UPDATE, May 9. Through this post, I have been in contact with someone who knows more about Square One. I’m hoping to learn more about the company and find out more about its program for workers on the autism spectrum. As such programs are all very new, we — certainly me as a parent, ever worried about my son’s future — all have much to learn from each other.
Square One, a Los Angeles-based software and design firm, has started a small pilot program (with three people) to design a software-testing training program for people on the autism spectrum. According to Business Week, company co-founder Chad Hahn and his wife, Shannon, who works with individuals with developmental disabilities, are trying to create a “work environment that would be friendly to those on the autism spectrum,” many of whom especially struggle with social interactions.
In the U.S., the unemployment rate for individuals Asperger’s Syndrome could be as high as 80%. While social situations and communicating with others may be difficult, some autistic individuals excel using computers and technology and, prior to Square One, some other companies have sought to draw on these abilities. In 2004, Thorkil Sonne, a Danish software engineer with an autistic son, founded Specialisterne, 75 percent of whose software consultants have Asperger’s Syndrome or an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The company’s employees test software and technological devices and there are now offshoots in Iceland and Scotland. A small nonprofit, Aspiritech, was founded in 2008 in Chicago; its employees also have Asperger’s Syndrome or an ASD and test smartphone apps.
Hahn of Square One is creating iRise, a software tool, that aims to “create simulations of the sort of problems the trainees would confront in an actual work setting”; according to Business Week, he has spoken to Warner Bros. and LegalZoom about contracts for testing software. He is also seeking to create an “ASD-friendly work environment,” as the typical workplace’s social demands and physical environment can “trigger paralyzing anxiety” in ASD individuals. Hahn describes such accommodations as having a quiet room, headphones for workers to block out noise or a counselor on-site.
“Outsourcing” Work to Autistic Individuals: A Civil Rights Issue
But what is, as Business Week says, “most original” about Square One — and most controversial — is that Hahn plans for the for-profit company to pay software testers $15 to $25 an hour, a rate lower than what software testers in India and in the U.S. receive. Hahn is in effect planning to “outsourc[e] to the developmentally disabled rather than the developing world”:
Asked whether it might be exploitative to pay people with a disability less than those without one for doing the same work, he says he doesn’t see it that way. For one thing, he says, Indian software testers aren’t exactly sweatshop labor; they make about $25 an hour. And if paying less makes the company able to hire the developmentally disabled in the first place, he doesn’t see a problem with it.
“I haven’t had one parent of an autistic child come to me and say this isn’t going to work,” he says. “They say, ‘This is a way for my child to make more money than they would have made otherwise, and allow them to be more independent.’ They worry, what is my child going to do when I’m gone? And this is kind of a way out.”
Certainly it is commendable that Hahn seeks to address the job crisis for individuals with ASDs and by creating a company that draws on their strengths and seeks to accommodate their needs. As Business Week points out, “Specialisterne only worked because of generous Danish subsidies for employing the developmentally disabled.”
Hahn justifies his proposal by saying in Business Week that “people with autism don’t have a lot of alternatives—when they do find work, it’s usually bagging groceries or sweeping hospital floors at the minimum wage.” He may not see a “problem” with hiring autistic individuals for less than what a similar job at other American companies would offer; it is the case that individuals with ASDs may be unable to get such jobs due to their disabilities.
But Square One faces a looming civil rights issue that could undermine the company’s aims. $15 to $25 is of course more than the minimum wage but, however “ASD-friendly” an environment that Square One offers, proposing to pay autistic employees at such rates — as cheaper labor — suggests that the company views such individuals’ work, and even such individuals themselves, as worth less.
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