Microsoft on the forefront of hiring people with disabilities, autism

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SEATTLE - People with disabilities make up 6 percent of the U.S. workforce, yet they are twice as likely as the rest of the population to be unemployed.

With those statistics in mind, Microsoft has made inclusive hiring a priority.

“We need diversity,” said Jessica Rafuse, a program manager on the Redmond tech giant’s accessibility team. “We need people who are diverse in abilities. Diverse in thought."

That led Microsoft to host a job fair recently for people with disabilities. Microsoft invited 21 other companies such as Amazon and Alaska Airlines, all looking for talent. Disabilities were not a disqualifier.

Among those in attendance was Barry Long, a real estate broker with Sotheby’s. He came to the job fair because he wanted to see it for himself, he said.

“There’s a stereotype of what a person with a disability is and has,” he said. “And this breaks that stereotype.”

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft, said the practice just makes sense.

“There’s also a massive opportunity,” she said. “If you don’t have people with disabilities in the fabric of your company, you are missing out on talent.”

As the mother of a daughter with autism, the practice of inclusive hiring is personal for Lay-Flurrie.

Eighty percent of adults with autism spectrum disorder are unemployed or underemployed, she said, even though their IQs are often well above average.

Microsoft set out to find the cause.

“It wasn’t through lack of skill or education,” she said. “It was not getting through the interview process.”

Microsoft broke the mold on the hiring process for candidates with autism, ditching the traditional interview. Instead the company brought candidates into a weeklong academy to assess skills.

“Now we’re working with six other companies, big companies to share how we’re all doing it in different industries to build those best practices,” Lay-Flurrie said. “To then bring in more companies over time, and hopefully grow and change that over-80-percent number.”

It’s a philosophy being pushed from the very top.

“We want to take the practices of employment, the practices of inclusiveness that we have, and spread them,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said.

It appears to be working.

“Really impressed with what they’re doing,” said Dan Ellerman, a member of the management consulting firm Accenture. “To kind of help us get inspired and try to do the same thing at Accenture.”

What the company is doing is leveling the playing field, ensuring the workforce works for everyone.

Next week Microsoft will be joining other companies, including Starbucks and Bank of America, to hold another job fair during the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. This one will be host Special Olympics athletes and their families.

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