocational rehabilitation, adult employment services and opportunities for work within the community. Individuals with autism deserve equal opportunity to contribute as productive workers in the labor market, pay taxes, and live independently. With the proper employment services that are highly individualized and based on strengths and interests, individuals with autism can reach their full potential.  

Last year, Representative Joe Kennedy III introduced the Perkins Modernization Act to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 to improve career and technical education for secondary and postsecondary students, including those with autism and earlier This week, the U.S. House Work and Ed Force Committee held a related hearing:  “Helping Students Succeed by Strengthening the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.”

Read more about the benefits of career and technical education for students with autism here

The Bipartisan Disability Caucus also hosted a briefing this month on the importance of employment for individuals with disabilities with colleagues from the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) and the Department of Labor.  


Autism Speaks is also working with governors across the country to expand Employment First policies that focus on the needs of transition-age youth and adults with autism. Services can include work-based learning, career exploration, job coaching and career and technical education. States have successfully tailored support services so that all individuals – including those with significant needs – can achieve successful employment outcomes.