One of the toughest issues for adults with autism is chronic unemployment. A fortunate few of us are able to work independently without supports or subsidies, but a terribly high percentage remain unemployed or underemployed, year after year.
All too often I hear of autistic geniuses – people with IQs of 150 or even higher – bagging groceries or sweeping floors because they could not navigate the social minefields of school and work. It’s only by the grace of god that I am not one of those people. Smart as folks say I am, I failed miserably in the social environment of every job I had. That’s despite my technical competence.
I see some of those same problems with other autistic adults who can’t get jobs at all, or get fired from every job they get, until they end up on social security disability, frustrated and cut off from the working world. The same thing would have happened to me, if I had not had the good fortune to start a small business that succeeded.
It’s the lucky few of us who remain productively employed. Many of us stay that way by the slimmest of margins. Some of us succeed by finding tolerant or accommodating employers, and work we can do. Others (like me) forsake traditional jobs to work for ourselves. If we can meet the market’s demands, we prosper despite our eccentricities or even better - because of them.
The problem is, most disabled people aren’t very successful at employment, despite their best intentions, training, and unique skills. In the autism community chronic unemployment and underemployment are one of our biggest challenges. We talk about all manner of solutions, but ultimately, it comes down to this:
If we cannot do a given job as well – and as cost effectively - as someone who doesn’t have a disability, we are not going to get hired. Actually, the bar is really higher. As outsiders in the world of employment we need to be both better and cheaper to earn a place in the workforce. Being equal is only good enough once you’re inside.
We’ve tried solving the employment problem several ways in America, with limited success. One way or another, we run afoul of labor laws and regulations. For example, other countries allow the creation of companies who employ autistic people (as an example) to do software testing. In the United States that would be discriminatory, and they’d have to allow anyone to apply for those jobs, autistic or not.
Other countries allow companies to pay disabled people less than the minimum wage, or less than the market rate for a given task. In the US, labor activists attack those sorts of programs as exploitive. They paint the employers as villains who are taking advantage of a disabled population.
The result: Unemployment remains distressingly high among our disabled and different population. Yet we remain eager to contribute, and willing to work if only there is a place where we are wanted, needed, respected, and able to earn a fair wage doing meaningful work. Something needs to be done.
I’d like to advance a modest proposal for how we might solve the employment problem, by giving people with disabilities special employment status, and awarding tax credits on a sliding scale to companies who hire us.
I call this Workforce Disability Credit, or WDC.
What if we allowed people to apply for WDC instead of or in addition to social security disability? When applying, a person would pass a similar functional evaluation, but instead of being awarded a support check, that person would get a rating that he’d take to employers.
He might get a standard disability check until he found work under WDC, at which time his disability check would taper off or vanish to be replaced by a larger check from the employer.
No one would be forced to join WDC, but those who wanted to participate would have a subsidized path out of disability; something we cannot offer people today. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but if it worked for some, it would be very worthwhile.
The person’s WDC rating would tell employers what sort of tax credit they’d get for hiring him (or her), to offset the added burden their disability might place on the company. For example, a mildly disabled person might have a 30% rating, meaning the company would get a 30% credit for hiring him.
If they took a job that paid a nominal $20 per hour, the employer could pay the disabled person the $20 hourly wage and get 30% back as a tax credit. Hiring a person with a 60% rating would get them 60% credit. The worker would earn a market rate wage, and the employer would get a discount to make someone who might otherwise be less productive or more costly attractive.
If we tied that program to a tax credit program for creating jobs in America instead of exporting them to lower-wage nations, the effect would be even greater.
In one stroke, such a system would make mildly disabled people more attractive to employers and it would encourage them to seek work with the goal of eventually getting off disability entirely.
A system like this would accomplish several important things:
1 – It would bring jobs that have been outsourced overseas back to America when disabled people can do them effectively and efficiently, and American companies could take advantage of the tax credit to lower their costs.
2 – It would be tremendously beneficial to the self-esteem and well being of participants, by getting them off disability and into the productive workforce.
3 – It would be a far better use of government dollars. Money paid out in disability support does nothing for the economy. Money paid out in employment subsidy builds the economy by building business.
4 – It would create incentives for American businesses to find ways to employ our more disabled population in productive occupations. Today most of those people are unemployed with no real chance of sustained employment.
Some will say we have systems like this already, such as the existing tax credits to hire disabled veterans, and various state programs to hire people on support. However, I propose two important differences:
1 – Give employers the tax credit right away, by deducting it from the weekly payroll tax deposit. The present system, where an employer gets a tax credit the following April 15 when he files a return simply does not incentivize small businesses where cash is tight. Furthermore, tying the tax credit to income tax effectively restricts the credit to businesses that make good profits – something that’s kind of rare among small business today.
2 – Make the credit something the employees apply for, so they can use it as an arrow in their quivers in the application process. All too often, the credits we have today don’t get used because they are too complex, not well understood, and pay off too far in the future.
We can’t expect a local landscaper to hire three disabled guys in the summer, pay them all season, and then wait to get his $50,000 credit from the government next April. And he won’t even get the whole fifty grand, if he doesn’t owe fifty in taxes. How does he feel? Simple - he won’t do it. He will hire non-disabled workers and get his benefits in productivity and billings right now.
The present credit systems, which overlook that essential truth, are non-starters for those reasons.
The WDC might be capped at a certain dollar figure, and participants in the program might have their disability rating re-evaluated every few years. It’s quite possible that many less disabled participants would work their way out of the program and end up as regular market rate employees. Those who remained disabled would continue to qualify for subsidy, thereby remaining attractive to their employers indefinitely.
What do you think of this plan? Could it work? Would people embrace it? Is it even remotely possible, given where our country is now?
I await your thoughts
John Elder Robison