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VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Businesses should tap Indiana's 'invisible work force'

August 28, 2006

Based on an analysis of biographical accounts, both Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison appear to have been challenged by dyslexia, a reading and comprehension developmental disorder that can be severe. Few today would question the astonishing contributions these individuals made to humanity.

Despite the severity of the challenges that some of these children face, many adapt and conquer, entering the Indianapolis community as successful working adults. There are many stories of achievement about children exceeding expectations, from a teenager with behavioral challenges who became a chess champion to a young girl who was elected to the National Honor Society, and they appear every day in our community.

Numerous Indiana organizations make extraordinary contributions to this cause. Some provide superb vocational training and a variety of work force options that can-and do-benefit Indiana businesses.

Earlier this year, a student originally diagnosed with a severe learning developmental disability, received a masters degree in engineering from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology-with high honors. Potentially superb employees with developmental disabilities exist throughout Central Indiana-all just waiting for their chance at success.

All persons, regardless of their chal- Employers refer to them as dedicated, loyal, focused, and very passionate about their work.

They exist by the thousands in Indiana. In the right positions, they are remarkably profitable employees who provide a high return on investment.

Yet, despite their willingness to work and their success when they do, only about 16 percent of this "invisible work force" presently holds full-time positions in the state of Indiana.

Nationally, this group constitutes about 6 million adult men and women who live with an intellectual or developmental disability, including autism, learning disorders, mental retardation or some other neurological issue.

Tragically, too many Indiana employers fail to fully consider how these individuals -many of whom have met and conquered personal challenges beyond the grasp of the causal observer-could provide efficient and profitable services for their business or organization. As was firmly demonstrated a few months ago when a teenager with autism came out and unexpectedly led his high school basketball team to a comeback victory, many sadly underestimate the value and contributions these people can truly make.

Autism appears in a broad variety of ways. Children diagnosed with its severe form often cannot speak or interact. But those thousands with more moderate issues on the autism spectrum often make superb employees, particularly in the field of information technology.

A few years ago, ComputerWorld magazine highlighted the advantages of working with IT professionals diagnosed with moderate autism, citing their "laserlike concentration" and ability to successfully work on a problem for 16 hours straight. Sometimes an accommodation needs to be made in a work environment, as some people with developmental issues do not work well in a noisy or over-stimulated office. But knowing these issues upfront and effectively managing them is more than worth the effort.

Too often, a critical stigma is attached to people with developmental issues, despite the fact that with support and effective treatment, many go on to graduate from college, many with advanced degrees.

As was chronicled in a major newsmagazine a number of years ago, one teenager diagnosed with mild mental retardation had made his high school football team, despite the challenges he faced academically. He sat on the bench for many games. When given the chance to play he led his team to an amazing comefrom-behind victory. His high school principal, watching from the stands, realized that here was an individual being denied an opportunity to reach his true potential. The principal took a personal interest in the student. The result? The teenager not only graduated from high school, he went on to complete a Ph. D.

What are Indiana businesses missing by lenges, deserve the right to pursue their maximum potential. When they do, they often dramatically exceed expectations, leading us to question why more people won't tap into this astonishingly effective invisible work force.

About a decade ago, the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities wrote: "People with mental cognitive and psychiatric disabilities constitute perhaps the single most persecuted and least understood group of individuals in the disability community. The stigma associated with mental illness remains an oppressive obstacle to employment."

Can Indiana businesses overcome this and make an enlightened hire?

Experience shows that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Don't let the light go out in the eyes of our fellow Hoosiers with developmental issues-make an investment in your community and experience firsthand the advantage of tapping into Indiana's invisible work force.



Greg Johnson is president and CEO of Damar Services, Indiana's oldest private not-for-profit provider of residential services to children with developmental disabilities. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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