Governor Markell travelled to New York City today to give the keynote address for the observance of World Autism Awareness Day by the United Nations. From the Governor’s website:
New York, NY – With an opportunity to advocate alongside the head of the United Nations, Governor Markell today gave the keynote address at the UN’s observance of World Autism Awareness Day. Joined by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as multi-national corporation executives, civil society advocates, education and policy directors, and advocates and members of the autism awareness community, his remarks focused on ongoing efforts in Delaware and across the country to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The Governor’s leadership on this issue, most prominently through his initiative as chair of the National Governors Association, was cited as the reason behind the invitation to provide the keynote address.
“We absolutely can greatly increase the number of people with autism and other disabilities in the workplace, but to address this challenge on a large scale, we need everyone to do their part,” said Governor Markell during his remarks. “Let’s not make this someone else’s problem to solve. Today, let’s take responsibility for what we can change and let’s give millions of people with autism the opportunities they deserve.”
With “Employment: The Autism Advantage” as its theme, the event focused on the work and employment of people with autism, with the goal of this day’s observance leading to the establishment of a coalition of companies pledged to employing persons with autism in the future. Also appearing were Specialisterne founder Thorkil Sonne and Computer Aid, Inc. Managing Director Ernie Dianastasis, who have partnered with the Governor in efforts to increase employment of people with autism in Delaware.
Governor Markell’s remarks (as prepared for delivery)
It’s an honor to join you for this special event. You have helped to debunk myths, while ensuring governments and their citizens understand what the diagnosis of autism really means and how to best serve people across the autism spectrum. That has meant a better quality of life for so many. However, we gather today knowing that to give these individuals a chance to realize their potential, we must do more to give them access to employment. Anyone with the ability to work deserves the chance to experience the self-fulfillment, confidence, and gratification that comes from a good job.
So the employment statistics are discouraging. A recent study found that among young adults with autism, only half have ever held a paid job outside the home even though many more want to work. That figure reflects a long-time struggle to increase employment among people with disabilities.
In the United States, we passed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act nearly a quarter century ago. But today only about 30 percent of working age people with disabilities are in our workforce. We can change these trends. A more rewarding future is possible for millions of people with disabilities, including millions of people with autism.
As chair of the National Governors Association a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to choose the issue of increasing employment of people with disabilities as a year-long initiative. After engaging with the disabilities community, business leaders, and government officials across the country, we developed a roadmap – a series of straightforward ways that government and business can partner to solve this challenge.
I’m going to speak more in a moment about the findings of our national effort and why that should rally us to put more people to work. But there is no better inspiration for realizing the potential of people with disabilities and of people with autism specifically than one of our presenters today.
Let me briefly tell you the story of my friend Thorkil Sonne, who moved to Delaware two years ago, leaving Denmark with his wife and their 16 year old son, Lars. Until 14 years ago or so, Thorkil was an executive at a Danish information technology company. He was on the fast track, creating a good life for him and his family. Around that time, Lars was diagnosed with autism. Thorkil and his wife didn’t have much experience with autism or with disabilities generally. Like for so many families, having a son with autism wasn’t something they had considered as part of their life plans. And they didn’t know what the future held for Lars. The more they learned about autism, the more they worried that Lars’s future was limited and learned why parents of children with autism worry that their kids will grow up with few friends; few social opportunities; and few chances to get a job.
So in a great act of fatherly love, ten years ago, Thorkil quit his job at the IT company and created a company called Specialisterne, which translates as “the specialist people.” He just knew that people like Lars could contribute real value for businesses and other employers if given the chance. But he could tell they too often were not given that chance.
Thorkil tells the story of watching Lars one day take out a blank piece of paper and start to draw connected and overlapping boxes with letters and numbers inside. Thorkil was puzzled, but then had an epiphany. He went out to his car to pull out one of those books of maps of Europe and looked at the front pages. He had remembered that several months earlier, his family had taken a trip through Europe and Lars had sat in the back seat looking at the maps. Now, several months later, without using any reference materials, Lars sketched out a replica of those boxes and numbers – without error.
That kind of memory and trait is something that many people with autism share – and it’s highly valued by lots of employers for jobs like software testing, programming, data analysis, data entry, and the like. I’ll let Thorkil speak about his mission, but I’m proud that his organization — Specialisterne — is based out of Delaware. And you will hear today from others who have been inspired by his work.
Working with Specialisterne, the giant IT firm SAP has committed to employ hundreds of people with autism over a few years. And CAI, another IT company based out of Delaware, has committed that three percent of its consultants will also be people with autism.
As a former business executive, when I meet the people hired through these initiatives on the job – people like Patrick Viesti of SAP – I see they are as focused and determined as you could ever hope an employee would be. Parents of the young people that find jobs call the opportunity a godsend for their children. It allows families to see a career path that wasn’t visible before when barriers that prevent people with autism from getting a job are removed. Thorkil’s success is proof that with leadership and determination, we can identify and fill jobs in areas in which people with autism excel.
Thorkil, as well as companies like SAP and CAI, should inspire us to take action. Through the National Governors Association initiative I mentioned, we outlined the actions that can make the most difference. We called the project “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities.” That title was meant to focus attention on one of the key points of our initiative: employing people with disabilities makes good business sense. As many CEOs involved in our initiative emphasized, employing people with disabilities is better for their business’s bottom line.
Focusing on employment of people with disabilities is also smart for government. It is a workforce competitiveness issue. It is part of preparing for an aging workforce and meeting the needs of business for skilled workers. And it’s reducing the reliance of this population on government assistance while taking advantage of what they can contribute to their communities.
Our NGA Blueprint offers these five recommendations: First, making employing people with disabilities part of the broader state workforce strategy; Second, we must find and support more businesses who hire people with disabilities; Third, government must be model employers of people with disabilities; Fourth, we must prepare youth with disabilities for the workforce including through promoting opportunities for internships and career exploration; and fifth, we must make the best use of scarce resources to advance employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
I’m proud that in the State of Delaware we are following through on a commitment to address employment in our efforts to support the disabilities community. In July, 2012 I signed the Employment First Act (HB 319) legislation to further help open the door for people with disabilities to work side-by-side with other employees. It encouraged State agencies to give people with disabilities more choice and more independence seeking competitive employment as their first and primary option toward independence. Today, more than 20,000 Delawareans are contributing, are engaged in their communities, and have purpose like never before.
Employing people with autism and other disabilities is simply a win-win-win situation. It makes good sense economic sense for business, it helps government improve the competitiveness of the workforce, and it transforms the lives our citizens who often want nothing more than to use their skills to contribute to society.
I applaud companies like SAP, CAI, Walgreens, and so many others represented here. You are setting an example of what is possible in workplaces around the world, both through the commitments you’ve made and because of the awareness they are raising. To the larger business community, and to companies needing IT help in particular, remember that the commitment you are being asked to make today is not in response to a request for charity.
We absolutely can greatly increase the number of people with autism and other disabilities in the workplace, but to address this challenge on a large scale, we need everyone to do their part. Let’s not make this someone else’s problem to solve. Today, let’s take responsibility for what we can change and let’s give millions of people with autism the opportunities they deserve.