What do Charles Schwab (the founder of a stockbroker), Richard Branson (the Virgin Group), John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs (Apple) have in common among themselves? Apart from the fact that their companies are multi-billion dollar minting machines making these people the super-rich in process, all of them are dyslexics.
IN 1956 William Whyte argued in his bestseller, “The Organisation Man”, that companies were so in love with “well-rounded” executives that they fought a “fight against genius”. Today many suffer from the opposite prejudice. Software firms gobble up anti-social geeks. Hedge funds hoover up equally oddball quants.
Hollywood bends over backwards to accommodate the whims of creatives. And policymakers look to rule-breaking entrepreneurs to create jobs. Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues. Some joke that the internet was invented by and for people who are “on the spectrum”, as they say in the Silicon Valley. Online you can communicate without the ordeal of meeting people which is so difficult for people with disability.
Wired magazine once called it “the Geek Syndrome”. Speaking of internet firms founded in the past decade, Peter Thiel, an early Facebook investor, told the New Yorker that: “The people who run them are sort of autistic.” Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, has “a touch of Asperger’s”, in that “he does not provide much active feedback or confirmation that he is listening to you.” Similar traits are common in the upper reaches of finance.
A business school surveyed a group of entrepreneurs and found that 35% of them said that they suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10% of the population as a whole and 1% of professional managers. Prominent dyslexics include the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM and IKEA. There are many possible explanations for this. Dyslexics learn how to delegate tasks early (getting other people to do their homework, for example). They gravitate to activities that require few formal qualifications and demand little reading or writing.
Disabled people frequently have unusually high productivity. They can focus on repetitive tasks that might be boring to other workers. Britain’s spy centre, GCHQ, eagerly recruits people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. They can easily spot patterns and this can make them code-crackers. So they definitely have talents but to show them they must first get the job.
Disabled people are not just potential employees. It is an emerging market, a market to vouch for: 1.1 billion people, that’s the size of China.” A generation of people who had benefited from disability laws is coming out of education and into work; second, as the baby boomers age, disabilities are spreading rapidly. That means rising demand for products and services for this unprecedentedly wealthy and consumerist generation.
When the companies in the S&P 500 index, were analysed, it was found that only a quarter had a strategy aimed at these markets and only 6% were doing serious business in them. The “Return on Disability” index tracks the shares of the 100 firms that deal best with disabled people. Over the past five years it has outperformed the broader stock market.
Such approaches contrast with the way businesses usually look at disabled people: as charity cases, or as needing lots of box-ticking compliance rules and as the source of annoying lawsuits. Good treatment can make business sense, too.
This 1.1 billion strong group of people will surely have among them people who demand their own unique services. In meeting their special preferences, clever companies will make handsome profits. Companies will compete to provide even better services. It will bring a shift from the old ‘charity’ perspective.
There is a higher rate of employee satisfaction and productivity in organizations that include individuals with disabilities. For individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism, it is a win-win for both the individual and the employer.
The high-functioning autistic people tend to be deft analysts. They can spot patterns or errors in data that are invisible to most non-autistics, making them attractive employees for software firms.
Even less gifted autistic people often have an extraordinary capacity to focus and an eye for detail that make them effective workers. Their desire for routine and dislike of change make them loyal ones, too.
They can excel at jobs that require precision and repetition, such as updating databases, stocking shelves, organising libraries or tinkering with broken cars. Firms that set out to recruit autistic workers, such as Walgreen’s, a big pharmacy chain, find them just as productive as their peers
Where does that leave the old-fashioned organisation man? He will do just fine. The more companies hire brilliant mavericks, the more they need sensible managers to keep the company grounded.
Most employers are scary of hiring severely autistic people, but not all. Accenture India matches autistic workers with jobs that require a good memory or a high tolerance for repetition.
So these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. People with disabilities are like those bright shining stars that illuminate the dark sky. It is to the discretion of the companies whether they want to include these people and let their stars shine bright or squander away this golden opportunity.